Can we change before climate does?
At the beginning of Pulau Ujong, playwright Alfian Sa’at positions himself as the first character to speak, his lines divided across all five cast members (Al-Matin Yatim, Ryan Ang, Koh Wan Ching, Krish Natarajan and Siti Khalijah Zainal). The five Alfians look around the Wild Rice theatre, wondering aloud about the story behind the ‘wayang timber’ used to build its walls, unadorned and serving as the backdrop throughout the show, as if to remind us how he wishes to use the play as a vehicle to expose the natural history of Singapore.
But as much as Alfian has his heart in the right place, the medium and execution of that message is perhaps, called into question. The irony is not lost on the Alfians as they sigh, and consider the almost hypocritical notion of the play’s very existence, a theatrical production about climate change in a space that in itself is reliant on electricity to keep the lights, air-conditioning and digital screens on. It is with this somewhat skeptical introduction that we enter Pulau Ujong with, as we brace ourselves for more feelings of helplessness over the climate emergency we’re currently living through.
Directed by Edith Podesta, the ‘documentary theatre’ production is a style that playwright Alfian is not unfamiliar with. In the past, Alfian has written works such as Cooling Off Day and Cook A Pot of Curry that employed similar techniques of verbatim theatre, dramatising and re-presenting soundbites collected from experts, people on the ground and the internet to illustrate socially relevant topics. In Pulau Ujong, these take the form of interviews Alfian conducted with climate scientists, botanists, zoologists, environmental historians and activists, as they each share their thoughts and experiences with Singapore’s part to play in the current climate crisis.
There is no such thing as a truly objective documentary, and Pulau Ujong is no exception to that. There is a clear stand made from the very beginning, in that the interviewees chosen all share a mostly similar stance and viewpoint: that the climate crisis cannot be ignored any longer, and that collective action must be taken against it, with a strong focus on systemic change that the government should be leading and implementing. There are several interesting characters in the mix, such as Xiang Tian, an outspoken climate activist known for donning shorts and slippers, or Zarina, an ethereal artist who speaks of her ritual practices and workshops dealing with natural histories. The cast portrays these characters well, and anyone who knows any of these people in real life will be tickled by how closely they have embodied each interviewee.
However, the problem with the script lies in the way these viewpoints are presented. Positioned as a series of monologues, it isn’t too long before you begin to realise how repetitive Pulau Ujong is in its structure. Due to the nature of its interviewees, much of the script ends up extremely heavy in its exposition, and often comes across as more academic than accessible, resulting in a play that feels more like preaching to the choir rather than bring in new converts to the green campaign. In many ways, while there is a range of topics and climate actions these interviewees cover, whether reflecting on our loss of biodiversity or linking worker rights to climate change, these feel like a sledgehammer repetitively pounding away at the same points to the casual viewer. The interviewees begin to blend into one another as they each say their piece, and drag out the play, making it increasingly difficult to care about the specifics. when the message is clear – we need to do something to change course, not alone but as a concerted effort across the board, whether as individuals, corporations or government.
On Alfian’s part, there is some attempt to break the monotony, with more whimsical, creative segments sandwiched between the interviews that feature animals and plants sharing their experiences with human intervention and the anthropocene. In and of themselves, these are actually surprisingly fun and add a much needed dose of energy to the show, including a hip-hop-styled duo of gambier and pepper plant who expound on their position as invasive crops, or a heartbreaking exchange between polar bear Inuka and dolphin Sharmila before their deaths, criticising harmful practices by tourist attractions.
In addition, these also allow costume designer Max Tan (alongside Bobbie Ng on makeup and Ashley Lim on hair) an opportunity to showcase some of the most imaginative outfits of the year, such as a hanbok-inspired piece for a hornbill, or a dress that appears to be made of vines, complete with long dreadlocked hair for a banyan tree. But ultimately, the majority of these scenes are also overly long, and even seem to deviate from the play’s main ideas, evoking pity for nature certainly, but still, narrowly dancing on the edge of climate change and action instead of being directly relevant.
Pulau Ujong is significant in that it is the first time audience members get to see the theatre space in a new configuration, with the stage itself removed and replaced with a pool of water, a single island made of sandbags (representing our reclaimed land) in the middle, as designed by Johanna Pan. While visually it’s a welcome change from the usual set-up, very little is actually done with the set to make it particularly memorable, besides literally representing the play’s title translating to ‘Island at the End’.
Director Edith does get her actors to literally enter the water in almost every scene, perhaps as a reminder of rising sea levels as we see the wet patches on their costumes, but these feel cursory and coincidental rather than deliberate. In addition, He Shuming’s multimedia, while well-intentioned, cannot be seen properly when projected onto the floor, particularly in a scene surrounding the monsoon season, where only the raindrops are visible in his projections. However, projections onto the back wall, comprising a combination of 3D maps, photography and film footage, are well-selected and arranged to support the various scenes.
On paper, Pulau Ujong seems like a good idea – it tries to appeal to audience members on the basis of ethos, logos and pathos, and by right, should be a convincing argument for anyone to care about the crisis. But in the theatre, something has been lost in translation, and such a well-researched, but heavy script leaves us more in a state of despair rather than moved or compelled to take action. There are times it even feels almost self-congratulatory, knowing that it will resonate with the people already invested in the topic, hitting and reconfirming everything they’ve already known.
There’s certainly an urgency to the message behind Pulau Ujong, and if its goal is simply to raise awareness of the existence of the crisis, it has succeeded to that end. But at the end of the day, if individual action is not enough and the government seems unwilling to budge, one is left mostly at a loss as to how to cope with the apocalyptic nature of it all. Was there perhaps a better way to present this rather than theatre? Perhaps. But as of now, all we can hope is that audience members who do manage to see it are able to further break down the piece and spread the word to their friends that we have a crisis on our hands, and maybe in time, inspire enough little changes to make an actual difference.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
Pulau Ujong / Island at the End runs from 15th September to 2nd October 2022 at the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. Tickets and more information available here