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All Our Yesterdays

by Cheng Nien Yuan

What does the morrow mean to you?

It means a great deal to Singapore and Singaporeans, as Janadas Devan pointed out 30 years ago when he wrote his reflections on our nation’s precarious beginnings:

Because the story of our origin cannot be invested with glory, we can never look back to a founding moment as such. It can never be spoken of in the past tense. It exists, rather, in that strangest tense of all, the future anterior. This imagines the future as though it were already now. From the beginning, Singapore as always existed in the future-present.

The future-present is a defining characteristic of Singaporean rhetoric, beginning with Lee Kuan Yew’s famous “moment of anguish”, when he prophetically invoked the future in an act of retrospection in 1965: “every time we look back on this moment…” We keep an eye on the past only so that we can continue moving forward, like anxious soldiers watching our six. As it happens, the work-in-progress showings that I saw in SIFA 2024’s Tomorrow and tomorrow all perform this anxiety in different ways.

The Macbeth soliloquy that was the inspiration for the title of this event is likewise a moment of anguish, a nihilistic reaction to Lady Macbeth’s suicide. The scene as a whole is a study in how our past traumas condition us in deeply embodied ways, with the embittered King forgetting the taste of his fear, for he has “supped full of horrors”. But tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow waits for no one. What does it mean to trudge along this petty pace, bringing with us the weight of all our yesterdays? What does our body remember in this journey?

Performer Chng Xin Xuan goes through the motions of all our yesterdays and tomorrows in Work In Progress by Drama Box: waking up, brushing our teeth, swaying on the train, typing on the computer, going home, lying down, waking, brushing, swaying, typing, going, lying, waking, brushing, swaying, typing, going, lying…ad nauseum. These are the routines we have inherited as we enter the era of Worker 4.0, a concept (or fantasy) of the perfect future-ready/proof/resilient worker. The show rightly asks: what happened to Worker 1.0, 2.0, 3.0? I can’t help but recall The Next Lap, a national agenda that was initiated in 1991. “The pursuit of knowledge doesn’t come with a finishing line,” stated a tagline of this campaign. Instead, ‘the end’ is endlessly deferred to another tomorrow.

Inch Chua and her Singapore Theatre Company showing Myles: The Perfect Soulmate embodies ‘Artist 4.0’ as she demonstrates the model attitude towards using generative AI to make art. In her pseudo-interview with Joshua Lim after the show, Chua echoes many an appropriate aphorism, slogans of the 21st century, some of which are paraphrased below:

“Technology is only a reflection of humanity!”
“We need to embrace AI or else we’ll be left behind!”
“Southeast Asia is the future!”

Despite this third statement, Myles (the AI boyfriend she developed) is an amalgamation of mostly white people. We get to hear a song that he wrote, his Keanu Reeves-Carl Sagan-Hugo Weaving voice crooning a Bossa Nova-inflected ditty on the perils of capitalism. My fingers are crossed so hard that all this was actually satire.

While the trauma from past relationships (another manifestation of all our yesterdays) prompts Chua’s character to turn to algorithms for answers, the response to trauma in The Necessary Stage’s ANAK is more about acceptance. All the characters in ANAK have been hurt somehow, regardless of their status as matriarch or mother, husband or child. The play deals with questions about how we carry these intergenerational hurts. Those who are closest to us pain us most; can we choose to forgive them even though we know that change is unlikely, or do we cut the cord?

The dinner-table realism in ANAK gives way to a different kind of domesticity (or domiciliation) in Nine Years Theatre’s Waiting For Audience 《等待观众》. Set in a crumbling, soon-to-be demolished theatre, two Beckettian tramps (named O and A, perfect Mandarin pun material) jostle for rehearsal and performance space when they realise that an unscrupulous landlord has leased the same theatre twice. Waiting For Audience is a delightful romp full of clever Chinese wordplay that unfortunately gets lost in translation, something the show is aware of by making the surtitles a character in themselves.

The show also makes some clear references to the erstwhile Substation and the Arts Housing Scheme despite the adamant disclaimer that no, it is not set in Singapore. When O and A find out that the theatre has been saved from demolition, only to be converted into a trendy bar with live music, they stare at the audience in disbelief and horror. The lights cut out, and then we hear the faint bass thumps of a pumping music venue as the show ends. The Singaporean audience members probably know this story all too well to be shocked at such an ending. Still, it was nice to hear that sound again, taking me back to that little black box in Armenian Street all those years ago (IYKYK).

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that all roads lead to Kuo Pao Kun, the founder of The Substation, when it comes to theatre in Singapore. In Performing The Director’s Notes: All The World’s A Sea by The Theatre Practice, we catch privileged and moving glimpses of the late playwright and director as a loving father and mentor to his daughter Kuo Jian Hong. As she prepares for her upcoming production All The World’s A Sea, Jian Hong realises she’s inadvertently having a conversation with her father and his 1995 play Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral. In a way, all work after Descendants can be characterised as such. This seminal work puts forth Kuo Pao Kun’s now-famous assertion of our status as cultural orphans. His view that displacement is the fundamental crisis of our time is still relevant in this globalised world of ours that is decidedly not flat.

It was thus serendipitous that I caught Nabilah Said’s Territori (by Teater Ekamatra) right after Performing The Director’s Notes, as the play is a beautiful counterpoint to Descendants. Territori shows us it is possible to be displaced even in situ. The complex history of Christmas Island – somehow an Australian territory despite being much closer to Java – is effectively told through the personal dynamics between the play’s characters, who range from a Singaporean Malay woman visiting the island as a UNESCO representative to makciks living in Perth who can’t help but be nostalgic about their ‘island home’. Territori reminds us that societies often remember by forgetting; these ‘world heritage’ initiatives tend to be exercises in erasure despite their lofty aims.

Tomorrow and tomorrow is not an exercise in forgetting. These six performances all, in their own ways, unearthed fragments of the yesterdays that I hadn’t thought about for a long time: rinsing the black oil from my skin after swimming at East Coast Park; stilted conversations with my father; the first time I discovered liquid paper. It is fortunate that many of these work-in-progress showings have a future, and equally fortunate that we could witness a glimpse of this tomorrow, today.

31 May 2024, Fri | 9.15PM

1 June 2024, Sat | 7.15PM
17 - 19 May 2024, Fri - Sun

31 May & 1 June 2024, Fri & Sat
17 May 2024, Fri | 9.30PM

18 May 2024, Sat | 6PM
18 May 2024, Sat | 4PM

19 May 2024, Sun | 5PM
18 May 2024, Sat | 8.30PM

19 May 2024, Sun | 6.15PM
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