Daring theatre

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 12:00am

The local theatre troupes have often been the ones pushing the social envelope here, and although many are still complaining about their lack of artistic freedom, constrained by censorship rules, things are definitely changing.

In the last two weeks, two plays about homosexuality have been put on as part of the gay-themed Nation Arts Programme - a restaging of last year's successful Mardi Gras and its new spinoff Top or Bottom. This week, a new play, Mergers & Wills, whose main character is a lesbian lawyer, will start its run in Mandarin. Mandarin? I do wonder who it has been targeted at. Still, this hive of 'militant' theatrical activity is enough to make one pause for reflection: are things really opening up, or is it just a facade?

Certainly, these plays would never have been staged three years ago. The Necessary Stage's production of Mardi Gras, about a group of gay friends trying to organise a Gay Parade on Singapore's Padang, examined the issues faced by the Singaporean gay community as a whole. With a range of gay stereotypes (from the drama queen to the thoughtful intellectual), there were plenty of laughs and digs at the authorities, as well as passionate gay kisses. This year's run was even a little more daring than last year's, with one of the lead characters showing his buttocks through saucy underwear, while the play ended with a new message along the lines of 'we are the world - give us a chance'.

Meanwhile, its sequel, Top or Bottom, looked at the problems faced by the gay individual, including the pressures from religion with a more reflective, thought-provoking script. In both cases, the plays described the lifestyle of the gay community, something the government has always been keen not to promote.

But if the debate is more liberal within the buffer zone of a small theatre's walls, life on the outside remains closeted. 'We certainly have more breathing space,' one gay man said. 'There are lots of new gay clubs and saunas. Yes, things are changing, but very slowly; it's still very much a 'don't ask, don't tell' situation.'

People Like Us, a gay activist group, has been trying to register as a society under Singapore law for nearly seven years. Despite changes to make it easier for societies to register, the group was still turned down, because its purpose was 'prejudicial to public peace, welfare and good order'.

'Yes, the government makes small changes,' said one gay activist. 'It gives from one hand but takes back with the other; you always have to look at the small print.'

Still, the fact that a debate is now taking place, even if it is only on small stages, proves that some progress is being made.