An attempt to highlight the invisible people key to a production’s success.
In any theatre production, those deemed worthy of praise are often limited to cast and creatives. But even beyond them, there still exist people who are present in every production, yet never receive praise or acknowledgement they deserve. To highlight these invisible people then acts as one of the key goals of Ellison Tan’s We Were So Hopeful Then.
Directed by Alvin Tan, We Were So Hopeful Then imagines a Singapore in the not-so-distant future of 2025, where the winner of the inaugural Singapore Theatre Icon Award is about to be announced. Chosen from a pool of over 700 self-nominated hopefuls, the eventual winner is set to win a cash prize of $10,000 and minimum wage. While the actual criteria for a win is never announced, our eventual shortlist eventually lands on four candidates, each one an ‘invisible’ member of the theatre community – theatre cleaner Akilan “Riri” Deswari (Sindhura Kalidas), transport driver Ahmad “Bo” Bahri Bin Tahir (Zaaki Nasir), Singapore’s ‘first female rigger’ “Rose” Lim Yan Ting (Myra Loke), and scribe Lore Lam (Henrik Cheng).
Greeted by a garish gold projection declaring the night of the official awards ceremony, We Were So Hopeful Then tackles a topic with plenty of potential to be explored, yet, its haphazard treatment is one that left us cold and confused. It’s a little surprising that right from the outset, we’re already told who the winner is, leaving little tension or anticipation in the audience as the play continues, leaving little to no tension between audience members and/or the characters, or anticipation to find out more about them. Even when audiences are forced into a re-vote, the act is ultimately irrelevant, as the votes are neither counted nor the eventual outcome declared, making the Award itself almost completely devoid of narrative weight.
In the series of flashbacks that follows, we go ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the awards ceremony and examine each character’s history and backgrounds beyond their job scopes. Conveniently, each of them meet by coincidence in the same theatre every five years – first at the staging of a new play in 2015, before a restaging of the same play in 2020. At each staging, they interact briefly, in almost exactly the same fashion, before returning to their separate lives. Their backstories, when revealed later, are fleeting at best, giving us brief insights into their personalities, but with no lasting impact – the kind-hearted Bo’s COE is expiring soon, while Rose has a (very adorable) young son to take care of. The relationships between each character are vague, and in all honesty, have little ability to grip audience members or make us care more for them, as their struggles are not unique.
While Yusri Sapari’s video work is visually interesting, from a montage of actual overlooked theatre staff explaining the Award, to the use of classic game Worms to depict the relationship between Rose and her son, much of the time, it serves instead to distract and detract from the performance work, rather than support it, often playing simultaneously with speech that makes it hard to focus on both at the same time. In the writing, there are flashes of sharp satire one wishes to have seen more of, such as a proposed ‘immersive experience’ of the winner’s life to be developed following the ceremony, but these are few and far between.
One is ultimately forced to ask the question of the point that We Were So Hopeful Then even is trying to make. If almost none of these characters actually care about the product their work is contributing towards, should any of them even be on a Theatre Icon Award shortlist? Are awards conferred on those whose work matters the most, or meant as a form of pity party? While Ellison Tan attempts to satirise the very idea of awards and accolades with We Were So Hopeful Then, the result achieved is limited by its lack of conviction to a clear line of argument. For the audience then, much like how life goes on as usual for theatre’s invisible people regardless of the award or not, We Were So Hopeful Then leaves us with neither hope nor answers, less affecting than it is merely passing commentary we forget soon after watching it.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Chia
Performance attended 31/7/19
We Were So Hopeful Then played from 31st July to 4th August 2019 at The Necessary Stage Black Box.