Monday, May 17, 2010

Book 1, Singapore: "Trilogy" by Haresh Sharma

Being a Singaporean writer, I read quite a bit of Singapore writing, and I really wanted to begin this blog with a bang; i.e. with a homegrown book which expresses the best of what we've got.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Unfortunately, we're not that great a city for fiction. True, we have marvellous works like Alfian Sa'at's "Corridor (which you can't find anywhere anymore) and Cyril Wong's "Let Me Tell You What Happened That Night" (buy it here). We also have internationally successful novelists like Catherine Lim and Hwee Hwee Tan. And of course, there are authors I admire but don't actually love-love-love to read, such as Suchen Christine Lim, Wena Poon and Isa Kamari.

So I decided to look outside the world of fiction. And as much as I love our poets (Alvin Pang, Koh Jee Leong, Yong Shu Hoong, Cyril of course, and the upcoming Teng Qian Xi and Grace Chua), I decided it'd be a safer bet to hop onto another figure whom I'm really, really a big fan of.

Haresh Sharma, Resident Playwright of the The Necessary Stage, is one of Singapore's most established and influential playwrights. He started out with the company circa 1987 and he's been producing plays non-stop ever since, mostly focussed on social issues. His plays from the late '80s and early '90s are fondly remembered - one of them, "Off Centre", is now a school lit text - while his plays from the late '90s and early 2000s were leaders in the experimental theatre movement (though often a little alienating, to tell the truth).

"Trilogy" marks his return to realism: a departure from multimedia-saturated pomo-land into something more traditional and emotionally moving. These works are devised through research, workshopping and audience previews: rather than being driven by concepts, they're instead driven by believable, intensely Singaporean characters, confronted with horrific, intensely Singaporean situations.

In "Fundamentally Happy", madrasah teacher Habiba collides with her ex-neighbour's son, Eric, who claims her husband molested him 20 years ago.

In "Good People", productivity-driven hospice manager Miguel and rebellious nurse Yati clash with Radha, a cancer-stricken woman who has turned to marijuana for pain relief.

In "Gemuk Girls", hippie Kartini and her MP-candidate daughter Juliana discover that Kartini's father Marzuki was held as a political prisoner under the Internal Security Act.

I'd seen all these shows during their premieres, and reading them brings back the pleasure of the individual performances - yet the text brings out the craft behind what seems like nature on stage. I hadn't noticed how Habiba spoke in half-grammatical run-on sentences on stage, because that's how real Singaporeans speak; it hadn't sunken how radically unstereotypical Kartini and Juliana are as Muslim women because they'd appeared as fearlessly three-dimensional characters before.

On the other hand, a few flaws become more apparent on reading. Eric spouts acts about pedophilia in this weird didactic fashion (social theatre's got its origins in didacticism), and there is just no good reason for the characters in "Good People" to stick together - no good explanation for why Miguel doesn't throw Radha out of the hospice when she can afford other treatment options.

("Gemuk Girls" is clearly the best of the lot, though - the dialogues are funny, the monologues by Marzuki plant their feet in Singapore's worst historical human rights abuses, and it offers up a vision of a bewildering utopian future for the country... Yeah, I wept when I watched the ending.)

Yes, this is a wonderful collection of plays; braver in its focus than any other volume of plays I can think of on the Singapore bookshelf. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can buy it online yet. But there's more information here.

Representative Quote:
MARZUKI: In the 1950s, the 60s, people had a voice. We came together as a community. There was protest, strike, opposition... people were politically active. Journalists would walk on the streets, different political parties were being formed - some were against merger, some for. We did all these things not because we believed in violence. We did it because we believed it was our moral right to have freedom of expression. What has happened? Why is everyone dead?

Next book: Ayu Utami's "Saman" from Indonesia.

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