In Arthur Yap’s poem ‘there is no future in nostalgia’, the Singaporean poet considers that it is better to leave the past behind, as urbanisation comes into play and continues this exhausting process of erasure, over and over again. In response to this, the resident playwrights of crafted new plays inspired by the poem, and were presented as a staged reading in Studio, part of the SIFA X programme in the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts.
In the first presentation of the series, Studio A showcased Asymptote by Danial Matin, and The Best of Us by Ahmad Musta’ain. Directed by Rachel Chin, Asymptote refers to the mathematical concept of a straight line that constantly approaches a given curve but can never meet, no matter how close it gets. Conceptually then, Asymptote deals with the idea of connection and disconnection in relationships, examining how that has evolved and changed over the years through a series of vignettes.
Starting in the 2020s where a scientist digs up a skull in Antarctica, each successive vignette takes place in the preceding decade, going back in time to feature a new set of characters each time, each story thinking back to their own version of the past and expressing nostalgia for an earlier era and better days. There is the constant sense of longing, both for the past and for the future, and for each other, and Asymptote winds up as a high-concept, ambitious, experimental work.
Played by an ensemble comprising Gloria Tan, Indumathi Tamilselvan, Neo Hai Bin and Raimi Safari, with Joel Tan narrating stage directions, Asymptote is also interesting for its multilingual approach and the decision to showcase a diverse cast of characters, from Malaysian parents sending their child to school in Singapore, to a Singaporean Indian woman in a long distance relationship with a Japanese man, to transgender performers on Bugis Street, to Getai performers and even a bunch of ghosts.
While most of the vignettes are inconclusive, meandering mood pieces, one can see the level of thought that goes into writing each piece, tethering on the edge of magic realism, and ultimately, forming a mostly cohesive whole that reflects on the ever-changing landscape of Singapore, while ordinary people deal with loss and distance.
Meanwhile in Ahmad Musta’ain’s The Best of Us, it might be shocking to be presented with an opening number to TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’, if one does not first read the synopsis. In the play, gay NS buddies Khai (Shahid Nasheer) and Taj (Wan Haddad Salleh) find a bestie in the camp canteen lady, Kak Ju (Elnie Mashari). But upon finding themselves in a space beyond living and dying, the two boys remain behind to save Kak Ju in her time of crisis.
Based on this draft, The Best of Us is for the most part, a confusing mess that focuses more on bringing out the most stereotypical of gay behaviour, from a constant desire for sex, a religious dedication to female pop stars from JLo to Beyoncé, and sassy AAVE lingo. While these do provoke laughs, there is little substance behind most of the throwaway jokes, and often feel like an overload of distractions that muddle the main plot, where Kak Ju deals with a relapse of breast cancer.
The Best of Us always teeters on the edge of something more, primarily when we see all three actors interact with each other and bringing out genuinely warm feelings of friendship, but there is so much grating drivel and a refusal to linger enough on the melancholia to let it ever sink in. Ending on something of a cliffhanger, the play ultimately feels like it dips its toes into important issues like found family and care for terminal illness, but refuses to take them seriously enough to actually address them head on. There is still far more room for development and clarity in future drafts, rather than simply using it as an outlet to unleash empty queer-coded fantasies onstage.
There may be no future in nostalgia, but for these young playwrights, there certainly is a future in store for them. Housed within the experimental wing of SIFA, C42’s There is no future in nostalgia offers a suite of opportunities for its early career playwrights to run wild, not only in the Studio programme but also in Headline Acts 1 & 2. With C42 being one of the few local arts entities providing such developmental programmes, it is essential to give audiences a rare glimpse into seeing the fruits of their efforts at promoting and platforming such work, and important to provide such a space to sow the seeds of the next generation of artists. One looks forward to see such writing continue to grow and develop, with these playwrights pursuing their passion and getting another chance to show how far they’ve come in time to come.
Photo Credit: Moonrise Studio
There is no future in nostalgia is a group show featuring The Vault: Past Perfect, Studio A & B, and Headline Acts 1 & 2, running on 20th, 21st, 27th & 28th May 2023 at Centre 42. More information available here
The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here
Hi there, ‘Asymptote’ written by Danial Matin was directed by Rachel Chin, not A Yagnya.
Hi BCM, thank you for attending one of the showings on the first weekend of “SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia (TINFIN)”. We appreciate your audienceship and respective responses to the 2 plays you’d watched at Studio A on 20 May 2023.
However, I would like to point out that your article’s conclusion – “…rather than consistently releasing raw, unchecked, fringe work that ends up buried somewhere….” – is an unfair assessment and conclusion of your limited experience and engagement with TINFIN. I understand that your writer attended only 1 showing (the first 2 plays) of a multi-layered series (comprising another 10 plays) that spanned two weekends. I wished your writer(s) had attended the other performances that made up the whole of TINFIN: VAULT PAST PERFECT, and STUDIO B, HEADLINE ACTS. If so, you would have had fuller experience of the series of new works and a more comprehensive engagement with TINFIN, and that would have provided more scope to warrant a considered ‘review’ of this platform.
To that end, I am very happy to share that TINFIN was richly attended – including senior artists, academics, and friends in and of the industry. We received very encouraging feedback for the platform, as well as had rich discussions about many of the new plays that were presented and their processes.
As Centre 42’s first collaborative project with SIFA, we definitely welcome critique and feedback that is given in good faith to support the development of our art-making ecosystem. On the contrary, we worry that any mis-informed and under-researched publication would prematurely and negatively impact the future of such developmental platforms and the writers they advocate for. We believe it is a collective responsibility to make sure that future has a possibility.
Let’s chat – it would be good to share with you and bring you up to speed with our suite of new writing development efforts, aside from this SIFA collaboration. It’s also been a long while – pre-Covid – since we’ve had you engaged with any of C42’s presentations. I have emailed you further thoughts, with an invitation to meet – perhaps after the busyness of SIFA has ended?