For a couple of years running, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival has landed itself in the hot seat for netizen-fueled controversy. Last year, it had to deal with accusations about erasure of the queer community, after pulling a specific film screening from its programme; the year before, outraged Facebook warriors alleging the line-up was bordering on pornographic.
This year, the festival seems miraculously free from drama. Returning Jan 16-27, the 15th edition of the event (titled Still Waters) will tread the shaky ground between estrangement and reconciliation. The original artwork around which the theme is centered was a 1997 site-responsive performance of the same name, by Suzann Victor at the Singapore Art Museum—a glass wall was fitted within a drain around the building, and dams were installed and purposefully filled with water; the space filling with water was a subversion of the original purpose of the drain, highlighting instead of concealing the “unwanted” water. More prominently, the piece was performed during the ban on performance arts from 1994 to 2004—and one of the pioneering few to tackle the problematic issue of government art funding.
At the return of the festival, you’ll be able to catch artistic responses to Still Waters from Singapore and international artists. Sure it may seem more bang for your buck to catch the international artists while they’re here in town, but the local commissions address uniquely Singaporean histories in ways no travelling playmaker can. We rounded them up so you’ll know how to spend your dollar wisely.
Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore (Jan 17-20)
Have you ever even vaguely known about the untold Black history of colonial-era Singapore? This all-new commission explores the history and influence of the African diaspora in Singapore, in a lecture performance by British Afro-Caribbean actress Sharon Frese, and local names Ng Yi-Sheng and Irfan Kasban. Ayer Hitam (or ‘black water’ in Malay) will share images and documents relating to the slavery, colonialism, jazz intrigue, and nationalist struggle of the black men and women who crossed our waters then; addressing the unwitting erasure of a community that still does not fit into our racialised CMIO approach to the past. $27 at Black Box, Centre 42
Kaspar (Jan 17-20)
Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s Kaspar (1967) was a full-length drama loosely based on the curious story of Kaspar Hauser, a German youth who emerged in civilisation one day claiming he had grown up in total isolation in a darkened cell. The play itself unravels language in a world, ours, that regulates action and thought, exploring themes of conformity, language, and its ability to torture. For Still Waters, it investigates the tension between the individual and society, and how control and estrangement affects the institutionalised mind. Theatre-maker Edith Podesta is pretty much ours to call now; she’ll be directing an ensemble cast of graduates from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in this daring world premiere. $27 at NAFA Studio Theatre
yesterday it rained salt (Jan 19)
The first in the festival’s Fresh Fringe segment (developing young theatre-makers), yesterday it rained salt by Bhumi Collective combines text, dance and performance to explore memory, and the violence of departure and return. Azman returns to his island home to be greeted by unfamiliar new sights and vanishing landmarks; the rain brings him closer to his diminishing memories and the male figures in his family—once fishermen who lived their lives in accordance to the ocean’s whimsy—in a story of unshakeable bonds. $15 at Esplanade Annexe Studio
The Adventures of Abhijeet (Jan 20)
Lighter in tone (or so it seems), youth collective Patch and Punnet’s 60-minute play surfaces the struggles of the local migrant worker community—who, crucial but rejected, seem to exist in their own liminal space here. Abhijeet toils in “Singaland” to earn money for his dying daughter back home, but his hard work is disrupted when he gets into an accident. Then he meets fellow vagabond Gloria, and together they set off to find a mythical dragon said to grant their every wish, sparking conversation on identity and equality along the way. $15 at Esplanade Annexe Studio
Angkat: A Definitive, Alternative, Reclaimed Narrative of a Native (Jan 24-26)
Developed at Centre 42, this mouthful of a play mashes pop culture and Malay folk stories, in telling the intertwining histories of a mother and daughter during the rocky rise of young Singapore. Salma, an aspiring singer and adopted child, struggles with identity on a national stage; while former islander Mak has to cope with the loss of her home from the mainland. Expertly pieced together by playwright Nabilah Said and director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the play explores themes of birth and adoption—a pointed nod towards the life-giving properties of water. Its world premiere during the Bicentennial is particularly crucial; amid re-evaluating attitudes towards our colonial history, the textured tale is an attempt to let the Singapore natives, the Malays, reclaim their version of the Singapore story. $27 at NAFA Studio Theatre
precise purpose of being broken (Jan 24-26)
Haresh Sharma’s collage of texts gets a breath of new life with this adaptation directed by Koh Wan Ching. The multi-lingual works feature characters on a spectrum of experiences and states of mind, performed by an all-female ensemble cast who wash themselves in water and find the strength in them to reflect on their journeys; together, they negotiate the instabilities of identity, language and place. Originally presented as a work-in-progress for Esplanade’s The Studios series in 2017, this specific presentation is ready for its sophomore run after months of workshopping. $27 at Esplanade Annexe Studio
Catamite (Jan 25-27)
For those who like their theatre interactive, Loo Zihan’s one-man show is an intimate interactive piece that’s part artist lecture, part participatory dialogue. In this Loo shares his experiences of staging his installation Queer Objects: An Archive for the Future back in 2016. The project, a hypothetical creation of an archive within an institutional setting deliberately seeking to be “queer”, works as a parallel to Victor’s working within and without the confines of an institution in Still Waters, according to Loo. An extremely limited 20 seats are available per show, so get booking. $27 at Black Box, Centre 42
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019 takes place Jan 16-27 at various locations. The full line-up and tickets available here.