As Shakespeare notoriously wrote, “All the world’s a stage”. But as the world descends further into an endless abyss of its own madness, what once read as a melancholic lament, now couldn’t feel more real. News in the papers presents a world that is practically absurdist, and the telly lies to us – if anything, we’re all fools in a brutal universe. And no, there couldn’t have been a better stage on which to set Pangdemonium’s Dragonflies, a commissioned work for the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Four years into the future, the global socio-political situation is one of upheaval and civil unrest. Last year’s shocking Brexit vote, as it appears in our near imminence, has escalated into a full-blown crucifixion of immigrants in Britain, whilst rising temperatures bring torrential downpours of apocalyptical scale onto the human population. In the very epicentre of war, politics, and climate change’s devastating ravage, however, lies the most universal tale of love, loss, and family.
The first act opens with a funeral – the death of a wife – and in the face of insurmountable immigration restrictions, revised legislations (the ‘2020 Britain Homeowning Act”!), and pesky paperwork, this sufficiently dreadful situation plunges speedily into a downward spiral.
Compelled to abandon his home and life in England, Leslie Chen (Adrian Pang) finds himself back in his homeland of Singapore, albeit in a landscape that has transformed drastically. When forced to confront the xenophobic sentiments that plague not just this country but the world, he is brought to the painfully pointed question of home. Is it the walls we build between the “us” and “them”? Or is it the connections we draw amongst ourselves?
At its best, the play is a moving investigation of humanity: of kindness, generosity, and everything that keeps us afloat against the fashionable currents of nihilism. It celebrates relationships, regardless of whether these connections are established by blood or by choice, and it points us to a much-needed beacon of hope. As if it were an anthropology classroom, the story
As if it were an anthropology classroom, the story recognises that our survival as a species has always depended on our compassion for each other, and thus emphasizes the singularity of mankind as an entity. Arbitrary borders are broken down, and it is in these tender moments – when a matriarch looks upon her helper as a daughter-figure, and when a father takes a daughter who looks nothing like himself as his own – that audiences are moved to tears.
Yet, as much as Dragonflies seeks to foreground the family drama at the heart of its story, it simply cannot be divorced from the wider political context within which it is set. Unfortunately, it is here that the play stumbles at times. Given the magnitude of the themes it sets out to tackle in its 135-minute length, the multiplicity of narratives means that depth must be sacrificed. As the production moves quickly through its scenes, forgone nuances render each episode almost parodic. The result of such broad strokes taken in exploring the complicated issues of migration, class, and racial tensions is that the play feels, at its worst, like poorly written speculative fiction – didactic and utterly naïve.
Art is not life, and the play remains, first and foremost, one that concerns humanity – not politics. In its triumphant denouement, with a message not unreminiscent of Sartre’s famous aphorism, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”, Dragonflies calls for us to reach out to each other in desperate times of need. The world might have, as the play’s characters invariably remind us, “gone to shit”; and to cling on to diminishing slivers of hope might appear increasingly ludicrous. Still, as humanity had done for over 200,000 years, we survive, and we persist.
Dragonflies by Pangdemonium is running from 25 to 26 August 2017, 8pm daily, at the Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Pl, Singapore 179556, p. +65 6908 8810. For tickets and more information, visit the event page here.
Top photo courtesy of Crispian Chan