As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time for us to once again look back on the last 12 months of local theatre and pick out the works we thought most stood out and remained steadfast productions in our memories.
2019 marks a year of reflection, with the decade drawing to a close and prime time to think back on all that’s happened. And we don’t just mean the last ten years; if it’s one celebration we weren’t expecting to see, it was the Singapore Bicentennial, marking 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles first stepped foot onto Temasek, and changed our ‘sleepy fishing village’ forever. Several theatre companies also took this opportunity to present timely works that looked at the controversial theme of our colonial history, thinking about new ways we should look at our past, and how that in turn would affect our view of the present and soon, future.
But beyond the ‘Bicentennial plays’, there were plenty of other highlights that emerged from 2019. The Theatre Practice achieved the impressive feat of touring hit musical Liaozhai Rocks! to Shanghai, having impressed a Chinese entrepreneur who first saw the work in Singapore and saw its potential to succeed overseas. Comedian Sharul Channa got a chance to flex her theatrical knowhow beyond stand-up, and not only led a class at the inaugural N.O.W., but also produced her original shows Crazy Poor Sita and Papa, both seeing strong audience turnouts.
Several young theatremakers have also risen to the scene with new productions, ranging from visual artist Sean Cham with his site-specific First Storeys, to The Second Breakfast Company’s The Hawker, with an immersive set. Dwayne Ng showed a marked improvement in his work with Single Mothers since 2017’s A Mother’s Love (as part of Patch and Punnet’s 2042), while Toy Factory’s The Transition Room gave the young actors of tomorrow a chance to shine and show off their talents in a new ensemble work. At the M1 Peer Pleasure Festival, Beyond Social Service’s The Community Theatre produced The Block Party. Directed by Rizman Putra, the production showcased how theatre could be used for social good, with the performers impressing us with their commitment and enthusiasm to the project.
We were also glad to see more new initiatives to showcase local culture and literature as well, with work such as Summer Song’s Operatic Identities casting the spotlight on Chinese opera in a modern, accessible way, while The Arts House continued with their Page on Stage series. Helmed by Tan Kheng Hua and Lim Yu-Beng, the series selected film directors M. Raihan Halim, K. Rajagopal and Lee Thean-jeen, and stretched their directorial range by tasking them to each adapt a short story from the Balik Kampung anthologies to the stage, performed in the cosy backroom of the Arts House.
2019 also marked strong performances from some of our most beloved artists, from Sebastian Tan’s triumphant return as Broadway Beng, to Dick Lee’s 30th Anniversary concert of The Mad Chinaman. Dick’s performance was sincere, a mark of the man always keeping it real and honest no matter how successful he’s become, and a rare chance to see one of our nation’s most beloved musicians perform live. Beloved local actor Hossan Leong celebrated his 50th birthday with a new production, and throughout the extensive run, showed off some of his finest work under Double Confirm Productions, with the ‘Singapore Boy’ all grown up.
Of the immersive theatre productions this year, Drama Box’s site-specific FLOWERS took audience members to a landed house in Holland Village and allowed them to explore it in its entirety to find clues about the lives of those who resided there. Drama Box also staged a successful second run of Chinatown Crossings (our favourite immersive theatre production of 2018). In the later half of the year, the Singapore Repertory Theatre took over the Miaja Gallery with Caught, a mind-boggler of a play that continually pulled the rug from under audience members’ feet, maddeningly clever and frustrating in equal parts.
On the immersive dining front, Project Plait and Andsoforth each this year. In The Mem’s Servants, Project Plait took on the Bicentennial as we followed the lives of two servants over several generations through dance, leaving us both emotionally and gastronomically satisfied while we explore a traditional black-and-white-house. Immersive theatre veterans Andsoforth went bigger and bolder than ever, with a massive, 20,000 square foot space in 22 Stories, and tackling the epic tales of Norse mythology in Valhalla and the Chambers of Asgard.
Other milestones in 2019 included how companies such as The Finger Players unveiled their new management, W!ld Rice welcomed their new theatre in Funan at last, and plenty of brand new initiatives sprung up over the course of the year, starting off new theatrical and artistic journeys. Only time will tell how these changes will affect each company and the scene as a whole, hopefully bearing fruit in the years to come. For now though, after watching close to 300 shows over the year, we look back on our favourite local productions of 2019. Following up from our inaugural Bakchormeeboy Theatre Awards in 2018, we present to you the 2nd Bakchormeeboy Theatre Awards, with the full list of nominees and winners as follows:
Several productions this year featured some very strong ensemble work, marking outstanding teamwork to produce stellar performances. Nine Years Theatre’s tight-knit ensemble is best known for their incredible chemistry, and showcased this across all three of their productions this year, particularly with the incredible Dear Elena to round off their season. The Necessary Stage’s Civilised brought out the best in its ensemble cast as they played various characters across time and space (and eventually, even went to space). Drama Box’s Tanah • Air featured not one but two strong ensembles that showcased great chemistry together, with a demanding physical theatre piece in Tanah and verbatim work that capitalised on emotion and nostalgia in Air.
Meanwhile, Malay theatre companies Teater Ekamatra and Rupa co.lab also put out strong work. Ekamatra’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange brought out the fear and dystopia of the original work with just six cast members, bringing out the surreal horror of its source material, while Rumah Dayak was led by two strong actors (Al-Matin Yatim and Farah Lola) as the big ‘siblings’ of the safehouse, and the rest of the ensemble taking their lead to excel, feeling like a genuine found family.
And the winner is…
Tanah • Air by Drama Box
Physical theatre isn’t always easy, but if it’s one thing director Koh Wanching excels at, it’s precisely this, with her cast in Tanah displaying some intricate, dance-like feats of physicality as they portrayed the tale of legendary princesses and British colonial rule. It’s one thing to have just one good ensemble, and another to have two, with director Adib Kosnan leading the cast of Air to embody the spirits and characters of the real life Orange Seletar interviewed for the piece. Of Air’s cast, it was Dalifah Shahril who stood out in particular for her excruciatingly emotional performance as a mother losing her child. Watching both of these casts in action over the same night was an extraordinary experience, winning this production Best Ensemble.
Ivan Heng in Emily of Emerald Hill (W!ld Rice)
Oliver Chong in A Fiend’s Diary (The Finger Players)
Abdulatiff Abdullah in Off Centre (The Necessary Stage)
Norman Ishak in Samping (The Arts House’s Page on Stage)
Hang Qian Chou in Dear Elena (Nine Years Theatre)
In the few one-man shows that emerged this year, the actors at the centre of attention displayed finesse and an ability to plumb the emotional depths of their characters from the moment they came onstage to the very end. Of the solo works, we saw Ivan Heng reprise his role as the indomitable Emily Gan in Emily of Emerald Hill, taking us on a journey from her rise to her tragic fall, while Oliver Chong presented his new one man show A Fiend’s Diary, tragic, absurd and affecting. TV actor Norman Ishak showed off his theatre acting chops under director M. Raihan Halim with his multilayered performance in Samping, as a man reflecting on his multilayered past on the day of his wedding.
Abdulatiff Abdullah reprised his role as the original Vinod in The Necessary Stage’s revival of Off Centre, and it remains a role that feels written just for him, excelling at bringing out the pain and prejudice of living with mental illness, while Hang Qian Chou showed off previously untapped potential in Nine Years Theatre’s Dear Elena, showing the internal anguish and struggle of a student inherently good, tempted to do evil, and ultimately, coming face-to-face with his inner demons.
And the winner is…
Ivan Heng in Emily of Emerald Hill
While it may not be his first time playing the role, it is undeniable how well Ivan Heng fits the role of Emily Gan. In this production, Ivan truly seemed to embody the Peranakan matriarch from the moment he danced onstage to the last joget-joget and final bow. Likely to be Ivan’s final performance as Emily, there was a sincerity and full embracing of the role this time around, a masterclass in acting that will remain in audience members’ minds for years to come, and Best Actor could go to no one else but Ivan this year.
Sakinah Dollah in Off Centre (The Necessary Stage)
Janice Koh in Seven Views of Redhill (The Arts House’s Page on Stage)
Neo Swee Lin in Missing (The Arts House’s Page on Stage)
Victoria Mintey in How I Learned To Drive (Wag The Dog)
Mina Ellen Kaye in Urinetown (Pangdemonium)
The future is female, and naturally, the number of female characters swelled to meet that prediction, and plenty of strong actresses to portray them. The sheer range of roles this year was impressive, from long-suffering mothers to headstrong and hopeful ingenues. Actresses this year took on these roles gallantly, and those that stood out showcased a sharp emotional edge to their performance, playing their role with sincerity. Sakinah Dollar, much like Abdulatiff Abdullah, was very much made for and reprises her role as the original Saloma in The Necessary Stage’s Off Centre, endearing us to her over the course of the show and leaving us haunted as she ended it sitting onstage, alone and devastated. Victoria Mintey’s take on Lil’ Bit in Wag The Dog’s How I Learned To Drive allowed her to access and present the range of complicated emotions that made up her odd relationship with her Uncle Peck (Sean Worrall), and resulted in a layered performance filled with anger, sadness, and ultimately, redemption.
Across The Arts House’s Page On Stage series, Neo Swee Lin was given a chance to shine in what feels like one of her most challenging roles in a while (alongside her brief but strong appearance in SRT’s The Truth), while Janice Koh broke from stereotype in Seven Views of Redhill when she took on five very different women that proved her range as an actress. Finally, in Pangdemonium!’s Urinetown, we welcomed the return of Mina Ellen Kaye to Singapore, whose powerhouse vocals remains one of the strongest to have emerged on the local arts scene, and whose role as Hope Caldwell was a winsome one.
And the winner is…
Neo Swee Lin in Missing
Neo Swee Lin is an actress who knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and her roles over the years have managed to do just that. But in Missing, she not only shows her ability to evoke emotion; she also presents a narrative skill that helps paint a vivid image of Balestier in the ’70s. In playing a daughter and her mother, and the difficult time they had growing up in an abusive household, there is a quiet strength to her portrayal that provides glimmers of hope and romance each time she speaks of her secret lover, hope that comes crashing down when he eventually goes ‘missing’, never to be seen again. A rather different role for Swee Lin, we felt that Missing allowed her to show off her range and transform herself with each character, earning her a nod from us as Best Actress of 2019.
Best New Script
Plenty of new scripts arose this year, from young hopefuls at Toy Factory’s Wright Stuff Festival to writing that adapted and reimagined historical events and pre-existing works of literature. The top new scripts of this year were either those that felt urgent and fiercely relevant to today, or those that built on nostalgia to deliver devastating effect. Oliver Chong’s A Fiend’s Diary took inspiration from Camus’ The Stranger but manages to make it his own, brimming with a desperation (or devastation) for meaning in the absurd. K. Rajagopal and Kaylene Tan’s joint script for Missing, adapted from Ng Swee San’s short story of the same name, sharpens the knife of nostalgia and delivers a vivid image of Balestier in the ’70s, laced with the sharp pang of regret and forbidden, lost love along the way.
Haresh Sharma’s Civilised marks a return to form and reads like some of The Necessary Stage’s most intriguing post-modern works, capitalising on each ensemble member and presenting a piece that manages to look at colonialism not just in Singapore, but as a whole, and the violence (both physical and cultural) that it has inflicted upon the colonised. Nelson Chia’s First Fleet tackles colonialism of a different country – that of Australia, but uses the power of a play-within-a-play with measured comedy and drama to examine one’s humanity and champion the redemptive power of art. Finally, Nessa Anwar’s sophomore full-length script is the result of six years of research and writing, and highlights the rarely staged issue of safe houses, the difficulty of their upkeep, and the unexpected bonds that emerge from them.
And the winner is…
Rumah Dayak by Nessa Anwar
Nessa Anwar’s flair for natural dialogue and drama makes her scripts feel all-too real. With a deft hand, she manages to give equal time to each character in Rumah Dayak in all their flaws and merits, and it’s impossible not to feel for each of the characters residing in the safe house by the end of the play, as if they themselves are family. Even when all seems to be stable, Nessa lays the foundations for tension and conflict right from the beginning, and still manages to surprise with the eventual source of the play’s climax. Rumah Dayak is original, real and balances the laughs with the tears, and marks the promise of more great things to come from Nessa in the future.
The best dance works of 2019 were performances that both embodied sound artistic vision and dealt with pertinent issues in society while displaying a finesse for their craft, with a daring to stretch the form to its limits and impress us both with physicality and artistry. This year’s works in particular, were heavily geared towards the role and reaction of the individual within society. -wright Assembly’s Kotor touched on gender issues and the rarely discussed role of men in championing feminism, while of RAW Moves’ many experiments and explorations this year, Subtle Downtempo No with Australia’s Murasaki Penguin proved to be one of the most focused ones, exploring the society as a body, through bodies working in tandem.
T.H.E Dance Company’s revival of Mr Sign remains a vital production till today, imagining a darkened, dystopian world where one struggles to find value in one’s individuality, combining classic and contemporary tunes with inventive choreography. In the later part of the year. Frontier Danceland’s Milieu 2019 showcased works that also explored the importance of embracing both individuality and community where needed, showing off their dancers’ finesse, while Maya Dance Company took over Centre 42’s space to tackle our obsession with the ‘perfect’ body, making for a sprawling, unexpected tour through the transformed building.
And the winner is…
Mr Sign by T.H.E Dance Company
Kim Jae Duk’s choreography and compositions come together to create a deliciously dark world in Mr Sign, where the individual struggles for expression and the group seems to close in on him. The work is an intense one, requiring complete mastery over their bodies from each of the dancers, and employs humour and horror in equal measures, with careful balance between all the elements of the production, and leaving us with a heightened awareness of the invisible forces that cause us to act the way we do.
Opening Pesta Raya this year was local drum company NADI Singapura’s Fatih – The Prince and the Drum, a resplendent, large scale percussion-driven work that would feel at home on any stage, and a wonderful showcase of Singapore talent. Pangdemonium!’s Urinetown revived and made relevant a relatively unknown musical, thanks to strong talents holding the show together.
Rounding off the end of the year, Sing’theatre’s A Spoonful of Sherman was a feel-good revue meets history lesson that brought warmth to our hearts and joy with director TJ Taylor’s ability to play to each of his cast’s strengths. And finally, W!ld Rice pulled off one of their strongest pantomimes in recent years with Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens, putting a Singaporean twist on the boy who never grew up.
And the winner is…
Peter Pan In Serangoon Gardens by W!ld Rice
Much like the best Disney/Pixar films, the best kinds of pantomimes have equal appeal to both adults and children. With a good soundtrack, fresh writing from first time pantomime writer Thomas Lim, Peter Pan presented a story that not only reminded audience members of the magic of imagination and childhood, but also the perils of adulthood, capturing the melancholia of the original source material while also remaining thoroughly charming. Cast members displayed tight chemistry with a knack for comedic timing, the kids were used appropriately, and the final scenes certainly left us feeling a twang of sadness. Peter Pan In Serangoon Gardens also marked W!ld Rice finally figuring out how to maximise their new theatre space, and marked it as their standout production of the year.
Special Mention: Bicentennial Plays
Across the year, various theatre companies took on the mantle of representing the problematically coined Bicentennial, as we celebrated 200 years since Raffles first stepped foot onto Singapore and decided to colonise it. From starting the year with The Necessary Stage’s Civilised to the massive, immersive, surprisingly emotional and technically-driven Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Park, the Bicentennial offered the headspace and opportunity to reflect on our history and how we should be thinking of it.
History, of course, plays a huge part in these productions, with Drama Box’s Tanah • Air charting both ancient history and the fate of the Orang Seletar, and W!ld Rice’s Merdeka shining a spotlight on some marginalised stories we don’t hear about in history class (flawed execution but excellently researched). Even Nine Years Theatre’s First Fleet offered up some insight into colonialism in Australia and the prisoners who first made it their home, while The Bicentennial Experience charted more recent history, and how Singapore has progressed from Temasek to today, impressive and a good, accessible representation of our 200 years of modern history.
But of the ‘Bicentennial’ works, it really is The Necessary Stage’s Civilised that left quite the impact on us with its widespread look across history and the world with how colonialism and presumed cultural superiority had far reaching negative consequences. Looking not just at Singapore, but even China and outer space, Civilised represents The Necessary Stage at one of their strongest points, managing to encapsulate all these difficult themes into a single production, performed by a strong cast and making it feel like more than a barrage of facts. Dramatic, urgent and always surprising, Civilised wasn’t just a play perfect for the Bicentennial – it was objectively, one of the best shows of the year.
Production of the Year
Of the shows that left a real impact, we’ve already sung our praise for The Necessary Stage’s Civilised, while also recognising the sheer ambition that Drama Box’s Tanah • Air possessed, tackling history and mythology and lacing it with a strong emotional edge. Rumah Dayak from new collective Rupa co.lab marked one of the year’s most real, most affecting pieces because of how believable it was, and cemented Nessa Anwar as one to continue watching for her writing.
Oliver Chong’s solo works are impressive, and A Fiend’s Diary is no exception, taking him to new depths with the amount of darkness he plunged into, while remaining deeply personal and providing the platform for him to turn in a strong performance. Nine Years Theatre’s Dear Elena brought out some of the ensemble’s best, work and delivered a shockingly dark show that led us to question the very value of human morality.
And the winner is…
Dear Elena by Nine Years Theatre
Initially announcing a re-staging of Art Studio, plans were eventually scrapped and instead, for their final show of the year, Nine Years Theatre presented their version of Russian play Dear Elena. While not the most well-known of plays, under Nelson Chia’s direction and translation, a simple issue of coercing their teacher to help them cheat is elevated to a work that feels as if the fate of the world itself hangs in the balance. Fiercely relevant to our grades-obsessed Singaporean society, Dear Elena leaves the tension on high throughout, and its deeply distressing ending is one that leaves both its characters and the audience broken. With a strong ensemble, clever staging and affecting storyline, Dear Elena gazes into the abyss of the human condition, and reflects its darkness back at us, a play for the times that confronts the lowest point we could sink to, striking fear into our hearts.
Summary of Winners:
Best Ensemble: Tanah • Air by Drama Box
Best Actor: Ivan Heng (Emily of Emerald Hill)
Best Actress: Neo Swee Lin (Missing)
Best New Script: Rumah Dayak by Nessa Anwar
Best Dance: Mr Sign by T.H.E Dance Company
Best Musical: Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens by W!ld Rice
Special Mention: Civilised by The Necessary Stage
Production Of The Year: Dear Elena by Nine Years Theatre
Bakchormeeboy wishes all readers a Happy New Year. Stay tuned for the 2021 season, and expect the site to feature more in-depth stories and arts coverage at its best as we bring you closer to theatre in Singapore and beyond, like no one else can.