Review Details: 31st March 2017; Matinee Performance
Venue: ITE College Central
Kindly note that the production under review consists of a swing group; different cast members make up each performance. Hence, this piece does not specifically evaluate any cast or direction, but rather, serves as an overall analysis of the staging.
It’s often difficult to bring to light something that is hidden in plain sight, but Singapore Management University’s post-modern theatre students’ restaging of Charged – in collaboration with students from the Institute of Technical Education (College Central) and Republic Polytechnic – does just that.
Picture by Karan Gurnani
Charged is in many ways Chong Tze Chien’s masterstroke. Built upon the success of his seminal works such as PIE and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Charged tells the tragic story of Corporal Russell Lim. Set in the milieu of an Army camp, Corporal Russell’s seemingly senseless murder-suicide of his Malay comrade, Corporal Hakim, thrusts audiences into a thrilling ‘howdunit’ contrived in true Rashomon-esque fashion. As chief investigation officer Victor De Souza delves into one fragmented reality to the next through the unreliable recounts of soldiers Imran, Ramesh, and Zubir, the underlying racial tension that often permeates through our society takes centre-stage. Throw in the involvement of the state and religious leaders during the parental grieving process, and you’ve got a vilifying commentary on the unspoken truisms that plague our nation.
The production consisted of swing cast members, making it difficult to wholly commend them, but some notable performances did stand out. Galvin Wee’s depiction of Hakim was believable to a fault, capturing the anger and frustration of his character well; however, he fell short of nuancing his performance just enough to make audiences empathise with Hakim – a small but crucial facet of the characterisation. Both Shreya Doshi (Imran) and Matthew Yuhico (Zubir) managed to endear audiences with their engaging and entertaining character portrayals, bolstering the performance of the protagonists. Matthew surprisingly broke the fourth wall multiple times, seemingly in a desperate attempt to convince audiences of their collective folly. Their common flaw, if at all, would be that they occasionally stole the lime-light from other cast members due to their high-energy acting. Interestingly, Tarun Satyakumar and Charlene Chong both play Victor, providing comparisons across their depictions. Both actors excelled in their roles, encapsulating everything from Victor’s cool exterior, to the clear articulation that is often a hallmark of Eurasians. However, despite true-to-life performances by both, particular laud should be reserved for Charlene; she not only transcended gender and ethnicity in her role, but also commanded the same respect that audiences would expect from a high ranking official.
Picture by Karan Gurnani
Costume and sound design by students from Republic Polytechnic displayed finesse, adding a dimension of realism to the production – a feat given its shoestring budget. Genuine old Army uniforms costumed the characters, providing temporal context to the play. Uncommon for a theatre production, the sound design backboned the plot; the aural soundscape provided an anchor for audiences to latch on to and keep in cadence with the constantly shifting scenes, only being marred by the occasional auditory slip-up. Following the premise of the sound design was the lighting design from students of the Institute of Technical Education. Different lighting setups and prompt blackouts lent itself to the dynamics and mood of the performance. The talented students also designed props such as the “Sungei Gedong Camp” sign, which was so accurate, that male members of the audience would have experienced uninvited flashbacks to their National Service days.
This restaging of Charged – under the clear direction of Juvina Ratnam (Team A) and Melissa Selvakumar (Team B) – also introduced novelties unseen in previous versions. Though initially confusing, the cocktail mix of females playing male leads, and Chinese actors playing Malay ones, contributed cunningly to the play. Such casting forced the audience to dispel their stereotypical notions of gender and race and instead, focus on the message at hand. More strikingly however, was the underscored dissection of parent-child relationships. Likely the result of the cast’s younger age, the dichotomous relationship between the two mothers and their sons was more effectively brought across, allowing it to stand out as a distinct issue rather than being overshadowed by the more obvious racial overture. The production, good as it was, was not without its own failures though. The profanities used in the dialogue at times felt forced and unnatural, while the musical introduction and humorous jabs at the ‘Singaporean condition’ also added an air of lightness to the play. Together, these factors took away from the serious message it was aimed to deliver.
Picture by Karan Gurnani
Overall, Charged was a joy to watch. The logistics that a collaborative institutional project of this size requires, and the challenge of working with cast and crew with little professional theatre experience poses, make it a creative marvel. In the words of Dr. Margaret Chan, the supervising director, producer, and a pioneering thespian herself, “This may not be the best show you have ever seen, but…it is the best show [being] produced”. Its content, though at times uncomfortable and shocking for audiences, brings across a poignant point: racial and religious tolerance is conceivably the greatest misnomer in existence within the Singaporean ethos.
Perhaps it is time we introspectively question if we, just like Zubir, have Hakim’s and Russell’s blood on our hands. Perhaps it is time we acknowledge that we too, erroneously hold on to prejudices privately. Perhaps it is time we move away from tolerance, towards acceptance.