Drama Box
The Studios, The Esplanade, Singapore

Afar Credit: Delvin Lee
Afar Credit: Delvin Lee

After my move from London to Singapore just over two weeks ago, I made my first visits to the theatres of this amazing multicultural metropolis.

The obvious destination for any theatregoers in Singapore is, without a doubt, The Esplanade, an impressive theatre complex on the enchanting Marina Bay at the heart of the city centre.

This summer, this relatively new venue is celebrating its tenth anniversary and has involved the most exciting Singaporean theatre companies for a second season of The Studios, titled eXchanges.

Running since early July, the focus of this season is "a quest for truth", "what is life all about", writes Beson Puah, Esplanade CEO, announcing the season. All shows are staged in the impressive black-box studio theatre.

Already heading towards the end of the season, I managed to catch two of the shows, the first being Crossings, a multimedia show by The Necessary Stage (Singapore) and TRAFIK (Croatia), and Afar by Drama Box, Singapore’s most experimental Mandarin theatre company.

Afar, performed in Mandarin with English subtitles, by upcoming local talent Lee Shy Jih and directed by established director Jayne Han, presents the journey of five characters, four women and a man, in their quest to remember their past, to grasp reality, to reach happiness.

There are clear influences from Western theatre—Beckett’s Waiting For Godot—and closer to home from Bus-stop by Chinese veteran and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian.

Like Beckett’s play, the characters are waiting for some sort of revelation, in this case for some rain to fall, trying to remember when it was last time that rained; stylistically speaking, like in Beckett’s play, there are many nonsensical phrases that the characters repeat in a loop and in a bit of frenzy.

Like Gao’s play that coincidentally was inspired by Beckett’s, a recurrent image from the words the characters is a bus stop and the characters' indefinite waiting.

Whether the writer had in mind these two plays is hard to say but the scrpt has strong and clear modernistic undertones: the search for a truth though memory, dreams and the eternal question between life and death—are we alive? or are already dead?

At a first impression, this does not seem to tell us anything new about the human condition and the story risks to become a bit of a modernist cliché.

However, as it develops and the characters come out with their own stories, their own version of this modernistic quest, the writing regains its potential to tell us about a contemporary reality of displacement, that of our global alienating society, perhaps also of a Singaporean society.

The poetry and the imagery are beautiful and touching in their Chinese musicality. It is also a show of great physicality, with some physical, carefully-choreographed sequences. The set benefits from an ingenious simplicity. The stage in traverse is simply filled with white balloons, linked together and kept on the ground by chunks of ice. The characters in the physical sequences outbursts of emotion gradually break the ice, letting the balloons float towards the ceiling.

Like in many shows that I have seen in East Asia and like the previous show I have seen from this season, there is a great emphasis on visual and auditory effects and technical sophistication. A few times—too many perhaps—the stage and the auditorium shake to the simulation of strong explosions, and there is definitely a liking for the succession of strong lights and blackouts.

This, combined with Han’s direction, lifts the writing well, makes it entertaining and smoothes down its heaviness. There are also some good performances, especially by Karen Tan in her role of outsider and possibly the maker of the other's dream.

This is not only a watchable show but also, in a positive sense, a challenging one.

My impression so far is that Singaporean independent yet well-established theatre companies like the Necessary Stage and Drama Box—that are also government funded—are quite happy to work with non-naturalist theatre and, in this case, to reconnect to a modernist tradition that in Britain has been a bit left out. And, given the packed auditorium, there is definitely an audience for it here.

For more info about the season visit

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli

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