Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Play Review: Square Moon - A Moon That Struggles to Illuminate

Square Moon is a play that narrates a series of cover-ups by the fictional Homeland Security Department after a terrorist, Golden Hartono, escapes, and Hartono's lawyer, Kristina Hu, is unlawfully detained without trial. Hu develops feelings for a fellow detainee, River Yang, who is an opposition politician that subsequently gains political office. When in office, the hopes of Hu being released are dashed as Yang did not abolish the Homeland Security Act.

If the audience were expecting a multi-dimensional, satirical, and intense reflection of the Internal Security Act and the issues surrounding detention without trial juxtaposed against how it infringes upon individual liberties, they would be disappointed as I was.

As it turned out, the play Square Moon does little to merit the 26 years that former Marxist detainee, Wong Souk Yee, has kept her silence on the theater stage. Fans would no doubt call it advocacy theater where Wong's political bias was laid bare throughout the play, from the power hungry and nefarious royal family (read Lee family) to the evil and dimwitted intelligence officers of the Homeland Security Department (read ISD).

Critics would, however, argue that the characters were under-developed, with the dichotomy between good and evil, weak and powerful, so clearly separated that there was almost no room for moral maneuvering and meaningful debate. The ending was as predictable as a Stallone action film and a far cry from The Live of the Others (a superb film about Stasi spying in defunct East Germany). Still, it should be applauded that former ISA detainees have found the courage and outlet again to participate in the arts and public life.

Part 1

The play opens by bringing the audience straight into the theme of torture with the prison guards and directors of the HSD dressed in BDSM-inspired leather bondage gear (but not to worry, there is no actual beating involved). Kristina Hu and River Yang, played by Zelda Tatiana Ng and Lim Kay Siu respectively, are seen cowering under the power that their captors have over them. The captors are kept in line by Neo Swee Lin, who acts as the evil but pious “Madame Minister”, daughter of the reigning political party, desperately hanging on to power.

The opening act is the weakest part of the play as Wong Souk Yee's script and Peter Sau's direction hardly gels together. The BDSM theme and Catholic imagery appears awkward and coerced, as torture of the inmates are portrayed blatantly (perhaps needlessly) when instead “torture” would be better understood as a more subtle form of psychological warfare; of threats, fears against one's principled beliefs in democracy and freedom. Here, the playwright could have added a layer of sophistication by delving further into the decision-making process of the Homeland Security Department officers and the minister, rather than the simplistic portrayal of them as unsophisticated evil-doers.

The highlight in this first part was played by Erwin Shah Ismail, who as a prison guard and political fence sitter, helped Hu and Yang to deliver their written notes and feelings. The point of casting Erwin Shah as a cross-dresser is lost on me, or perhaps that was just to show his identity crisis as a Liberal-Socialist sympathiser. It is also a pity that his role as a political fence-sitter was not further developed.

Part 2

The second part of the play is much better, but still doesn't escape the simplistic binary tale of good and evil, lacking humanisation and dilemmas. Surely, if the Homeland Security Department and Homeland Security Act were so cruel and evil as portrayed by Wong, they would have been removed by the general populace already? So, for the sake of analysis, if they have survived for such a long time, it is a pity that the writer did not grasp the opportunity to illuminate the tensions between the politics of majority against the rights of individual liberty. It was also a missed opportunity to contrast how the ISA was used somewhat unpopularly in the 70s and 80s, with its less controversial use in the recent decade against radical Islamic terrorists, who were accused of plotting to cause mass destruction.

The climax of the second part of the play is when Yang gains political power and it becomes apparent that, despite being imprisoned by the Homeland Security Act himself, the Liberal-Socialist sinks familiarly back into self-preservation as the Act is not repealed. The Director of Homeland Security Department, along with everyone else, ingratiates themselves to Yang and more prisons are built. Nothing seems to have changed, as those in power can only think of ways to stay in power, just as Yang urges Hu to compromise for a just and strong nation. Hu rebuffs Yang's attempts to make her sign a confession saying that she was a “terrorist” and remains as a detainee.


In all, the play spoke plainly from the voices of the former 1987 detainees, Wong Souk Yee and collaborator, Chng Suan Tze, who must have felt injustices after being detained without an open trial; hence the constant theme of evil and power vs good and weak in their play. We and many Singaporeans know of their hardship and it is only for the better that they put out their art for the public's benefit and debate.

What was missing was from this artistic display was an analysis of the issues surrounding detention without trial. Should individual liberties be at any time suspended because of security concerns? And to what extent? In what sort of situations? Who are these people who carry out these draconian laws? Are they humans or plain villains? Why hasn't the general Singapore populace called for a repeal of the ISA?

26 years later, it seems the same Square Moon is equally capable of illuminating as well as casting a shadow.

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