By Nabilah Said
(1,100 words, 6-minute read)
“The best seats are on the sides.” A friend’s advice guided my decision when I went to review First Fleet by Nine Years Theatre. Mindful of spoilers, she had not said why, but the reason became obvious as soon as I stepped into the auditorium of the cavernous Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.
Two towering white sails occupy the centre of the stage, creating the setting of the upper deck of a ship. And not just any ship, but one that was part of the “First Fleet”, one of 11 British ships that departed Portsmouth, England in 1787 to set up a penal colony in present-day Australia – also the first European outpost on the far removed continent. The stage is set for the high seas, with a minimalist staging with those sails and a number of wooden crates, swaying oil lamps hung up high, the crying of seagulls and portentous, ominous drumming beats (the work of designers Lim Chin Huat, Gabriel Chan and Ng Jing). I am ready for the journey. But more importantly, in my chosen seat located at the side of the theatre, I have an unobstructed view.
First Fleet follows the efforts of Lieutenant Ralph Clark (an earnest Timothy Wan) as he attempts to stage a play with the convicts aboard the ship, acting on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip (Hang Qian Chou). This situation is apparently historically accurate – the governor’s intention being that the play would provide entertainment for the colony. :/ In the play, Clark faces the objections of many, the loudest of which come from Major Robert Ross (a deliciously evil portrayal by Mia Chee), who at every turn tries to discredit him and his efforts.
Thanks to the genius of Loo An Ni’s reversible costumes, the actors (save Wan) play both the members of the upper echelon and the convicts. Chee, for example, also plays Liz Abraham, a blind beggar who dreams vivid dreams. Tied at the waist like ‘90s teen outfits, the costumes are knotted and released with each character change, and alongside the assured performances of the ensemble, help bring out the prickly notions of fate and circumstance, freedom and the lack of it. The overall effect is a patchwork of textures that becomes reflective of how history is made and re-made, told and re-told.
Written and directed by Nelson Chia, First Fleet ostensibly deals with the redemptive power of theatre and the act of locating humanity within the microcosm of one ship that goes on to play an important role in the founding of Australia. In a year where every other production has been about colonialism by way of decolonialism, Chia has trained his sights on the history of convict transportation, managing to tell a story about colonialism without quite talking about it at all.
The convicts rehearse Tartuffe, Moliere’s classic play about religious hypocrisy and blind devotion, also a perfect send-up of upper class British moral superiority. In this, Chia departs from one of his source materials for First Fleet, the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally which references the same incident. It also represents an encore of sorts to NYT’s own remake of Tartuffe in 2015. Through the rehearsals, we, alongside Clark, get to know the convicts better, which proves more nuanced than the overbearing monologues in the play which reveal each convict’s backstory. We also get treated to some hilarious moments of amateurish acting.
Much attention is given to the question of whether the convicts are worthy of redemption, and the metatheatricality of the play-within-a-play becomes a vehicle through which the idea of humanity is explored. In First Fleet, the rehearsals for Tartuffe become a rehearsal for what the new world might look like once they reach Australia – a rehearsal for life. The actor-convicts are allowed on the upper deck without shackles on, they are allowed space to play and put on new identities, to consider the human condition as they explore and inhabit their characters. All this, while their own humanities are being questioned by the dissenting British officers. Mary Beckman (Shu Yi Ching) is painted as a seductress to Clark, one example of how the convicts are easily dismissed and dehumanised.
As they reach their destination, their fates hang in the balance, and there is both a sense that history is being made at the same time as it is being forgotten. The last scene in First Fleet is especially breathtaking. I had almost forgotten that we are seated on the stage of an auditorium, when the curtains are drawn, revealing a mountain-like structure of unoccupied seats. The convicts disperse, climbing over the chairs as a reference to their eventual freedom after serving out their prison sentences. They turn around and face the audience head-on, their stares confronting and accusatory. They have been unfairly folded into a larger story of colonialism, their actual stories sidelined even as they attempt to redraw their new lives into existence on a new land.
The last scene extends and expands the exploration of the fictional/real world divide in the play. In the programme notes, Chia writes of the blurred boundaries between “actual theatre” and the “fictional world”. In a weird way, in those times when the English surtitles of First Fleet eluded me, I could fill in the gaps with my understanding of not just the play, but of the real world outside the play. The device of the play-within-a-play also then becomes a placeholder for a world-within-our-world, these very human stories – of redemption and judgement, of the differences between the powerful and the powerless, of the dominant and the sidelined – can very much be found in our everyday lives. Convict transportation after all is not one foreign to our shores – early Singapore was built on the backs of convicts from India, thanks to the British, and is a distant echo of our dependence on migrant labour today.
I realise, much later on, that because of my initial choice I had quite literally not been in the centre of the action. As these things go, it made me think about that position in symbolic terms. Whose narratives are centred in stories and what does it mean to decentre? The historic significance of the First Fleet has continued to be glorified with the celebration of Australia Day, Australia’s national day, every year on 26 January, the date the ships arrived in 1788 in Port Jackson, New South Wales. But the indigenous people of Australia consider it a day of mourning, a reminder of the day European invaders came to their land. There are calls to change the date to a more inclusive one that every Australian can celebrate.
First Fleet gives its audiences a powerful opportunity to look in the spaces between those pristine white flags, so emblematic of power, claim and a position in the centre of everything. An artfully nuanced presentation, it allowed me to notice things which might not have been so obvious before. It also made me see with much more clarity.
First Fleet was co-presented by Nine Years Theatre and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. It ran from 18-21 July 2019 at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, Far East Organization Auditorium.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.