Friday, March 12, 2010

Theatre Review: Model citizens

I’ve not seen all the plays that Director Alvin Tan and Playwright Haresh Sharma have done together in the last 20 years but amongst the ones that I have seen, “Model Citizens” is one of their best—honest, direct and biting.

Weaving the plot around a crisis—the stabbing of a Member of Parliament (MP) in this case—the play exposes the angst of Singaporeans that often remains hidden from the public gaze or is seldom discussed.

With an all female cast (Goh Guat Kian, Siti Khalijah and Karen Tan), the writer-director duo tells a story that shows how women in a society like Singapore’s are affected by actions that men take. In a way, they want change in their lives but they are trapped in situations that are not of their making—they are silent sufferers in a system that seemingly has turned against their own.

Take, for example, the MP’s wife. She used to teach science in Mandarin in a school. She is not comfortable with English as a medium of instruction. But that’s exactly what happens when the government changes it policy. As a result, she can’t teach in school anymore. She marries the politician whom she had met in college and becomes a tai tai. She wanted to have more than two children but then again the law changed. The government said, have less children. As a model wife of a parliamentarian, she had to gag her desires.

She misses her roots and she wants to go to China but at one point she admits that even China has changed now. There is no escape for her from this life of boredom: an existential angst. An entrapment. She wonders if there is any point to return to China as Singapore might, in her cognition, one day become the capital of China.

The Indonesian maid’s character, played by Siti Khalijah, is the most developed character of the play. She has a different agenda. Coming from a poor country, her escape lies in attaining the Singapore passport. She wants to ensnare a Singapore man and then take Singapore citizenship—her guarantee of escape from the eternal grind of poverty and hopelessness. For this, she is ready to go to any length. She leads a dual life: by day she is a docile maid, by night she is a raunchy sex worker. Her lover, a cleaner, stabs the MP in a public meeting when his plea for help to allow him to marry a foreign domestic maid falls on deaf ears. He is then sent to an asylum, facing a long jail term. Her dreams of marrying the man come to an end. But she tries her best to help him—for her own selfish reasons.

Khalijah has played her role with dexterity. The only gratuitous scene is perhaps the one where she forces upon herself a miscarriage—but for that I think I should blame Haresh. What was he trying to evoke—the inherent dangers of being a prostitute?

The maid has a great relationship with her husbandless boss who treats her like a sister. The boss has lost her son and she does not even know why she lost him. She keeps remembering her son which is natural. At one point she complains about her children—how did I create such monsters—and then she keeps on fondly remembering the son. That was perhaps the only instance of a loose wire in the play; the whole thing was a bit unclear in the dialogues.

However, this is a very controlled play and showcases the maturity of the writer. The dialogues are crisp and biting. The three actors have done a fantastic job. I loved the structure of the play which starts with a crisis and then moves back in time, only to come back to the present moment and move the story forward to, unfortunately, a melodramatic ending.

Among other things, the play shows a clear disconnect between a ‘master class’ of rulers and the HDB-dwellers of the prosperous city-state—the ruling class being insensitive to the needs of the downtrodden, all in the name of progress and development, and controlling their destinies by perennially moving the levers of laws. What Haresh and Alvin seem to suggest here is that in the current set-up, the only way to become a model citizen is to join the system and enjoy the fringe benefits of belonging. It would be akin to killing oneself from inside but that is the price one has to pay for the luxury of belonging.

3 – 6 & 11 – 13 March 2010, 8pm
6 – 7 & 13 – 14 March 2010, 3pm

The Necessary Stage Black Box
278 Marine Parade Road
#B1-02 Marine Parade Community Building
Singapore 449282

Tickets are available at all SISTIC authorised agents, via the hotline at 6348 5555 or online at

1 comment:

Blogger said...