By Akanksha Raja
(630 words, 6-minute read)
Penned by writer Goh Boon Teck, Prism was conceived in 2003 under a commission by Japanese theatre company Kageboushi, to become a grand-scale million-dollar touring production with performers from six Asian countries, featuring a variety of Asian artforms (such as martial arts and gamelan music).
Essentially, Prism tells a cautionary tale of the detrimental effects and casualties of urban redevelopment. This year’s all-Singaporean restaging of the show by Toy Factory is scaled down, and timely: an increasing number of Singapore’s older housing estates, such as Rochor Centre and Dakota Crescent, have been slated for demolition by the government, renewing discussions about the social cost of development. Goh asserts his motivations behind the story, that it doesn’t intend to be “anti-development. We are here to question.”
However, the play does not seem to have the patience for questions. Prism offers instead a moralistic diatribe against Singapore’s relentless onward march of economic and infrastructural growth at the expense of the “sanctity” of heritage and traditional mores. This is conveyed through a parabolic narrative revolving around Aman (played by Fir Rahman, also seen in Boo Junfeng’s award-winning film Apprentice), the Urban Redevelopment Board official whose job it is to forcefully evict the residents of “The Surrounding City” – a residential commune alluding, in today’s context, to Rochor and Dakota. Aman embodies (and advocates) the supremacy of rationality and forward-looking pragmatism over empathy and sentimentalism. The dwellers rally against the plans, only to be subjected to torture by ominous masked bureaucrats. Just in case the good and bad guys are not clear, Aman is clad in a sleek, dark, silvery suit patterned with sharp angles and cutting edges, and the residents in shapeless, earthy-toned, burlap rags.
There is the Mandarin-speaking rice farmer who bemoans to the English-speaking Aman about the erosion of “Asian values” by Western cultural influences. In an era of cultural heterogeneity, such statements feel dated and overly simplistic. The performance continues to run on such hyperbolic polarities – between tradition as sacred and modernity as blasphemous, between eastern culture as pure and western culture corrupt, between the hard-headedness of authority and the hedonism of the City. Such extremes are rarely convincing. The script had allegedly been updated to reflect more “a more nuanced take on urban development”. One wonders if the changes are so nuanced as to be undetectable, or if the original play was simply that much more reductive. The script was also trimmed down from the original, which spares the audience from further lines like “We feed on the wisdom of eternity’s soul” and “I’m a phoenix on fire, liberate me!”
On the upside, the show is visually and stylistically impressive. With a muted brown-grey colour palette, the minimalistic set designed by architect Leong Hon Kit in his debut stage work presents a post-apocalyptic dystopian version of present-day Singapore (the story is set in 2016). It is foregrounded by mounds of rice, an obvious icon of Asian heritage, and the idea of ‘rice bowl’ pragmatism. The choreographic work by dancer Goh Shou-yi, reflected in ensemble pieces when the residents come together to cohesively embody a dying spirit lamenting for the past, is also well done.
The notion of Singapore as a soulless institution run on steel-hearted ambitiousness, and the angst against such authoritarianism, has arguably been the primary subject matter in local art and literature since the 1980s. It would have been refreshing to me if the revival of this play brought something new to this long-standing dialectic. It’s not that Prism’s basic premise is irrelevant. Works and discourses that speak for the overlooked, underprivileged minorities who suffer the brunt of economic progress are urgently needed. But Prism’s self-righteous, hokey tone lacks a sense of realism, which disengages the audience from the prevalence and immediacy of the issues in question.
“Review: Prism by Toy Factory” by bakchormeeboy
“Polarities Disguised as a Spectrum” by Isaac Tan
“Dystopian Drama Lacks Insight” by Helmi Yusof (Business Times)
“Prism by Toy Factory” by Christian W Huber (Centre 42)
“Haunting tales of change” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)
“Through A Broken Looking Glass (Prism by Toy Factory Productions)” by Eugene Koh (Write Wing Theatre)
Directed by Rei Poh, Prism by Toy Factory Productions ran at the Drama Centre Theatre from February 23 to March 5 2017.