I still remember the first thing I learned in history class was that, history is written by humans. This has constantly been reminding me that history does not equate to past events; it is not a complete and objective representation of what happened in the past. In most cases, history is exclusively recorded and illustrated by people who hold the right to pen the transcript. We can either read it for interest or interpret it with intelligence. Sometimes we can re-interpret it with creativity and imagination too.
The Finger Players presented history through the art of theatre in Rant & Rave. Historical facts were not organised by time or relevant parties, but by themes connected to the development of the theatre scene in Singapore. Artists, audience, government officials, media and reviewers in the past were brought to life, and their published quotes were delivered in a series of made-to-believe forums. Switching between characters in split seconds, the cast – Janice Koh and Karen Tan – imitated these personalities and discussed the arts and their relationships with identity, the state and the media on these forums. Director and playwright, Chong Tze Chien, brilliantly strung together cluttered fragments of events of over 30 years, and put together an energetic and captivating confluence of facts and emotions. The play is clearly a convenient entrée into the history of our rich and vibrant theatre scene, as well as our pioneer generation’s struggles and achievements.
In this dramatic presentation of history, Chong seemed determined to preserve the objectivity of the materials he gathered. Conveyed through the actors’ speech and projection on the background, an enormous amount of content was equitably imparted to the audience in this play of just 75 minutes long. While the audience enjoyed the liberty of picking their favourite moments, they were easily spoilt for choice. Some might have just started to get the hang of the plot. As they were rushed from one event to the next, they might have missed the meanings behind the messages. Many quotes and comments, especially those by the theatre heavyweights, deserved longer moments of pondering for greater enlightenment and wiser judgement of the audience.
I wonder what alternatives the dramatists have when dealing with history in theatre. What are the advantages of the theatre’s nature in the realm of historical topics? Even when the facts are important, how far can theatre go to uphold their objectivity? If the intention is to prompt thinking in the audience, how should theatre equip them with sufficient information that is accurate, as well as provide proper guidance for their consideration and judgement?
Rant & Rave is part of Esplanade’s The Studios series. It ran from 1 to 4 May 2014 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.