The Year of No Return (1)_Courtesy of Tuckys
Tuckys Photography

Podcast 90: Critics Live: The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage at SIFA 2021

Singapore critics Clarissa Oon, Lee Shu Yu, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia discuss The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage, presented at Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The performance took place from 21-22 May 2021 at Victoria Theatre, and from 5-20 June via video on demand.

Critics Live! is a critics-led programme series created by ArtsEquator to give arts audiences an insight into how critics formulate their responses to performances. Through Critics Live!, critics will share their experiences watching the show either in-venue or digitally, and discuss how the artists’ choices shape these respectively.

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Nabilah: Hi everyone, welcome to Critics Live!, The Year of No Return. My name is Nabilah Said and I’m the editor of ArtsEquator. We are a website that covers the arts in Southeast Asia as well as Singapore. Today we are joined by a group of esteemed critics. And we’ll be talking about our responses to the play The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage (TNS). So I’ll do quick introductions. We have with us Clarissa Oon, who is a very seasoned critic who used to be with The Straits Times and currently is the head of communications and content at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. Hi Clarissa!

Clarissa: Hi Nabilah. Thanks for having me.

Nabilah: And then we have Lee Shu Yu, who is with Centre 42 and also used to write for Citizen Reviews, which is a Centre 42 platform for reviews, which used to run I think a few years ago. Yeah, hi Shu. 

Shu Yu: Hi everyone. Nice to be here. 

Nabilah: And last but not least, we have Naeem Kapadia. He is a critic. He writes reviews for his blog Crystal Words. He also writes for ArtsEquator. And we also happen to be together on a podcast with another critic Matt Lyon, where we talk about theatre and performance in Singapore. Hi Naeem.

Naeem: Hi Nabilah. And thank you very much for having me. 

Nabilah: So just to quickly contextualise what we’re doing today, this is a Critics Live! panel where we kind of talk about our critical responses to performances. And it’s actually part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable, which is happening actually right now, and organised by ArtsEquator. And this year, we’re actually doing that in collaboration with SIFA, the Singapore International Festival of Arts. And this play is being done as part of SIFA as well. And I also wanted to like quickly acknowledge the fact that this year, SIFA has had to really pivot because of heightened restrictions that are happening in Singapore. So because of that there was actually reduced capacities of audiences in the theatre. And audiences also had to go through a pre-event testing because of COVID of course, for like health and safety of the general audiences for theatre. So just wanted to acknowledge like the circumstances in which we’re kind of like being exposed to today.

So very quickly to talk about The Year of No Return, which is the play that actually was supposed to be staged last year. But because of COVID, of course, had to be postponed. And I think we’re all really glad to have been able to watch it live at Victoria Theatre yesterday, actually. And the play itself, to summarise, it’s not easy to summarise this play I have to say. In the style of TNS, there were a lot of things going on. But I think the main plot of it actually revolves around a global climate forum, which is kind of like an event that was being held digitally, like I think, on Zoom or something that seemed like Zoom, hosted by Siti Khalijah Zainal as– I think her character was called Su?

She was the kind of like the host who was holding it together. And then all the other actors were kind of like guests or participants of that forum, that international event. So we had Ari played by Lian Sutton, also a Singaporean actor. And he was like an activist who had left Singapore like about 10 years ago, to do kind of like more hard-hitting, activist work. And then now being granted a permit to actually speak in this event. And the other actors were actually not on stage with us. They were kind of like beamed, either live or like pre-recorded via video projection. So just to quickly run through who they were. There’s Marco Viaña, who is an activist who had actually lost his family in a typhoon in the Philippines and is now talking on the screen as part of that forum. And then we also had Dr. Maya Balan who was played by KL-based actor Sukania Venugopal, who also is talking about her work in climate activism. And then the other two characters were kind of like more… I don’t know whether to say comic relief or kind of like, the token villains in a way. So we had Rody Vera who played Tony Manansala, like a politician-type of like– high flying politician from the Philippines. And then we had Chihiro Hirai who played a CEO of a Japanese very big mega corporation to round up the cast. I believe that’s all the cast, yes. And that’s really barely scratching the surface.

So let’s start with Clare, like, what do you feel? How do you feel about the play after watching that? Like what resonated with you?

Clarissa: So I think on the whole, you know, when I started the production, I was a bit skeptical because I saw all these screens. And I thought, you know, can actors on screens connect with me, you know, as immediately as live actors? But I must say that I was pleasantly  surprised. And the thing that struck me, one of the things that struck me was how the pandemic has transformed live theatre. So, I mean, much has been said about how theatre has pivoted onto digital and created new forms of digital theatre, like Zoom theatre, which can be experienced in the privacy of your own bedroom with your laptop, right? But actually live theatre has also changed with the pandemic. And I mean, that was what struck me when I saw #THEATRE by INDEX on the Esplanade Theatre stage. Basically, it’s like the audience members are lying down on the stage, you know, socially distanced. It’s a sound installation on a bare stage, which is pure design and lighting and no performers. And it was a very kind of like, intimate, also very disturbing experience about what the world is going through and what’s going on in your head and in the same, in a very different way, you know, The Year of No Return also made me think about that.

TNS is known for multimedia in its work and what happened in this production was that the performers from – I mean the foreign performers, international performers performing on screens – either pre-recorded or live streamed or interacting with another live actor in the flesh. I was quite struck by how some of that interaction was actually really powerful and broke through the screen for me. So you know, that was what to me added another layer to kind of like TNS’ toolkit of like multimedia and devised performances. And I think the other thing also, I mean, if I think back to watching like, TNS’ intercultural theatre productions from ten years, twenty years ago, like godeatgod, like Past Caring, featuring some of the same actors in this production. You know, it’s a long-standing collaboration, but how their intercultural work has a newfound energy now. In a way, [it makes me think about] all the workarounds that all of us have been forced to do…. I’m sure this production was created on Zoom. Alvin Tan has gone on record to say that it’s the most difficult international production TNS has done. But I feel like somehow, they’ve had to really dig deep into themselves to- And it felt, some of the scenes really felt fresh. And I felt like also it was a strong ensemble, and, you know, longtime collaborators having that synergy, that knowledge of how to work with each other, but really digging out something fresh and powerful in themselves to reconnect with audiences. So it struck me that, yeah, with this production, I felt like, you know, intercultural theatre has a new energy with this kind of like hybrid model.

Nabilah: Yeah. Because I guess TNS has like a devising model that they do. And I think part of the freshness, for me was the fact like, I thought it was really smart that they framed it within a kind of global event that was happening digitally on Zoom. So the moment you saw, you know, the other actors kind of on video, it didn’t feel like we were very distanced from them. It felt like something that we have been very used to for the past year, watching people on screens. And it was actually comforting more than it was distancing. And part of like, what was refreshing was the fact that I mean, it is a kind of issues-driven play right, about climate change, the climate crisis and all. But I felt like the fact that they contextualise it within the pandemic, right? So Siti Khalijah, and Lian Sutton were wearing masks, but it didn’t feel like it was just like, ‘oh, they’re wearing masks, because in Singapore, we have to wear masks on stage now.’ You know what I mean? It felt like, ‘oh, because they’re doing this, you know, this kind of like event’. And it’s part of, it’s kind of like baked into the plot of the play, I suppose. But Shu, what about you? What worked for you?

Shu Yu: Well, actually, for me, when it came to the themes, I was pleasantly surprised. And I was also very pleased to kind of see many different facets of like the global climate issue reflected throughout the play. So there was just also talk about like the pandemic, but also militarisation and like the indigenous communities, how they deal with that. As well as kind of like that individual sense of helplessness against like systemic issues or systemic, kind of like powers that be you know, that kind of restrict the way as human beings or as individuals, the things that we can do in the face of like the global climate crisis. So I really appreciated that it kind of delved into, okay, maybe not delve, but you know, touched upon certain sorts of perspectives. Oh, as well as like, the presence of technology as sort of a bridging force or maybe a regulating force.

So I really liked that there was kind of a variety of areas of discussion, if you will, right? And I quite liked that. In the face of like all these big polemic statements, there were also moments of like, honesty. Such as, during one scene where there was the character played by Lian Sutton, as well as like a character played by Rody Vera. I think they’re different from the characters that are named in a way, they are just kind of random activists. And there was kind of an honest confession that, you know, yes, there are big things happening out there. But sometimes I can just barely get out of bed. And I thought that was important to acknowledge and important to witness on screen, because sometimes we’re just helpless like that, right? So I really liked that. I think that honesty was very important.

But sad to say, I did feel a bit of a disconnect. Because I think I struggled with this play because it was live, it was in a theatre space, it wasn’t on Zoom. So I felt like there were certain moments of disconnect when there was like filmic elements or on-screen elements that didn’t quite tie back to like the stage craft. So in terms of direction, it kind of fell a bit flat for me. Yeah, like there wasn’t a very good melding of different stage elements. I think I’ll leave it at that for now. Yeah.

Nabilah: That’s a good opening for Naeem to come in with what worked or didn’t work for him.

Naeem: Yeah. So look, I think it was actually interesting. I think for those of you who are familiar with TNS, I mean, the last show quite similar to this, which they did two years ago, was Civilised, where they were responding to, you know, the bicentennial of Singapore’s founding. And it was a very, I would say, kind of very complex, dense, messy play, because it just took a whole variety of perspectives about colonialism, past, present, and future. And it was at times a little bit difficult to watch, because it just kept moving in so many different directions. Now, in contrast, this I thought was actually a very disciplined play. It was quite tight, it was quite reined in. I think it’s 90 minutes. There was that framing device of the climate forum, which I think just helped to sort of create some structure. And I appreciated that. But I think that initial setup of having that forum made me think that, oh, this is actually going to follow quite a linear plot, and then you know.

Nabilah: It doesn’t. 

Naeem: It kind of moves away from that. And you kind of go into all these individual stories. Now you mentioned, Nabilah, that you actually were very invested in, you know, looking at the screen. I think, for me, I was a little bit like Shu, I felt a little bit distanced at the end of it, because we are confronted with like these, you know, bad corporate people and politicians, and then these extreme activists, but then what about the average man on the street? How are you meant to feel about climate change, I just felt I was watching almost a documentary or a caricature at times, but I wasn’t sure how I was meant to personally feel. And that’s why I left feeling a little bit mixed. I appreciated the odd scene. I think the scene Shu spoke off really resonated with me as well, about the apathy we all feel. But at the end of the day, I felt a little bit muted, because I felt I was caught somewhere between the two extremes.

Nabilah: I think you mentioned Civilised, right? And I think, Civilised for me was like, yes, there was a lot going on. It did feel like they problematised the idea of colonialism in a way that was very thought provoking in Civilised. And I feel like with The Year of No Return,  they’ve chosen a kind of like a macro lens, I feel, on climate change. And so like on a macro level, definitely I felt, yes, I felt engaged. I felt like I was- I mean, I was super glad to be in a live theatre, just watching a live show. But it did feel like you were watching, you were a spectator, kind of like, like not… And I felt like I was- whatever, however I felt about climate change going into the theatre, I felt kind of the same coming out of the theatre. I’m not sure how you all felt about, like, you know, your views about climate change, whether those were like challenged or were you, did you feel like awakened. Did you feel woke after the play, you know? Yeah. Clarissa, what do you think?

Clarissa: I found certain points of connection in the play, but not necessarily about climate change per se. And actually, the more I think about it, I feel like The Year of No Return isn’t just about the year of no return for climate change, but also for like issues of inequality, the state of activism, the notion of privilege, you know? I felt climate change was sort of like the tip of the iceberg. And then all these issues were were mined. And for me, that was the strength of the production, rather than any kind of awakening about climate change.

So the first scene that sort of really drew me in was when Marco Viaña the Filipino actor- And I mean, all the time he’s performing to us on a screen, right? I mean, I think some scenes are livestream, some scenes are pre-recorded, but there’s one scene where he’s telling this backstory of how, I mean, he lost his family in a typhoon and he went on to become a climate activist, because, I mean, it just awakened in him how, I mean, in that rural part of the Philippines, there’s so much in which they are left behind, and the politicians, you know, have not taken care of their interests by just, you know, focusing on big business industry and ignoring the state of the environment, right? But basically, it’s a personal story. He lost his children. And it really touched me, I mean, as a mother, and he was also talking about how, I mean, when he lost it he wished that time could stop so that he could go back, you know, he could be with them. But also that the clock is ticking and this thing about the clock ticking, that was a running motif, you could also hear the sound of a stopwatch literally. And it was a very powerful scene, I felt there’s this urgency. And that permeated into other scenes for me as well.

Photo: Tuckys Photography


And I think something that TNS is also very good at doing as part of their social theatre toolkit is also flipping the subject positions. So while you know you are meant to feel for this activist, but then you know, later on there’s this  funny scene like a kind of like a pity party, where the Japanese CEO and the Filipino politician are commiserating about how they’ve become the bad guys. They’re the “new oppressed.” And it’s like this karaoke session, drunken karaoke session over Zoom and I thought, you know, that was quite a hoot. And I really wish there was like a full audience in the house to kind of enjoy it. Because I mean, it was also satire in a way right? So I think it showed sort of different sides of the issue. And I thought I was able to connect with with some of it and also laugh at some of it as well.

Nabilah: And I think like with Marco’s- that plot, right, Singapore was implicated, right, because I think the mining company that was doing a lot of the work in his hometown was a Singaporean company. Did you all feel like, how do you all feel about the Singapore kind of like element in this production? Because it is a very regional production because of the cast, because of TNS’ history of working with these actors as well. I think it’s also one of the plays that is co-written not just by Haresh Sharma. But with Rody Vera as well. Yeah, Naeem and Shu, what do you all think?

Naeem: Yeah, so I think it’s actually interesting. Just as you know, Clare was saying about the, the Rody Vera character just being so moving, I find myself more moved by the characters-

Nabilah: Marco Viaña. 

Naeem: Marco Viaña, sorry. I found myself actually more moved by the characters on the screen rather than the ones on the stage. And interestingly, the Siti Khalijah character who’s this kind of very diplomatic, efficient, Singaporean emcee, who just tries to kind of make sure that the event is running smoothly, while not really expressing any feelings that she has. And then the kind of almost crazed, slightly comic like, eco-terrorist character played by Lian Sutton. I didn’t find them that engaging compared to the other two characters who I saw on the screen. And I’m not sure if it’s just a comment on Singapore. They’re like, you know, just kind of being a little bit, you know, colourless, perhaps in terms of the way we respond to these issues. But that was the way I felt about how Singapore fit into the thing. We’re just kind of there to provide like, the financial backing and a nice cushy, you know, background, but like, we’re not really foregrounding and driving the issues.

Shu Yu: Yeah, I mean, in comparison, right? I mean, we don’t really have that many- as an affluent country, you know, we are probably the villains in this story. So in a way, I totally… 

Nabilah: If you’re not the villain– if there’s no villain, then you’re the villain. You know?

Shu Yu: Yeah. So like, you know, we are that looming presence, we are the ones that are complicit in this whole event. And I think maybe seeing the different kinds of stakes that were put out there, right, the idea of like, poverty and inequality, right? It’s really like when climate justice happens, it’s about like raising these people who say are not privileged the way we are. So in a way, there was an element of, kind of… I did miss the Singaporean villainy in the piece, but there was also a very disarming kind of Singaporean, apolitical presence right in Su’s character that couldn’t really make up her mind, doesn’t know which side she stands on, but just wants to keep the event flowing, is in contact with the police, but also the activists. And I think maybe some audiences would find themselves reflected in that character. But I did want to see more of her. I did want to see what she really thought. And like, I did want to see her struggle. And I feel that might have unlocked a bit more of – I hate to use this word – but like relatability, but it also would round off the picture quite well, in seeing the everyday person there in a way.

Photo: Tuckys Photography


Clarissa: Yeah, I mean, just to jump in. I think that in intercultural work that is produced in Singapore, there’s always this sort of like, you know, need on the part of the theatremakers or consciousness to balance the Singapore angle with the international angle, right? And I think in this production, perhaps due to the fact that the co-writer is  Filipino actor, playwright Rody Vera, that actually the like some of the Filipino stories, the Malaysian stories as narrated by Sukania Venugopal’s marine biologist, some of these actually came out more strongly. And I would say that, if I was struck by a specific climate angle, it would be the fact that the global nature of the problem, right, that it’s borderless, and so I can be moved also by, you know, a typhoon in the Philippines, that sort of thing. But yeah, I would agree that the Singapore reflection or the reflectiveness, reflexiveness of the Singaporean probably didn’t come out so much. Like, the strongest was when, the strongest moment was probably when this corporate video on Singapore’s green plan got hacked. Right? And that was quite fun. But basically, it’s mocking our privilege, but then it’s also like, Singapore as a concrete jungle, as a land of parks is not really like where the frontline of the battle for climate justice is. So there’s that bit of that distance. So if, I mean I think, if as an audience member, you expected to be provoked or challenged, probably there wasn’t so much of it there. Yeah.

Nabilah: Right. Maybe it was like an issue of like, overcorrection, almost, right? Because like, we are Singaporeans who are producing the play, so then you feel like okay, maybe we should kind of like give space to the non-Singaporeans and the kind of narratives that are a bit more urgent. Right? Yeah, and speaking of like, overcorrection, Well, not really, but like, how do y’all feel about the ensemble? Because there was and ensemble of like, five to six actors, maybe not all of them were actors, but they definitely filled the space. And there are a lot of like, physical scenes of them, like walking, you know, across the stage and things like that. Shu, what do you think about them?

Shu Yu: Yeah, they just filled the space I think. I really wanted to see a lot more because like, you know, it’s so rare to be back in a theatre and feel the bodies on stage, see the stage picture get completed by these different like, elements of bodies and in light and in set and sound kind of like gel together. But in terms of the ensemble, I was counting the number of scenes in which they would just appear and then stand for like five beats, and then leave that kind of thing. So I was a little bit thrown off that they were there, but they didn’t really do much. You know, I don’t know if that’s like a metaphor for like these random, general public. They’re there, but they don’t have a voice. Yeah, so I didn’t really appreciate that they were- okay, I guess they were useful in filling up and creating a sort of like…

They activated the space, right, like you mentioned. But I think overall, for me, it was pretty flat in that they would appear and then leave. The only scene that I actually really liked was when strangely enough, there was no multimedia. It was Lian Sutton’s character and maybe not character, it was just Lian, and the two dancers, there were also two dancers present in the play. And the three of them were moving to quite a fast paced beat. And then in the background, you would see the ensemble kind of cross the stage and halfway through, they break out of their usual formation, and they kind of do some movement. And then like, at the end of the scene, they kind of all rush out together. I thought that was really nice actually, because then you had these multiple layers of like the lighting and then the beat reaching a crescendo and it kind of introduced a very nice break into the heavy text of the entire play. And I really liked that holistic kind of appeal of that scene. Yeah.

Photo: Tuckys Photography


Clarissa: I didn’t mind the multimedia. I mean, it wasn’t the strongest thing about the production. But I mean, it also didn’t jump out at me. Yeah.

Nabilah: Yeah, for me, I also didn’t mind, like Clare. I felt that, you know, if it was only a Siti Khalijah and Lian Sutton on stage, I would have felt very sad, like, a lot sadder. You know what I mean? I appreciated the kind of like, the warm bodies on stage, even if, yes, they were underutilised. And maybe some of them were not performers. So you know, maybe there’s some, you know, things going on over there. But I felt that it kind of like painted this issue on a broad spectrum of like, we are all, you know what I mean? Like we are all included in this, you know, it’s not just these people who happen to be part of this forum, it’s– everyone is going to be affected. And you know, going back to the title, The Year of No Return. I think it’s an actual term, right? It’s like when things are going downhill from there, I think it’s 2030 or something? But like, we’re meant to be doing something now. So maybe, it will be interesting to hear from the makers actually about what they were trying to go for with the ensemble. Because it did feel like, yeah, maybe they were a little bit underutilised. I was thinking about like, I wanted to see, like what you all felt about the design elements? Like maybe the elements of stagecraft. Because for me, like, the depth of the stage was not used as much as actually the verticality of the stage because of the projection screens. Like the screens were moving – there were like, multiple screens – and they were moving a lot. And to kind of accommodate the, you know, like, the dimensions of the video that was going to be played or something. I don’t know, I’m sure there’s a better reason why, you know, there’s a kind of choreography of screens happening. But the activation of the space in a vertical level, I was much more aware of that rather than the usual kind of like design elements, taking up space. 

Clarissa: To me the… I thought the production was was technically strong. The interplay between the multimedia, and the sort of like telematic performances, you know, where you have live stream and live actor, or, you know, pre-recorded. All that felt very seamless to me. I mean, I think one of the things we said, you know, when we were just chatting earlier, that, yeah, we were moved by a lot of things on the screen. Could we have just watched it at home on our laptops, would it have been better on Zoom right? But for me, I felt there was a certain power in it being in a physical space, and seeing this kind of different layers: the multimedia, the live actors, also the interplay between live and a physical performer on stage. So I felt it was something to be watching it in a live theatre. Yeah, not sure what the others think?

Naeem: Yeah, no, I mean, I think definitely there was quite a good experience of just being, as you said, physically in the space. But I think for me, like Shu, I was really struck by that just wasted opportunity in terms of the three dimensions of the space. We have the verticality, as you mentioned, but there isn’t the use of the space that there’s an ensemble moving around. But technically, they just are providing a bit of filler between the scenes. And they’re not adding or really commenting on what’s going on on the projections. And for me, I think the projections were really- and this is, again, a hallmark of TNS – I mean, that was really a strong suit, because they were very beautifully executed, crisp. They engaged us very well, there was a scene where the forum is hacked and you have this sequence with Pepe the Frog and you know, going on this rant about capitalism and inequality. And it was kind of incongruous, but funny, and it just kind of got a reaction from even the very limited socially distance audience. So you can only imagine how that would have felt in a packed stage. So, you know, I think they were hitting the notes with, you know, those elements there. I mean, I think perhaps, we have to also be aware of the fact that this may not have been conceived of in this way. And I think I would be very keen to hear what the creators maybe had in mind originally, because obviously, it had to be done in this hybridised form.

You know, if it was done with far more actors live, maybe the experience might have been different, but I think just commenting on you know, that direct connection, I thought it was interesting to compare and contrast two scenes. One was what Shu was talking about with the two activist friends and you know, one is a bit apathetic and one is at the scene of a protest. And you know, that obviously spoke quite strongly about this, you know, general apathy that we all feel with the pandemic. But then there was another scene, which again, is very characteristic of TNS, where you have all these actors – and I think that might have been live streamed – where the actors break the fourth wall and start addressing us. And I was completely unmoved by that when they go around with all these platitudes, like, how are you feeling today and this and that. And that didn’t work for me, but just that simple conversation between the two friends actually moved me a lot more.

Nabilah: Yeah, it’s quite funny that the meta moments didn’t really work. I think maybe it’s because, like, we are already moved on other levels through all the other stories. So that moment where they’re like, “Hello.” And then you’re like, ‘who is talking?’ And so yeah, those scenes kind of like fell a bit flat for me. We haven’t really talked about the more absurd scenes. I was wondering about the interludes. Like how that played for you all? So for example, there’s the AI scenes for example, right? So there’s the Singapore AI, the Malaysian AI and the Japanese AI and they were kind of like comparing notes about what they do to help each country with climate change, like realisations and things like that. And there were quite funny digs at each other. Like, you know, Singapore being, I don’t know, I can’t remember what it was, but I think Malaysians being like very feelings oriented and things like that, so that was quite cute. But how do you all feel about the kind of- the scenes that took away from the main action, I suppose, the absurd scenes.

Clarissa: I mean, I think the AI scene was not meant to be like, you know, we were not meant to invest emotionally in it, but it was like an absurdist interlude, right, which I thought was fine. And it was that added layer of inventiveness to kind of like the, you know, that all those layers playing out on the vertical screens. Yeah.

Shu Yu: I think I agree, I really like those scenes of like, for example, the hacking video was very bright, very colourful, very in your face. And the AI one was also very self-reflexive. I think I needed a little bit more of that colour here and there, in some ways, because like, after these scenes, you would kind of go back to either the global forum, or you would hear from the characters, like the Marco character, right? About like, basically, the damage that climate change is doing to you. So I really enjoyed it. And I thought they were very effective devices to kind of break away from it, to kind of really also prompt the audience to consider different elements of technology, as well as like, the other conversations that are happening out there. Like, you know, about capitalism, or like, about trolling, or about technology, or about the kind of conversations we have also on social media, in tandem with like, real political discussion, not real, but political discussions in a very formal sphere. Yeah.

Photo: Tuckys Photography


Nabilah: Maybe as a kind of last question. You know, what were your expectations going into this play? Because I feel like, you know, it is a heavy topic. And like Clare said, there were a lot of other issues that were baked into the plot as well and into the play. What were your expectations going into it? And how did you feel kind of like coming out of this experience?

Naeem: Look, I think this was kind of billed as the kind of marquee production of SIFA 2020. And I obviously was very excited about it, even last year, and obviously, it got postponed. So I think I had quite high expectations. It was a, you know, intercultural work, it was a collaborative work with artists from around the region. And I think, yes, there were these issues that were ticked off. But I think when I added them all together, I didn’t really come out with any, you know, amazing new insights, if you like. Whereas I think for some of the other plays, like I’m just thinking back to Underclass, for example, which was a TNS play from 2018, I think, that really kind of, you know, struck a chord in me about privilege and, you know, the economic inequality that exists even in a place like Singapore.

But here, as I mentioned earlier, I feel like there were these extremes, you know, the politicians and the big corporates and then the extreme activists on the other hand. And then there’s- most of us, I guess, the kind of typical middle class theatre going audience are somewhere in between, and there wasn’t really a hook for me to kind of hang my feelings on. So, you know, I don’t think I walked away with any radical new insights. I think it was great to be in a live theatre space to see that fluid conversation going on between the live and the filmic, which they did very well and which I think they handled, you know, with grace and, despite all the restrictions that the pandemic has brought. But I think thematically, I don’t think there was anything particularly strong for me that I took away.

Shu Yu: Yeah. I have to agree with Naeem as well, but I think when I think about expectations, I split it into two. One is a bit more production expectation, the other one is a little bit more like content. So in terms of production, like knowing it’s a SIFA commission, I expected a little bit more about, you know, utilising the 3D space, especially because it’s TNS and they are, you know, masters of stagecraft. So I expected a little bit more in terms of like, you know, making sure that the coherent stage picture, or like, you know, there was a little bit more consideration on that front. But I also knew that like, content wise, climate change is hard to talk about. Like, even when you’re given the luxury of time and word count, like, rarely do people reach a conclusion that can satisfy the current urgent needs. So I also had to taper my expectations and understand that it’s hard to talk about it. So I didn’t come in with like, overwhelming expectation, I think they touched on things that I expected them to touch on, which is great. But I also feel like, you know, it’s a conversation that we need to have in a more productive space with more deliberate tangible actions in order to really manifest you know, taking back control over our planet. Yeah.

Clarissa: I think for me, I… So because of the whole sort of, like, it’s billed as a production about climate change. And, to me, climate change is… It’s a very big topic, it can be quite abstract, it can be, you know, potentially intellectual and not something that people can connect with. Although there are ways in which it can trickle down to ordinary lives, but then, you know, it could take a three-hour film or thesis, sometimes to drill deep into those things, right. So I actually wasn’t expecting very much. I was actually a bit apprehensive, maybe, no doubt, fuelled by the PET (pre-event testing) and all that, you know? Someone digging up your nose, right? So I wasn’t expecting very much and to me, I actually was pleasantly surprised. I think having seen the performers over the last ten, twenty years, you know, in other intercultural work and all that, I was struck by what I felt was was a new energy in TNS’ intercultural work. And I saw it not so much as a climate change production, per se, but really using climate change as like a lever to open up conversations about other things like privilege, activism, inequality, and the state of the world today. The state of our mental health, our isolation and all these issues. Yeah, and to me, I liked it much more than I disliked it, so I was glad that I went, yeah.

Nabilah: Yeah. For me, I think the scene that we mentioned about the two activists. What really worked was the fact that one actor actually came off with a lot of empathy for the other actor. And I felt like that is what summed up The Year of No Return for me. It’s like empathy for even like the making of this play, right? Because it wasn’t just about utilising the stage. It was also about utilising the screen. And I think we acknowledged that the use of the multimedia and videos was like amazing. In fact, maybe to the expense of what was happening live. But I felt that it was… Like Clare, I kind of like fall on the, ‘I was glad to have watched it’. And I thought they did a pretty good job, considering everything else. I feel like this is also a play that has to have a post-show discussion, which of course with with the pandemic, like, we can’t. But for our panel, we are hoping to get really a lot of questions from audiences, as well as from the makers, actually. We are hoping to see you all, to ask questions and to also maybe tell us if we are wrong, and like way off the mark. Yeah. So with that, thank you so much, the three of you.

Clarissa: Thank you for having us. 

Naeem: Thank you. 

Nabilah: Yeah. And we are hoping that you will ask questions in our live Q&A. So yeah, see you there. And thank you!

The Year of No Return by The Necessary Stage  took place from 21-22 May 2021 at Victoria Theatre, and from 5-20 June via video on demand as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021.

Critics Live! is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021. 

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.

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (, has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

Clarissa Oon is a writer and former journalist from Singapore who has researched and analysed performance, literary and popular culture in the country for over two decades. Currently a content producer at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, she was previously a journalist at The Straits Times and is the author of a book on Singapore English-language theatre. She continues to contribute to essay anthologies as well as Asia Pacific media titles, and was a keynote speaker at the inaugural Asian Arts Media Roundtable organised by ArtsEquator in 2019.

Lee Shu Yu is in the business of curating ideas and stoking imagination. She sometimes conceptualises, manages, documents and critiques for the stage. She enjoys crafting at @washutape and making funny shushapes as an amateur dancer.

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