Play by the rules or get left behind, in this bleak interpretation of Singaporean life.
What happens in life can sometimes feel like it’s left completely up to chance, perhaps with the roll of a die. With the Singapore Youth Theatre’s The Good Citizen, Wild Rice’s youth theatre wing takes that thought and runs with it, as it imagines the only way to get ahead in this world is to play by the rules of a larger-than-life board game.
Led and directed by Thomas Lim, the devised production quite literally sees a group of Singaporeans from different walks of life taking turns to move their tokens around an oversized game board filling the stage, in the hopes of reaching the finish line and receive an unknown grand prize. Each turn sees one player drawing a card and following the instructions on it. If they comply, they get to move bonus steps ahead. If they don’t, they remain on the same spot, or worse, may even be sent back a few steps.
Much like Netflix’s recent hit Squid Game, The Good Citizen quickly reveals that all actions have real life consequences, where progress in the game literally represents how far in life one will get. The instructions themselves may be simple, but it soon becomes clear that they are each laced with a caveat, often a moral dilemma that forces players to choose between their own personal desires and something that will advance their career, for a price.
Early on in the play for example, a schoolgirl (Philicia Geow) is asked about her ambitions during a character and citizenship education class. Despite wanting to be a musician, each time she attempts to speak, the scenario resets, forcing her to eventually choose ‘lawyer’ as her option and give up her dream. Elsewhere, a teacher (Ng Yu Xin) up for promotion is forced to hide her opinions supporting certain liberal movements in Singapore, while a Malay journalist (Shirin Nazihah) must forego her family’s annual tradition of celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, when it clashes with an important job interview.
Each of these scenarios are likely to be familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Singapore, where the end goal has always seemed to be to make as much money as possible or hold down a prestigious job. To this end, The Good Citizen is always crystal clear about its aim to critique the Singapore dream, finding fault with how one’s innermost wants cannot co-exist with the socially acceptable push to putting one’s career first. But while their aim is clear, perhaps owing to their youth and the length of the play, it often feels like that is all there is to the play, limited to just critiquing the same issue over and over again for each of the characters’ stories, otherwise, not offering much more depth to the idea of being a ‘good citizen’.
Still, there are times The Good Citizen offers a glimmer of introspection that goes beyond its sledgehammer, one-sided perspective. One of the players happens to be a newly arrived Caucasian woman (Niamh Toner) and is asked to consider becoming a PR. It is interesting that all her cards give her an automatic privilege and seem to almost always put her ahead of the pack, possibly highlighting the difference in treatment between expats and migrant workers (being asked to recite the lyrics to ‘Home’ as part of the process makes for a humourous scene). Yet by the end of the play, she decides to reject Singapore rather than renounce her original citizenship. If anything, this is a slap in the face to Singapore, showing that no amount of preferential treatment will gloss over the perception that one is unable to live out their dreams or have their freedom as a citizen here. It is this nuance and alternative perspective that The Good Citizen lacks, which makes it all the more clear that this is a production devised by youths yet to fully experience adulthood and all its complexities.
One other problem The Good Citizen faces is how its structure hampers its cast from showcasing the full breadth of their emotions or acting capabilities, and few opportunities to display onstage chemistry. It is only towards the end, where each player chooses to chuck out the rules and expectations, where it seems they can finally perform and showcase some genuine emotion onstage, the cast exuberant with joy as they live life by their terms.
Towards its conclusion, director Thomas Lim even manages to bring on the feels, as he steers The Good Citizen that effectively shows what happens if we keep playing the game to win. After continually sacrificing time spent with his daughter during his birthday to work overtime, Seng (Josiah Tan) finally finds a year where he can celebrate with her, bringing onstage an actual cake (with lit candles). But when he calls her, she has already made plans with her friends, with Josiah’s voice cracking from disappointment and regret, as he blows out the candles himself, making for a devastating, emotional ending.
With this second production from their youth theatre programme, Wild Rice makes it abundantly clear that the Singapore Youth Theatre isn’t here to stage repertory work or easy viewing for mass appeal. Instead, these young theatremakers have been trained not just in performance-making skills, but as with its parent company, to think, consider and reflect on the most pertinent social issues affecting Singapore and the world today. While simple in concept, The Good Citizen is an ideal showcase that presents these youths with an opportunity to speak for themselves and speak up on the issues that matter to them through theatre, and a production they can take pride in and ownership of.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
The Good Citizen ran from 8th to 9th January 2022 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Find out more about the Singapore Youth Theatre here (audition dates will be announced in February 2022).