The climate is changing for the worse – so when will we change for the better?
The Year of No Return is possibly one of The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) most ambitious productions yet. Bringing together an international cast, the play tackles the expansive topic of climate change and our efforts to stop it, all while dealing with the new restrictions placed on them by the evolving pandemic situation in real life.
Directed by Alvin Tan, and co-written by Haresh Sharma and Rody Vera, The Year of No Return is set in a world climate change forum held in Singapore, uniting government organisations, NGOs and activists as they gather to discuss the future of the planet.
To further immerse us in the narrative, the audience is positioned as attendees of the forum, where we are greeted by Karen Tan’s voice announcing the safety distancing rules, alongside the need to spread positivity and remain calm, before we are greeted by a projection of waves. We are prompted to reflect on the state of the world, how we’ve created our own extinction, as ensemble members dart around backstage, as if showcasing the undercurrent of chaos threatening to break through, while we experience the calm before the storm.
The play’s central narrative begins with the global climate forum, looking incredibly realistic with the setup, with screens to beam in international guests, and even presenting partners and sponsors’ logos listed on the side (some look suspiciously familiar). We are hosted by emcee Su Adnan (Siti Khalijah), an ardent climate change activist herself, as she introduces the diverse lineup speakers and guests to share their experiences.
Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, TNS has done well to integrate the international cast members into the show by contextualising them as guest speakers attending the forum via video conferencing technology. We have Luis, a Filipino representative from the Green Liberation International (Marco Viaña) who joins the movement after being caught in a terrible natural disaster years ago; a Filipino governor (Rody Vera) who rudely butts in to overpower the previous speaker and claim the government is doing all they can; a marine biologist (Sukania Venugopal) who laments how coral bleaching and reef destruction seems to foretell a terrible disaster to come; and a Japanese CEO (Chihiro Hirai) oblivious to the problems her company is causing.
Representing a diverse set of opinions, all these guest speakers are fighting for attention and their voice to be heard, each one a plea for change without actually knowing what needs to be done. By showcasing these differing views, TNS acknowledges the countless voices in the conversation around climate change, without enforcing a specific agenda or mindset on the audience. There is a constant reminder that time is running out; a flashback to Louis’ past sees him plagued by the sound ‘tick tock’ after he his family is swept away (in a morbid, apocalyptic film by Jasmine Ng), while later on, thanks to creative use of lighting and projection, the marine biologist appears in ghostly, monochromatic 3-D, as if she herself has become a bleached coral warning us of the end times.
This overarching sense of doom is only further felt when we see the CEO and governor partying it up, lamenting how they’ve become the marginalised ones as they drunkenly sing ‘All By Myself’. We begin to wonder how many corrupt, under-the-table deals there are that allow corporations and government to be so chummy with one another. Despite being on separate screens, both Chihiro and Rody’s exaggerated, high-energy performances keep us engaged, the banter between each other building on their words and bringing out the humour and sense of being maligned in their characters. Not realising the severity of the situation, we are aware of how even those in power have neither will nor ability to slow climate change. Even if we do have a Green Plan to fulfil by 2030 – will it be enough?
Above all however, The Year of No Return draws its emotional arc from Siti K as Su, charting her change in personality and outlook over the course of the play. Su could be seen as a vessel for the majority of us – interested enough in the issue of climate change to realise it’s a real problem, yet unwilling to put her life at risk or face imprisonment for the sake of the cause. This naturally puts her at odds with Ary Liang (Lian Sutton, the only other live main cast member), Su’s old friend and ‘eco-terrorist’ exiled from the country, back in Singapore on a special pass just to speak at the forum. While backstage (represented by the reversed projections), he tries to convince her writing a letter to an MP doesn’t do much (to which she responds that neither does protesting in the streets).
While initially, she seems to have everything under control, things quickly go awry as guests wrestle for time, the forum is interrupted by a hacking incident (in a disturbing, wryly humorous rap video taking jabs at elitism and apathy), and a growing protest begins outside the forum, prompting the police to arrest Ary. It becomes clear that she too is just as lost as everyone else is.
But TNS does seem to suggest a solution, or at least, a means of coping with the chaos – human connection. When Su reconnects with Luis, they recall how they first met, and how they changed each other’s lives forever; Su seems to have forgotten her initial reasons and fire for the cause all those years ago. We see a scene between a man at the protest video calling his once activist partner (Rody Vera and Lian Sutton), attempting to reach out and get him excited about life again after being crushed by depression; this particular exchange where Haresh Sharma shines, bringing out the human connection through his words, well-performed by both actors.
Throughout the play, the ensemble serves to provide additional visuals to emphasise the play’s message. They come out in drab, black and white business suits when the CEO is speaking, while dancers Jereh Leung and Edina Handali begin to dance with increasing violence, reflecting the underlying frustrations and futility of their actions. The ensemble also comes out when Louis is honouring the death of a fallen tribal chief, contributing to the funereal atmosphere by performing a respectful ritual to send off the dead. While their role isn’t key to the story, just having these bodies onstage with a purpose helps pad the emptiness of the Victoria Theatre, if Siti and Lian were the only ones performing live.
What one admires about The Year of No Return is how it presents both sides of the movement, exposing the flaws, the hypocrisies, and the pitfalls of all involved. Climate change is acknowledged as the titanic problem it is, and as the CEO says, “just like trees, we are more beneficial when we are dead”, with humans only adding to the planet’s problems. All of this is captured in a scene where the actors, out of character, begin to address the audience over ‘video call’, asking how we are before reminding us that ‘the earth doesn’t care about our feelings’.
Or maybe the future lies in technology, seen when Siti, Sukania and Chihiro voice artificial intelligence from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan interacting with each other. Each one corresponding to certain stereotypes we have about the country, their initial misinformation and miscommunication is cleared up when they share their data with each other, and finally arrive at a common understanding while working towards a solution together. Perhaps all we need to do is talk more, instead of trying to speak over each other all the time.
The play culminates in a final, climactic scene, as we turn our attention to the protest outside (played by the ensemble), holding up placards and demanding for change. Ary joins them before he is quickly arrested and escorted away, leaving the protestors lost and silenced. In watching her friend led away, Su finally finds the fire in herself again, and becomes the new leader of the angry mob. But even as they raise their placards and yell, we wonder – is Su doing this out of a temporary burst of emotion, hopping onto the bandwagon where convenient? Or does she really mean to commit herself to the cause? We’re not sure, as the play ends there and then mid-protest.
By laying out the primary problems in the seemingly endless conversation about climate change, The Year of No Return breathes life into the ongoing chaos and confusion surrounding it. The issues are messy, the voices raw, and the presentation creative, for a hybrid production combining live and digital, and we are left more aware than ever of the complications that go into resolving, or even slowing down, the effects of climate change. First things first – we need to change ourselves, and the way we relate to each other.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
The Year of No Return ran from 21st to 22nd May 2021 at Victoria Theatre as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will also be available as video-on-demand from 5th to 12th June. Tickets and more information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here