Dragonflies

by Stephanie Street
PANGDEMONIUM
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017: Enchantment
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

Things are not going well for anthropology lecturer Leslie Chen (Adrian Pang). His wife has just passed away, new immigration rules in post-Brexit Britain have made it impossible for a foreign national like himself to remain indefinitely or have rights over his property and his mother (Fanny Kee) has just met with an accident. Saddled by mounting bills and a whirl of misery, he has no choice but to return to his birth country of Singapore with his adoptive teenage daughter, Maxine (Selma Alkaff), in tow.

This original SIFA commission by PANGDEMONIUM, written by UK-based Singaporean playwright and actress Stephanie Street (last seen in SRT's Constellations), is a gripping tale of displacement that is, at once, epic and intimate. Set in a dystopian yet entirely plausible 2021, the planet battles social, political and geographical chaos. Floods and landslides ravage the UK, water is rationed in Singapore and, as countries clamp down on immigration in the face of an ever threatening other, racism has hit an all-time high.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

This is an ambivalent, intolerant world splintered by fierce tribalism. Leslie is yelled at by a bigoted woman at an English hospital and faces a litany of invasive questions about his financial status when he returns home. In Chinese-majority Singapore, migrants from the Indian subcontinent face discrimination and are the first to be blamed for theft or violence. In a grim parallel, we see that over in India, Chinese-looking people from the north-east of the country are equally reviled by their compatriots. 

Yet, the fledgling human spirit is best embodied by Maxine, a volunteer for asylum seekers and champion of the underprivileged. In Singapore, she shows kindness to both a Filipina maid and a Bangladeshi construction worker - fellow human beings with their own dreams and aspirations who, like her, have spread their wings to seek better lives in a foreign land.

Street has crafted a terrific, deeply empathetic script which underscores the fact that, in this climate, it's simply impossible to belong. Leslie goes through a frustrating interview with a flippant English solicitor who seems impervious to the life he has created in the country. This is mirrored by his experience with a callous immigration official in Singapore who pointedly remarks that he never replied to his national service call-up notices.

The short, punchy scenes balance wry humour with devastating jolts of emotion and the dialogue leaps off the page. Yet, after a strong start, the action tends to weaken as the narrative races through a couple of common local tropes: bickering family members, racial discrimination and slightly twee cultural observations. There seems to be a bit of an English play here that morphs at times into a colourful Singaporean drama complete with a dash of Hokkien. It makes the play feel slightly less organic, as if it's trying to be both coolly international and earnestly folksy.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Director Tracie Pang lets the script do its quiet magic and opts for a taut, minimalist staging where the scenes gently segue into each other. An orange tapestry collapses over a coffin to set the tone for a funeral and scenes play out on a central circular platform. Even without an intermission, the narrative is taut and crisp. Echoing the grim aesthetic, set designer Wai Yin Kwok creates a mesmerising curtain of rain that perpetually falls over the UK, a country quite literally dampened to the core of its soul. 

There are also spectacular performances across the board from the cast comprising fresh faces and seasoned performers. The two standouts are Alkaff (last seen in PANGDEMONIUM's Circle Mirror Transformation) who is a striking, magnetic presence as the daughter who cares deeply for her father and the people around her and Shrey Bhargava (in his professional stage debut) as an affable migrant worker who proves to be far more than his race or accent - a truly three-dimensional character that we end up rooting for.

Equally impressive are Thomas Pang, Tan Kheng Hua and Frances Lee who impressively play characters of different nationalities and accents with panache. Veteran actor Adrian Pang anchors the production as Leslie, the everyman who finds his life collapsing around him and tries, against all odds, to simply survive. As someone who has lived for years in the UK before returning to Singapore to carve out a rich and successful career, there is no doubt that his performance comes from a deeply authentic place.

There are any number of plays that examine cultural and economic dislocation but Dragonflies embodies this from a truly international perspective, making it a play that would instantly speak to audiences anywhere in the world. It's terrific to welcome such a fantastic script to our local canon and I would love to see PANGDEMONIUM take this to a theatre in London or New York, proudly waving the Singaporean banner abroad. 

Depressing and hard-hitting as the action may be, we emerge with a picture of warmth and new beginnings, suggesting that there may be hope for this broken world yet. Like dragonflies which traverse continents to seek sustenance, human beings sometimes have to travel to unfamiliar lands, flapping our wings in a desperate attempt to survive. And sometimes, just sometimes, that effort pays off.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

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