From their latest home in an abandoned call-centre in the shadows of a Citylink skylane – the as yet un-gentrified heart of North Melbourne – the Young Turks at MKA are staging a seductive production of Singaporean playwright Alfian bin Sa'at's sex.violence.blood.gore.
It's a satire in five exuberant parts which tears into Singapore's famously staid cultural life, describing a return of the long-repressed themes of sex and violence.
Sa'at's writing has a bouncy, rat-tat-tat rhythm, something like the bustling camp of New York's late Harry Kondoleon, diverted via Moliere, but also has a peculiarly lush poetic sensibility all of its own. Director Stephen Nicolazzo picks up on this sensuality and, together with designers Eugyeene Teh (set and costume), Yasmin Santoso (lighting) and Claudio Tocco (sound), dresses this production as a kind of oneiric bordello, with garish pink lighting, a tilting proscenium arch that recalls Christine O’Loughlin's "Cultural Rubble", and plenty of bondage-themed costuming.
Decadent, however, isn't necessarily the word for it. The bare walls and low ceilings – not to mention the theatre's obscure location – recall also the secretive basement premiere of the play, way back in Singapore, 1999, and thus the political and cultural context out of which it emerges.
Viewing this play from Melbourne, surely on the outermost ring of Asia, is like opening a window onto the heart of the region. So many of the issues confronted here feel powerfully applicable to our own city. The first scene, on Singapore's hidden geography, the word-of-mouth places where carnal urges are furtively exposed, speaks provocatively to our own cultural Puritanism, especially as censoriously applied to the arts. In part two, the colonial root of Singaporean decorum is usefully lampooned, while part three, in which two lovers are interrupted by desperate Japanese soldiers on the eve of the Japanese retreat, World War Two, raises questions about the transactions of violence and cruelty as between the occupiers and the occupied. Part four, where two teens meet a pair of transvestites on an MRT train, could well have happened on the Sunbury or Pakenham lines.
Sa'at's act of dramatic psychoanalysis culminates in a cheeky monologue merging former prime minister-cum-autocrat Lee Kuan Yew, one of the principal agents of cultural repression in Singapore, with Annabel Chong, Singaporean ex-pat and the star of what was billed at the time as the "World's Biggest Gang Bang". Lee was, and still is, one of the world's great litigants, famously using the courts to bankrupt his critics through relentless defamation suits, and there's a palpably anarchic sense of joy as Sa'at's "Annabel Lee" describes how she rose to the top of the porn game through a series of law suits. No wonder the Singaporean authorities insisted that the playwright bowdlerize his own work before its premiere.
The cast of seven is skilfully rotated through a variety of roles, some caricatures, others with deeper aspects. Catherine Davies is spectacular as Annabel Chong and as a flustered colonial fantasist, while Whitney Boyd is hilarious in the essentially comic roles of Malay servant and teenage slacker. There are still a lot of rough edges here, but chalk this one up as another win for MKA.