Singa-satire still falls flat.
When The Adventures of Abhijeet was first presented the M1 Singapore Fringe earlier this year, I was unable to get a chance to catch it. Reading up about it, I found out how that version was pitched as a rollicking satire on xenophobia, while this newer, full-length one pulls back its claim to simply be “a story where migrant workers are the heroes, not the victims.” The result is something close to the latter at heart, but certainly misses it in execution.
The premise of The Adventures of Abhijeet is simple: Bangladeshi single father Abhijeet (Jit Dastidar) cannot afford to pay off his daughter’s medical bills, and so decides to take a magic pill given to him by an all-knowing wizard (Krish Natarajan). The magic pill (read: Work Permit) opens a quest for him to earn gold coins working a ‘Singaland’ construction site owned by a brash developer-sort (Salif Hardie).
Not long after, Abhijeet breaks his leg and joins the ranks of other ‘Flower People’ (foreign workers) waiting in limbo with their work injury compensation claims. He would like to have his leg fixed, and is told to go through the proper procedures that have been put in place by the ‘Singalanders’. These Singalanders, dressed in shiny pink costumes, are comically precious bureaucrats who will only go so far as their job requires them to. While their characterisations are mostly good fun, the audience knows that the reality is far harsher, with migrant workers in Singapore being subject to a visa work scheme with similar power relations not unlike the kafala system in the Gulf states. This is further emphasised with the Singalanders’ unscrupulous means of trying to bend insurance and healthcare requirements.
It’s not long before Abhijeet makes some friends of his own, meeting Gloria (Day Cutiongco), a liberal Filipina woman implied to be a domestic worker, and Ling Ling (Lynn Chia), a feisty Chinese national who works in a plantation pulling cucumbers all day long. Gloria is literally purple, blaming her employer who has cursed her to become it for every mistake she makes. This parallels how in the real world, numerous domestic workers are physically assaulted each year, with one Filipina even having bleach poured on her skin sometime back.
But it is the treatment of Ling Ling that goes overboard with the punching down. As a sex worker, the portrayal of Ling Ling’s abuse is at once humiliating and hurtful because the horrors faced by real victims are reduced to a mere running gag for the stage. Not only do the characters have little dramatic agency or character arc, but they are also merely caricatures, never fully-fleshed out beyond their ‘humour’. The comedy punches down for no dramatic purpose, and there is no overarching critique that pushes the satire to purposeful ends.
Another character rather unfairly portrayed was Sherlock Homies (also Salif Hardie), an NGO-type who promises to help but is really all talk and no action, a one-sided criticism that leaves little room for constructive satire. Perhaps Patch and Punnet should spend less time with the national narrative and more with the actual people they are keen to satirise.
The play’s pacing is also stagnant, leaving little dramatic tension as the plot plods along. The trio encounter endless levels of bureaucracy in search of the ‘Pink Gem’ (read: citizenship), a Holy Grail-type MacGuffin which will supposedly fix all their troubles at once. As a final goal to work towards, the Pink Gem is quite fascinating, with its illusory distance and magical panacea-like impossibility, and helps the drama pick up a bit nearer the end, as the characters anticipate an encounter with the leader of Singaland.
Abhijeet’s portrayal of the tipping point encounter is where it is most effective. It uses comedy’s potential to suspend belief and get us to think speculatively: what if our half-chicken-half-dragon leader could fix the shortfalls of our current system? What if all we needed to do was tell him to?
By Edward Eng for Bakchormeeboy
Performance attended 23/8/19
*In a previously published version of this review, certain references were left by the writer and have since been removed. We apologise for the error.
The Adventures of Abhijeet played from 23rd to 25th August 2019 at the Play Den @ Arts House.