By Ng Yi-Sheng
Another day, another Mas Selamat satire… But really, this show comes with its own baggage. It’s a play about political detention written by an actual former political detainee, Wong Souk Yee, and it’s inspired by the trials not only of Singapore’s favourite JI terrorist but also of other victims of Operation Spectrum, the PAP’s round-up of Catholic volunteers on the grounds of a suspected Marxist conspiracy in 1987.
Set in an imaginary authoritarian state, Square Moon tells the story of Christina Hu (Zelda Tatiana Ng), a human rights lawyer representing the suspected terrorist Golden Hartono. When her client escapes from prison, a hullabaloo ensues, as a result of which Hu is detained and tortured. During her incarceration, she strikes up a friendship with a fellow detainee: the idealistic opposition politician River Yang (Lim Kay Siu).
There’s real chemistry between Ng and Lim, and the initial scenes depicting their suffering are genuinely harrowing. However, the displays of physical torture are so lengthy and graphic that one might even call them gratuitous (there’s real ice water being thrown on Ng!) – though one hesitates to use the word, given that actual torture has been documented in Singapore’s detention centres. What’s more problematic are the puns, the heavy-handed references to current events and the ham-fisted portrayal of government officers as cartoon villains. These are cheap laughs, and they reduce the impact of the absurdist farce.
The play’s second half, however, is of gold standard. It not only exposes the inhumanity of our Internal Security Act, but questions whether it can ever change, given its usefulness to whichever party’s in power. When River Yang’s party defeats the incumbents, he is set free, and promises Hu that he’ll have her released – and yet fails to do so over the course of 10 years, despite increasing popular support for her liberation. Featuring substantial portions of devised dialogue, this section of the play has a distinctly more realist tone to it, evidence of a welcome note of maturity in this political satire – it pits realpolitik against integrity, with no obvious villains, so that even as a chorus sings “We Shall Overcome” in the distance, there is no utopian future in sight.
I’ve qualms about the way death metal music and S&M gear are incorporated into the presentation of this play, but otherwise I’m a fan of Peter Sau’s directorial vision – there’s a grandness, a surrealness and a physicality to the story that could have been lacking in many another interpretations. Wong Chee Wai’s set design, featuring a mirrored floor, divided into a grid, was especially evocative.
I’d also like to note the success of a supporting character, a campy Malay transwoman prison officer, played by Erwin Shah Ismail, who sympathises with the detainees and grants them favours despite her continued compliance with the abusive system. Initially played for laughs, this halfway-moral, in-between figure is ultimately the character who most resembles ourselves – we, who believe ourselves to be good people, and who rebel in little ways against the system, though we are ultimately complicit.
There’s a whole other drama regarding the struggle to even have this play staged – see this article for a summary: http://yawningbread.
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Square Moon not a full moon
By Ng Yi-Sheng