Learning to accept the inevitability of change.
Change has never been easy. This is especially so the longer the status quo has been in play, whether in terms of a relationship, or a place one calls home, when routines and habits so firmly set in place, the very idea of change fills one with fear at what the future holds. Yet change is inevitable, and the sooner one accepts that the pain is simply a part of the process, the more likely one will be able to take a step back, and assess the change not as a loss, but an opportunity for growth.
To bring about such change, one requires the existence of opposition, where clashing forces push us into new states of being. In the Singaporean context however, the word ‘opposition’ has often taken on unsavoury connotations, where to oppose implies to stand out from the crowd, go against the mainstream, and inevitably, face some form of punishment or ostracisation for doing so. How then can we learn to embrace the friction of opposition, and see it as more than just the simple binary of ‘us versus them’?
That’s a question explored in Opposition, the final play in The Necessary Stage (TNS) and Drama Box’s trilogy of collaborations. Co-directed by Alvin Tan and Kok Heng Leun, and written by Haresh Sharma, Opposition follows the creation of Zero Theatre, co-founded and co-run by Director Jackie Oh (Goh Guat Kian) and Production Manager Ramlah ‘Ram’ Zee (Siti Khalijah). Spanning the years 2012 to an imagined 2029, Opposition then charts the trajectory of their relationship, the two of them pulled further apart over time due to societal pressure and their own personal convictions and internal struggles.
Opposition feels like a callback to Haresh Sharma’s earlier work, like Good People or Gemuk Girls, where a greater focus was placed on backstory and humanity on characters, while the symbolism and message of the play becomes a byproduct of those stories. At its core, Opposition is first and foremost, a love story, and what keeps the play together is the inherent realness and believability of its characters and their relationships with each other. With Guat Kian and Siti playing the central couple, there is an inherent tragedy to their eventual breakup, due to their fantastic onstage (and onscreen) chemistry, seemingly meant for each other at first, but torn apart by their slow but sure drifting of fate.
As Jackie, Guat Kian shows a vast range of emotions, as a shy and humble theatremaker who learns to find her voice and identity, often leaning into what she does best – possessing an air of innocence and enthusiasm to endear us to her character. As Ram, Siti convincingly adopts a more masculine demeanour and tone (a welcome and fresh new challenge from her usual more typically feminine roles), yet her hidden, ‘soft’ vulnerabilities exist just under this hard exterior; going from headstrong and gung-ho, to revealing her insecurities and fears, holding onto her faith while grappling with being born with the ‘soul of a man’.
A minority on multiple fronts – her sexuality, her race, her faith, her job, her gender, Ram is the epitome of opposition against the mainstream via her existence alone, in contrast to Jackie. In film footage, we see the two constantly sink further into being unable to see things from the same perspective, Jackie’s ‘mainstream-ness’ allowing her to remain almost comfortable and stagnant, while Ram’s minority status pushes her further and further away from Jackie and this country. As their relationship ebbs and flows with the years, as Ram puts it, they had already broken up in spirit long before actually breaking up.
The remainder of the ensemble’s stories revolve around Jackie and Ram’s, and help expand on and emphasise the play’s key tensions between the allure of change and the safety of stability. Joshua Lim plays Jackie’s younger brother Jord, Zero Theatre’s accountant and representative of an ordinary Singaporean Chinese man who looks up to his older sister for her bold career choices, while seemingly restricted by his obligations to his faith and family. Masturah Oli plays Reena, a straight-identifying actress who becomes an object of jealousy between Jackie and Ram as she rehearses for Zero Theatre’s 10th anniversary production. Finally, Lian Sutton plays Adam, an ambiguously queer documentary-maker and childhood friend of Ram, who is accused of ‘selling-out’ after being hired to direct the National Day Parade, a far cry from their chaotic secondary school days of rebelling against the rules.
These characters, alongside Jackie and Ram, exemplify the tensions between change and constancy we struggle to negotiate on a daily basis, often emerging from restlessness and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. The creation of Zero Theatre itself is born out of a desire to go against a fixed or prescribed form of theatre, for the founders to use it as a platform to do ‘anything they want’, while Jackie and Ram debate over whether they should migrate, their very existence as a queer couple a form of opposition in a country that does not accept them.
At times, overt references to the 2020 General Election are made, calling back to the historic opposition party win in Sengkang, encapsulating how those that stand on the margins and choose alternative lifestyles and viewpoints are constantly facing the fear of being overwhelmed by the majority. When opposition looms, it promises to disrupt peace and stability. Yet, it is a necessary step if one ever wants to achieve change, with minorities, whether in sexuality or profession, rocking the status quo to reach an equilibrium where they are no longer marginalised.
By refusing to conform to chronological order by jumping back and forth in time, even Opposition’s structure itself seems to be a form of opposition against the tried and tested forms of theatre. In addition, the play also heavily intersperses live scenes with guerilla-style documentary clips (helmed by Yong Shuling, director of 2019 documentary Unteachable). In context, these films are extracts from a documentary on Jackie and Ram’s relationship, and capture spur-of-the-moment interviews where either half of the couple speak of their conflicts and dig deep into the increasing gulf between them.
Onstage, the transitions between film to live theatre and vice versa are relatively smooth, and often allow for the play to explore quieter moments from these characters, as they are allowed to muse and meander. Perhaps one imagines that unlike the temporal nature of live theatre, film is a medium that instead captures a moment in time for as long as the footage lasts, a symbol of permanence and unchangeability, and a way to archive history before change overwhelms it.
As a play about artists, by two companies that have consistently chosen to raise questions about the world we live in with their social commentary, both TNS and Drama Box know well what it means to to go against the grain, and how easy it is to snuff out any form of opposition and dissenting voices. This is reflected in both Wong Chee Wai’s set, and the very real fact that this is also the last play to be staged at Marine Parade Community Centre, TNS’ home of 22 years.
The set, comprising metal scaffolding and walls of cardboard boxes, predicates the dissolution of the space, suggesting the process of moving out and tearing down of the theatre as we know it. Some audience members are even seated on seats specially constructed on a second ‘level’ within the black box that immerses them in the space, narrowing the distance between themselves and this theatre on its last legs.
Even if one does not have any history with TNS, one feels the inevitability of loss, again, the idea that nothing lasts forever, and how we are part of this last bittersweet moment for TNS’ home, a space we share if only for an evening, and one that we will no longer see ever again as change irrevocably transforms its future. And the use of cardboard, such a cheap, fragile and throwaway material, for furniture and props, similarly suggests how these characters are all living on borrowed time, everything set to go or face destruction at a moment’s notice.
This is an emotional play, where the little joys and hopes are few amidst the overarching narrative. Change is hard, because characters are constantly haunted by the past, whether remembering the ‘good old days’, terrible family secrets that are dredged up, or more literally, a supposed ghost that lingers in Zero Theatre’s space. When it all gets too much, these people find themselves falling into bad habits, questioning the validity of their lives and essentially, breaking down all their beliefs to start again, when everything falls apart.
But isn’t that the point of opposition – to forcefully break the norm, and push us into positive change, no matter how hard it may be? As the final scenes reveal blue tarp and a “still under construction” sign (complete with Singa the Lion in a hard hat), the future of Zero Theatre is uncertain as Ram and Jackie go their separate ways, each one about to embark on even greater challenges in their new lives still to come. To oppose is to struggle, but certainly, does not imply that one will be punished – it is simply a difficult, necessary means to a better future. After all, the characters end off the show anticipating the results of the 2029 General Election, where both parties are neck-and-neck in the votes, history about to be made. But whether it’s for better or worse, only time will tell.
Even as the final blackout marks the end of the play, the death of TNS’ space is by no means an end to TNS. Instead, this is merely a temporary blip as they figure out the next step in their artistic journey, much like they have survived and evolved over countless other obstacles thrown their way, in their mission to ‘oppose’ by providing these alternative points of view all these years. Opposition is not and should not be treated as a dirty word, and by constantly engaging in acts of opposition, we push back against the seemingly insurmountable tyranny of the majority in whatever way we can, struggle to put our voices out there to speak of the injustice and dissatisfactions that exist, and keep fighting, keep hoping that change comes, no matter how many beatings and how much pushback we experience in the meantime.
Change may be painful, but it is perhaps even worse to shut down and shut out opposing forces, to remain stagnant, and forever questioning what else lies out there without taking a leap of faith. In the near future, as TNS and Drama Box end off this immensely ambitious six-year collaboration, and TNS gets ready to embrace a new era of possibilities as they move into their new home, we realise that just as Opposition marks an end, it is merely the beginning of a new cycle of life, as the team moves on, continues to oppose and challenge the norm, moving with the ever-rolling waves of change. The space will be missed, but the artistry lives on, for as long as they do.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Opposition plays from 17th March to 3rd April 2022 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. Tickets available from BookMyShow