The setting was decidedly atmospheric. We were led by Drama Box employees into the cemetery in complete darkness to allow our eyes the chance to adapt to the early morning gloaming. We walked to the performance site, which used the one section of the cemetery where the road forks into two layers – an upper road and a lower road – and it was the elevated road that, lit by nothing but Chinese funeral candles, served as our “stage” for that morning. As the performance went on, we could hear the cicadas start their chirping (I had never realized that their sound – so ubiquitous in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia – actually stopped at night), the birds beginning to wake, as well as the odd monkey in the distance rustling through the foliage. The overwhelming feeling was a sense of peacefulness – perhaps too much.
My initial feeling about Dawn was that 5.30am might have been a little early in the morning for a piece of wordless and abstract performance theatre more akin to dance than to a play. After a tense and unplanned moment when a lorry on its way to work insisted that it had to drive through the road that was being used as the performers’ “stage”, I found the silence of the cemetery so pervasive and inviting I had to get up from my seat and walk around during the performance in order to stop my eyes from closing.
The performance was (to my dance-untrained eye) characterized by much gasping and heavy breathing on the part of the 6 performers (dressed all in white) as they moved, ran, spun, and collapsed to the ground in turns. With no point of reference or hint of explanation in the program booklet, the only story my imagination could impose on the action was that of the story of an immigrant’s life: the performers “arrived” on stage pushing and pulling an unidentified burden onto the “stage” area (this is revealed by the dawning light to be a piano) and they appear to live, struggle, and play (one particular image seared into my memory of the performance was of the performers playing piggyback with one another, their laughter ringing in the slightly misty, slightly hazy dawn air) – all the while gasping, it seems, for breath (or for space) - before finally turning their eyes to death. As a requiem is played, live, on the piano by one of the performers, the other 5 circle an imaginary grave throwing dirt that they had picked off the ground (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), before a girl coming by on a bicycle and playing an old Chinese song inspires them to throw off their clothing and to run, skipping and leaping, into the distance.
Dawn, for me, raised more questions that it answered at first. Who were these 6 performers supposed to be? Did they represent the living or the dead? And what, if anything, did their actions in the growing early morning light actually mean?
Those questions were rather unexpectedly and neatly answered during the second half of the show, Dusk, which I caught the same day at 8pm in the SOTA Theatre Studio.
Dusk is ostensibly a piece of verbatim theatre. Written by Jean Tay, it is built around a selection of quotes taken directly from interviews with various stakeholders in what the play terms the “Battle for Bukit Brown” which took place in 2012. These stakeholders included heritage activists, environmentalists, representatives from NGOs such as SOS Bukit Brown, tomb keepers, descendants of those still buried in the cemetery and even the then-Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin – whom, I am afraid, does not come off in this play very well.
Bearing the sole responsibility of presenting the government’s point of view, Tan tries to use the interviews to come across as sympathetic with the activists’ points of view – reiterating again and again that he, too, personally appreciates the heritage and natural environment of Bukit Brown (and even goes running there in the mornings). The production, though, makes its skepticism of Tan’s (and the government’s) position clear. Having illustrated (through the clear narrative of events presented by the representatives from the various groups) how meetings and consultations that were promised between the government and NGOs were never held and how outraged the groups felt when the government subsequently issued statements purporting to have taken the groups’ views into account and making supposed “concessions” that were never asked for, there was a collective snort on the part of the audience when Tan claimed to have felt “betrayed” when the Heritage Society of Singapore issued their own statement indicating that they had played no part in the decision-making and were calling for a full moratorium on all future construction in Bukit Brown. The actress portraying Tan (Josephine Tan) also spends a considerable amount of the play doing shuttle runs across the stage. It is an apt metaphor (particularly with respect to Tan – our now famed “running Minister”) to illustrate his persistent shuttling between hardline and sympathetic positions, but it also had the effect of making that shuttling appear frantic, inept and erratic – to be borne out of reacting to events rather than actually taking a firm lead on them.
However, as sympathetic as Dusk is to the civic groups’ and NGOs’ positions, it also seeks to place the acquisition and loss of Bukit Brown in a broader historical context. During the play, quotes from old newspaper articles dating back to the 1910s and 20s would occasionally flash up on a screen situated between the audience, which was seated on two sides of the SOTA Theatre Studio. These quotes tell the story of how Bukit Brown came to be the municipal cemetery that it is – through the compulsory acquisition of land from the Ong clan (who were not willing to sell their clan-owned burial grounds). The clan’s wishes were ignored and the municipal government went head to acquire the land anyway. There was also talk in the equivalent of forum letters to the papers back then of how homes should be built on the high cemetery ground so that the living would not have to continue living in the surrounding marshy/swampy lower ground surrounding it. In interspersing her play with these old articles and quotes, Tay illustrates how acquisition without consultation or heeding the wishes of stakeholders, and the battle between the living and the dead for “living space” has been going on for a long time. The PAP government is certainly not the only government (in Singapore – and probably certainly not in the world) guilty of making such choices.
As a piece of verbatim theatre, Dusk is punchy, powerful and I think will stand the test of time as a piece of work that will bear repeat performances (more so, I think, than that other recent famous piece of verbatim Singapore theatre, Alfian Sa’at’s Cooling Off Day, which especially now in 2015, seems dated and almost unreal). But this particular production of it sees the verbatim theatre being placed within a broader piece of physical theatre and it was only after watching Dusk in the evening that I realized that the performance which I had seen in the morning actually did have a story behind it: the story of the Battle for Bukit Brown.
This realization gradually dawned when the 6 performers who had been in the cemetery that morning joined the 3 actors (Timothy Nga, Jospehine Tan and Karen Tan) tasked with delivering Tay’s script on stage. Dressed now in ordinary civilian clothes (instead of the all white they had been in during Dawn), one could see how they performed in reaction to and in tandem with the script: how every time the NGOs lost a stage of their battle to preserve Bukit Brown to the government, one of the actors would collapse to the ground as if he or she had been slain; how when an interviewee told the story of his/her life as a child living near Bukit Brown and how he/she used to play in the jungle, the performers began to laugh, giggle and play piggyback (a scene which stuck with me from the morning performance); and how, when an old grandmother who had buried her father in Bukit Brown spoke of how she personally had to exhume his grave (so that it could be done “properly”, accordingly to Taoist belief, at night) and had to carry his bones to Mandai to inter, one of the performers is picked up by the others and carried, on his back and above their heads, across the stage. The morning’s performance, I gradually realized, was an exact mirror of the evening’s performance – which, itself, was an enactment of the story being told by Tay’s piece of verbatim theatre. The performance brings the story told by Dusk to life; and with Dawn, director Kok Heng Leun – in one of the most meaningful theatrical gestures I have ever seen – then takes that story into the cemetery itself, returning the story of the attempts to save the cemetery (which had all taken place “outside”) back to the site, and back to Bukit Brown itself. Once I realized that this was what they were doing, I could not help but be terribly moved by it.
There were other aspects to the staging of Dawn and Dusk that I particularly enjoyed. In Dusk, the action took place on a stage floor that had been chalked with a map of the paths and roads of Bukit Brown. The device served as a metaphor on more than one level: it meant that the Battle for Bukit Brown was being fought, on one level at least, on the ground of Bukit Brown itself; but the more interesting effect came out of the fact that the map was drawn in chalk. As the actors walked over and moved across the stage, the chalk marks were gradually obliterated and erased so that by the end, much of the ground was simply a blurry mess – rather like the list of grave numbers and names that were projected on the screen at the end of the play. That list scrolled through the names slowly at first – and then more and more quickly until it blurred into what seemed like a solid wall made out of names and numbers. That same idea of creating a solid wall out of a blur of things was then rendered aural with music by The Observatory, a local experimental electronica band, who capped off the play with their trademark layers and textures of sound that gradually builds into a solid aural assault on the senses. It struck me as fitting that one of the adjectives I’ve heard being used to describe The Observatory’s sound has been “atmospheric” – and that is one word I would have used to describe the morning’s performance of Dawn as well. It was all about the atmosphere.
One final point I would make is about a song that is hummed (and at one point, gently sung) mostly during the Dawn performance but also on one occasion during Dusk as well. The song is an old Chinese song about visiting one’s grandmother (I cannot, for the life of me, remember its title) and for me at least, the song possessed that haunting edge of the half-familiar: I was certain I was familiar with the tune and the words but even when it was finally sung, I could not quite place or remember it. That haunting edge seemed a suitable feeling to have in a play that is as much about remembering and learning the importance of preserving our heritage. For as some of the civic group representatives featured in Dusk pointed out: many Singaporeans don’t even know about Bukit Brown – and some had, even in spite of the publicity accorded to it during the battle to preserve the site, only half-heard of it. But just as with an old song half-heard being hummed or played on the radio – once heard, it helps stimulate a yearning to know and a yearning to remember. And if there is one thing that It Won’t Be Very Long – The Cemetery does, it is to preserve in verbatim and theatrical form a piece of Singapore’s history and heritage that will hopefully continue to be remembered and to awaken Singaporeans’ interest in their past and their heritage for many years to come.
Director: Kok Heng Leun
Movement Director: Koh Wan Ching
Playwright: Jean Tay
Dramaturge: Charlene Rajendran
Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen
Set Designer: Wong Chee Wai
Musicians: The Observatory
Movement Performers: Chang Ting Wei, Chng Xin Xuan, Benedict Hew, Leong Jian Hao, Mohamad Al-Matin Bin Mohamad Yatim, Muhammad Yazid Bin Abdul Jalil
Verbatim Actors: Timothy Nga, Josephine Tan, Karen Tan