Dragonflies, by Pangdemonium

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 28, 2017

I think we’re all agreed that Dragonflies is a pretty fine work, and I’ve a feeling Pangdemonium will stage it beyond SIFA!

Nevertheless—fair warning!—this is going to be a SPOILER REVIEW, because I really wanna talk about the final scene of this play. If that makes you uncomfortable, tough. Check out the spoiler free writeups by the Straits Times or Bakchormeeboy instead.

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Image courtesy of Crispian Chan

First off, I’d like to address a teensy issue of kinda-maybe-sorta misleading advertising. We’ve been told that the story takes place in 2021, when Brexit, a second Trump term, climate change and terrorism have all formed a perfect dystopian storm. And it’s in this scenario that our everyman hero, Leslie Chen (Adrian Pang), is forced to move his family from the UK to his old home in Singapore.

The publicity image makes it look like he’s literally fleeing the country as a refugee, illegally crossing borders, climbing fences, maybe cast out to sea as a boat person.

But it turns out that’s supposed to be symbolic: Leslie is never actually brought so low. Which is more believable but a tiny bit disappointing—I kept on expecting a greater, more devastating descent into fourth-world hell, but it never came.

The plus side of this is that the narrative is a little more believable than otherwise. Leslie is introduced mourning the death of his British wife, Sandra (Victoria Mintey); due to new anti-immigration regulations he’s deported back to Singapore, where he’s able to stay in an apartment with his mother Margaret (Fanny Kee) and his sister Annabel (Tan Kheng Hua).

What complicates this is that he’s made a promise to his wife to care for their 17 year-old daughter Maxine Wilson (Selma Alkaff), but because he’s not her biological father, neither the governments of Singapore nor of the UK are willing to recognise their connection. They’re essentially torn between countries by Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with Leslie helplessly yelling at petty officials who have the duty to enforce these laws.

But there’s more to the crisis than just a family torn between nations. There’s the relentless, tribalistic, racist harassment each of them receives: Leslie in the UK when he has to take his mother to the NHS, Maxine in Singapore when she gets involved in activism for migrant workers. Nor are they the only victims: Leslie’s lawyer friend Clive (Daniel Jenkins) grumbles about African refugees in the UK; Annabel treats her Filipina domestic worker Agnes (Frances Lee) with condescension and the Bangladeshi builder Asif (Shrey Bhagarva) with revulsion. Margaret doesn’t even trust Maxine, viewing her as a non-blood relative rather than as a granddaughter. And a small riot breaks out at Tekka between Singaporeans and Bangladeshis, resulting in deaths and the attempted rape of certain characters…

Oh, and on top of all that, there’s relentless rain in London, culminating in a horrific flood and mudslide that destroys Leslie’s house before it’s been sold. And there’s a drought in Singapore, which is scarily normalized through people perfunctorily griping about water rationing. Across the world, there’s a haunting sense that the world as we know it is on its last legs.

(Tiny segue: ten years ago, SIFA commissioned a similar work set in a future Singapore. Checkpoint Theatre’s Cogito was cold and technocratically gloomy, but even it couldn’t fathom how bad things would look by the late 2010s. I miss yesterday’s dystopias.)

So in spite of the fact that Leslie’s central dilemma would be resolved by, I dunno, just being cool with his daughter staying in another country, the story is still really poignant and powerful. Oh, and I suppose it helps that Adrian Pang is “such a soulful luminous character”, as playwright Stephanie Street says. :)

Street’s writing is also interesting due to its foreignness: I got a huge whiff of the National Theatre when the play began, with its well drawn-out, upper middle-class educated characters arranged on the proscenium stage, attending a funerary oration and then progressing to a dinner where everyone speaks in turn, even when arguing.  

And I know I’m generalizing, but Singaporean plays don’t usually start off like that. We’re still eager to establish the earthiness and relatability of the characters through Singaporean vernacular English and broad stereotypes.

And you know what? That’s FINE. Both London and Singaporean theatre cultures have a right to assert their local flavours. Plus, once the story shifts to Singapore, and we’re having Deliveroo in Margaret’s house, we get that Singaporean flavour back, with multiple languages and inside references that only folks based here would get.

(A little segue here: SIFA advertised how this play would feature some Mandarin with surtitles. But in fact, we got Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay, Tagalog, Bengali, French and quite possibly another Indian language [Hindi? I dunno] with neither surtitling nor apology. And again that’s fine: when talking about the difficulty of migration and tribalism and borders, we can afford to demonstrate barriers of communication.)

I did have some reservations about the broad strokes of Singapore’s portrayal—the one-dimensional nature of the walk-on, walk-off racists in the Botanical Gardens and Tekka (I think both are portrayed by Thomas Pang?), the easy anti-racist moralizing involved in pointing out that the riot was started by Singaporeans. It felt like these were very obvious paths to take in liberal discourse.

Conversely, I appreciated the less obvious routes taken. For instance, Margaret’s unexpected bond with Agnes: a privileged old Chinese woman finding a connection with a maid from Cebu. Memories of anti-Catholic riots in old Malaya paralleling Duterte’s anti-drug mobs in the 21st century.

And this is why I liked the story’s ending so much. Street spoke of her decision to give us a bit of hope with the conclusion, but what we’ve got is something that’s utterly transformative. Leslie’s been wallowing in his own self-pity all this time, but when he thinks he’s lost everything, he suddenly makes a radical decision to become as noble an activist as his daughter.

The scene shifts to two years later: it’s 2023 in Calcutta, and father and daughter have chosen to stick together not in Singapore or in London, but in Calcutta, as workers for Doctors Without Borders. They’re in a refugee camp, helping victims of floods, and Maxine has—almost out of the blue—married Asif, and is pregnant with his child.

It’s a stunning message, utterly counter-intuitive to us materialistic Singaporeans. When you’re at your lowest, help others. When you’ve lost your privileges, gather up the last that you’ve got to ensure that others can at least survive. If your life is stolen, change your life.

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And it’s not an altogether optimistic ending: much of the action of this episode involves Ram, a man who faces terrible prejudice even amongst the refugees because he’s Northeast Indian and visibly different. (Quite believable: as a Chinese Singaporean, I’m sometimes mistaken for a Northeast Indian when I visit India. They face institutional oppression still.) The oppression he faces makes him violent—he tries to strangle Maxine at one point—but Leslie still tends to his wounds.

It’s a nice touch that Ram is played by Thomas Pang, who’s been an oppressor or instrument of the oppressive state in so many scenes in Singapore. There’s a bit of character bleeding going on: we connect his state to those of others more privileged, and realise he too is an everyman on the path of redemption.

And we end not merely with hope, but with a sense of purpose. If the world’s gone to hell, then it’s our mission to heal it. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the one thing we can do to save us from despair.

It’s interesting to contrast this work with other productions I’ve seen. Singapore theatre’s wrestled with issues of refugees and migrant work many times before. In 1986, the Third Stage did Esperanza; in 1997, TheatreWorks did Workhorse Afloat; in 1999, The Necessary Stage did The Exodus, in 2006, they did Mobile.

However, it’s worth noting that none of these theatre companies had a fan base as big and as broad as Pangdemonium. The company began by concentrating on performances of Broadway and West End smashes with Asian casts, and it’s only diversified this year into presenting original work.

Its first ever commissioned play, Joel Tan’s Tango, focussed on gay themes, but just like Dragonflies, it wrestled with issues of politics, class, third culture families and the small-mindedness of Singaporeans.

In other words, I think it’s arguable that it’s becoming more mainstream in Singapore to discuss these political issues through theatre arts. To ask troubling questions about ourselves and our connections to the broader world.

Given that it’s more mainstream, can we hope that our next Festival Director, Gaurav Kripalani, will commission similarly urgent productions in the future?

After all, if the world’s going to hell, we might as well get some good art out of it.

  • 2017