By Eugene Tan
(1,503 words, 5-minute read)
As has become customary for every review of a Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) 2021 show (or as the festival programme now calls them, “content”), we should applaud the fact that these shows are happening at all. After all, COVID-19 restrictions are wildly challenging for artmaking and presentation.
Yet there is a key difference between the rest of the festival and The Commission. The Commission doesn’t exist in spite of the pandemic, it exists because of it. Not just that – the pandemic is the premise of the play. With that out of the way, the question is “How was it?” and the short answer is “It’s fun!”.
The Commission is a co-production (yes, that’s a plot- and punchline carried over from its antecedent short film) by three of the most prominent theatre companies in Singapore, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), Pangdemonium and WILD Rice. An earlier collaboration, a short film entitled The Pitch made in the earlier days of the pandemic in 2020, received a warm reception during a time when theatres in Singapore were closed and hope was in short supply. Like the film, The Commission is written by Ken Kwek and stars the artistic directors of the three companies, respectively Gaurav Kripalani (also SIFA’s festival director), Adrian Pang and Ivan Heng, playing themselves and/or caricatures of themselves.
In the play, the three are gathered to co-produce a version of Macbeth, and much of the conflict and comedy is about how these three individuals have to negotiate their sensibilities, their interests and, well, egos. But really this premise is a device for some good, clean, fun in-jokes about Singapore’s theatre scene, and then in three monologues, we get more personal insight into the three men on stage. Specifically, these trace how each of them have come to be known for the work that they do, and how they have individually navigated the pandemic in their own companies. Adrian speaks of finding new purpose in starting his own company, and the mental health toll the pandemic has taken on him; Ivan speaks of the influence of Singapore theatre legend Kuo Pao Kun on his work; and Gaurav speaks about how he stumbled into being a producer, and, to deserved applause, how through the last year SRT has paid its staff on time and not laid anybody off.
The pandemic looms heavily in the play and also over the play (and the entire festival). Indeed, The Commission opened on the weekend that Singapore’s performance producers were scrambling to figure out how to accommodate new, and tighter, COVID-19 restrictions. The Commission itself was a casualty: its third performance on Sunday, May 16, when restrictions requiring performers to be masked kicked in, was cancelled. A future seemingly foretold by Eucien Chia’s set design: with its back wall of guillotine-shaped doors, rising and falling, revealing performers, becoming projection screens, a reminder that all of this could end any time.
For the most part, The Commission is a fun, inoffensive little romp, full of name-dropping inside jokes about Singapore’s theatre scene. I still giggle to myself, replaying a particularly inspired line about performer Janice Koh in the play. It pokes fun too at the reputations of the three companies, when the cast fleshes out scenes from Macbeth in their respective performance styles. Gaurav wants to present Macbeth with an American mob setting; Adrian wants to do a futuristic Blade Runner Macbeth set in Singapore; Ivan’s Lady Macbeth wears heavy black frame glasses, ala Claire Wong in Madam Mao’s Memories and/or certain versions of dictator’s wives, while Macbeth is a man in white – which sets off alarm bells for his collaborators, and a conversation about censorship and thwarted boundary pushing that’s sadly familiar with many arts practitioners in Singapore. With all its narratives and performance styles, the production does actually hold together, helped in no small part by sure-footed direction and pacing by Tracie Pang.
So let’s jump straight into an obvious question: is Gaurav, aka SIFA’s festival director and the person who oversees its artistic direction, any good in this show?
The answer to that question can be pretty short. He is amusing and more than adequate, if also outclassed by his co-performers. Gaurav is a trained actor, but really, performing, like so many other artforms, can be so much more about the practice of it. It particularly shows in the scenes from Macbeth, all of which are presented with a kind of hammy quality – they are, after all, meant to be caricatures of the signature styles of the three companies. In these scenes, Heng and Pang really shine, simultaneously committing to these (quite superficial) interpretations of Shakespeare’s texts while being outside of it enough to telegraph that they don’t really believe in these scenes. That’s a tall order.
In its highlighting of the challenges presented by COVID-19, and the “stunt casting” of artistic directors playing themselves – all three have trodden the boards before, but not in this meta way, and definitely not together – The Commission feels a lot like something that any of these three companies might have staged as a fundraiser. It’s so much fun. It’s so moving. The needs are so intense. Let’s bid on the silent auction.
So why has it been programmed as part of Singapore’s “pinnacle arts festival”?
SIFA commissions are a way for artists to realise their “dream projects” – work they wouldn’t be able to do on their own. Notwithstanding that the festival is providing mass employment on a level other arts events wouldn’t be able to during this time, one has to wonder how a play like The Commission could have been, well, commissioned.
On a purely artistic level, it seems so much less ambitious than anything each of the three companies would do in their own seasons. In terms of breadth of narrative, WILD Rice created and presented Hotel at SIFA in 2015, which spanned 100 years of Singaporean history through the comings and goings of occupants of a single hotel room. In terms of scale, SRT regularly takes over a park and presents huge productions of Shakespeare’s plays in it, not to mention musicals in venues like Marina Bay Sands. And in terms of challenging and stretching itself as a company, Pangdemonium has grown from picking hot new scripts out of the US and UK to now commissioning original work by playwrights in Singapore and elsewhere, like Joel Tan’s Tango, which took on tough, complicated issues like gay parenting and the fight for queer rights in a country where gay folk can be among the most privileged.
I also could not help but think about Singapore performance maker Tan Liting’s The Truth About Lying: Heresy and Common Sense for the Theatre, which was staged in 2016 by The Finger Players. There, too, were three theatre practitioners in a work talking about the difficulties of working in theatre, albeit from the point of view of younger actors speaking with a sense of urgency and frustration over not being afforded enough opportunities in the industry. To be clear, I am not saying that an updated version of this production should have a spot in SIFA (though I do think a longer conversation could be had about the opportunities for young theatremakers in our more prestigious presentational platforms), but the irony, and the differences, seem worth noting.
Perhaps these questions also warrant a much longer piece that assesses the impact of SIFA and its programming under Gaurav’s directorship in the last four years – starting perhaps from his first interview with Straits Times journalist Sumiko Tan in 2017, to the one-year extension due to the pandemic – the relationship between pandemic production on artistic quality, as well as larger questions about legitimacy and succession.
But my greatest bugbear about the show is that it is emblematic of the problems facing the larger art scene in Singapore, one that’s more related to real concerns over privilege and access.
It’s been observed that the pandemic has really made salient the inequalities that exist in the societies and communities we live in. In fact, SIFA itself has called attention to this through its Festival House programmes that centre care and social engagement.
It is in this vein that my discomfort over the show resides in.
The longest comedic bit in The Commission is a convoluted sequence that includes the three performers dressed as Taoist mediums as Macbeth’s three witches, chanting Shakespeare’s lines in sing-song rhythm, followed by a caricature of a rank-and-file civil servant as a buffoon with a very particularly Singaporean Chinese accent. I’m not here to defend civil servants (really, this is not my politics), or, for that matter, Taoist mediums (not really punching down here, they have direct connection to the gods). However, I will point out the grotesque spectacle of being in a theatre at socially distanced capacity on an opening night peopled with festival VIPs, celebrities and influencers, and friends of the theatre companies (i.e. socialites and donors), laughing at working class Singaporean accents.
As has been the case with this pandemic, at no point in The Commission was the joke ever on the rich and the powerful.
The Commission was presented at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021 from 14 to 16 May at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice Funan, and on SIFA On Demand from 5 to 20 June. This review is based on the live performance on 14 May 2021.
Guest contributor Eugene Tan has been Becca D’Bus since she was born at the age of 27 in Boston, Massachusetts. In the before times, Becca was the host and producer of RIOT! Hosted by Becca D’Bus and one of The Glory Hoes. She is currently the producer and host of Commotion, drag revues for an era with COVID. Becca has never won an amateur contest.