By: Patricia Tobin
(500 words, 5-minute read)
We are no different from dragonflies. With their tiny transparent wings flapping at 30 beats per second, these creatures travel thousands of kilometers to reproduce, to find a new home, to fight for their survival. This is what Pangdemonium’s Dragonflies alludes to: like dragonflies, our existence is dependent on long-distance migration. From the nomadic homo erectus to our forefathers arriving on distant shores, human beings share this animalistic drive to seek out greener pastures.
Dragonflies begins four years in the future, in a post-Brexit United Kingdom where xenophobia is rampant. It reads like a Nigel Farage wet dream – all non-British citizens no longer have the right to own property and are forced to return to their home countries. Despite having made England his home for thirty years, Singaporean citizen Leslie Chen (Adrian Pang), finds himself back in Singapore. He is greeted by a country that is equally hostile and brimming with racial tension.
Everything that is happening today has been magnified and intensified in Dragonflies: climate change, the refugee crisis, and the resurgence of far-right politics have converged to form a devastatingly turbulent world. In contrast to the chaos, there are neat, futuristic touches of retina scans, and orderly police procedures accompanied with a menacing authoritarianism. “What race are you?” a Singaporean policeman asks Leslie’s British daughter. “There’s only Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other”. This is the strongest component of Dragonflies, when authentic dialogue is set against a backdrop of impending catastrophe. The world is not quite apocalyptic yet, but is perhaps just a couple of new regulations away from becoming a dystopia.
It is clear that playwright Stephanie Street writes with an agenda. Protagonist Leslie aside, the characters are put forward to present various political opinions, rather than to be real-life humans. The teenage daughter is a big-hearted, idealistic liberal; the old British lawyer is a kind but staunch conservative; and the working-class Singaporean woman is antagonistic towards ‘Bangla’ workers. This is arguably stereotypical, but it works for Dragonflies, since the play prioritises a moral message over nuanced characterisation. Additionally, solid performances by the cast help in bolstering the somewhat weak characters. Adrian Pang plays a broken man at the epicentre of a crisis, exasperated and distressed. His turmoil is heartfelt, his tears are moving. As Leslie’s sister, Tan Kheng Hua acts as a foil to Leslie’s Western-influenced liberalism. Tan represents a Singaporean pragmatism that values family and hard work over everything else. Her apathy is bitter, her ignorance all too familiar.
Dragonflies does have its missteps—the prolonged conversations between Leslie and the memory of his wife do little to serve the plot, for instance. The play’s uneven ending also lugs along as a new character is introduced in the final scene merely to provide a throwaway anecdote. Yet Dragonflies’ sincerity overshadows these gaffes. The play crosses continents to highlight the resilience of the human spirit, to speak truth to increasingly autocratic power, and to offer us the one thing we need most: hope.
“Dragonflies by Pangdemonium” by Ng Yi-sheng (SIFA blog)
“Dragonflies Drags On” by Cordelia Lee (Centre42 Theatre Reviews)
“SIFA 2017: Dragonflies by Pangdemonium (Review)” (bakchormeeboy)
“Dragonflies” by Naeem Kapadia (Crystalwords)
This review is of the performance on the 25th Aug 2017. Dragonflies by Pangdemonium ran from 24 – 26 Aug 2017 at the Victoria Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. More information here.
Patricia is an arts writer from Singapore. She currently works in media. She tweets at @havesomepatty.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Matthew Lyon guides mentees Isaac Lim and Patricia Tobin in reviewing one performance a month from July to December 2017.