Square Moon not a full moon

498

By  Ng Yi-Sheng

Another  day, another Mas Selamat satire… But really, this show comes with its own  baggage. It’s a play about political detention written by an actual former  political detainee, Wong Souk Yee, and it’s inspired by the trials not only of  Singapore’s favourite JI terrorist but also of other victims of Operation  Spectrum, the PAP’s round-up of Catholic volunteers  on the grounds of a suspected Marxist conspiracy in 1987.

Set in an  imaginary authoritarian state, Square Moon tells the story of Christina Hu  (Zelda Tatiana Ng), a human rights lawyer representing the suspected terrorist  Golden Hartono. When her client escapes from prison, a hullabaloo ensues,  as a result of which Hu is detained and tortured. During her incarceration, she  strikes up a friendship with a fellow detainee: the idealistic opposition  politician River Yang (Lim Kay Siu).

There’s real chemistry between  Ng and Lim, and the initial scenes depicting their suffering are genuinely  harrowing. However, the displays of physical torture are so lengthy and graphic  that one might even call them gratuitous (there’s real ice water being thrown on  Ng!) – though one hesitates to use the word, given that actual torture has been  documented in Singapore’s detention centres. What’s more problematic are  the puns, the heavy-handed references to current events and the ham-fisted  portrayal of government officers as cartoon villains. These are cheap laughs,  and they reduce the impact of the absurdist farce.

The play’s second  half, however, is of gold standard. It not only exposes the inhumanity of our  Internal Security Act, but questions whether it can ever change, given its  usefulness to whichever party’s in power. When River Yang’s party defeats  the incumbents, he is set free, and promises Hu that he’ll have her released –  and yet fails to do so over the course of 10 years, despite increasing popular  support for her liberation. Featuring substantial portions of devised dialogue,  this section of the play has a distinctly more realist tone to it, evidence of a  welcome note of maturity in this political satire – it pits realpolitik against  integrity, with no obvious villains, so that even as a chorus sings “We Shall  Overcome” in the distance, there is no utopian future in sight.

I’ve  qualms about the way death metal music and S&M gear are incorporated into  the presentation of this play, but otherwise I’m a fan of Peter Sau’s  directorial vision – there’s a grandness, a surrealness and a physicality to the  story that could have been lacking in many another interpretations. Wong Chee  Wai’s set design, featuring a mirrored floor, divided into a grid, was  especially evocative.

I’d also like to note the success of a supporting  character, a campy Malay transwoman prison officer, played by Erwin Shah Ismail,  who sympathises with the detainees and grants them favours despite her continued  compliance with the abusive system. Initially played for laughs, this  halfway-moral, in-between figure is ultimately the character who most resembles  ourselves – we, who believe ourselves to be good people, and who rebel in little  ways against the system, though we are ultimately complicit.

There’s a  whole other drama regarding the struggle to even have this play staged – see  this article for a summary: http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/square-moon-swallowed-by-public-tax-monster/

The article appeared first on http://www.inkpotreviews.com