Debuting to a sell-out run at the 2017 Singapore International Festival of Arts, Pangdemonium’s Dragonflies once again returns with a potent and renewed relevance in the political climate of today. Bringing to life a dystopian world set in 2021 against a backdrop of seething xenophobia, racism, fearmongering and the worst of humanity’s darker nature, Dragonflies explores the resultant trials and tribulations of an everyman — Leslie Chen and his family as they try to navigate the turbulence thrust upon their lives.
This is not a play that expects audiences to stay happily muted in their seats. Right from the start of the play, we are brought into its world through the death of Leslie’s wife, Sandra which doesn’t just leave Leslie a man of grief throughout the play, but also heavily informs his motivations throughout the play.
The anguish of a man beleaguered by grief and helplessness in his desire to protect his family is expressed with finesse by Adrian Pang in his performance as Leslie. His on-stage interactions with Shona Benson, who plays Sandra, are an important core of the play’s emotional centre, striking the audience with a tenderness that permeates the dark tragedies that befall the Chen family.
Leslie’s continual conversations with the apparition of his dead wife are when we are privy to his innermost thoughts and struggle with safekeeping the remnants of his family and it genuinely makes you feel for Leslie. His personal struggle resonated strongly, as I had myself, experienced the loss of a loved one and its subsequent feelings as well.
The other Chen Family members are introduced to us through showcasing the various quirks of their family life and interactions. Elizabeth Morse plays the wilfully exuberant and optimistic daughter of Leslie, Maxine Wilson – alongside Tan Kheng Hua as Leslie’s Singaporean office executive sister, Annabel Chen. Fanny Kee completes the Chen family in her role as the indomitable matriarch of the family, Margaret Chen.
Fanny Kee’s Margaret Chen is instantly endearing with her patois and eagerness to care for her family, infusing a distinctly Singaporean flavour into the scenes that she’s a part of, especially in the first half of the play set in England. Tan Kheng Hua’s Annabel Chen on the other hand, is the typical Singaporean executive that embodies the mindset of the middle class. Maxine, as a liberal and defiant youth, is then set up as their foil as the clashing interactions between the three of them cast light on hot topic issues that range from generational gaps to casual racism and xenophobia.
Margaret Chen as a character struck home for me in particular as well, reminding me strongly of my own grandmother. Her plotline, unfortunately, involves her getting injured and the family has to struggle to cope with caring for her. Maxine’s difficulty in communicating with her during this time when she refuses to speak English was something I could identify with, as my own grandmother is Hokkien-speaking as well. But her injury also leads to the first and sadly, not the last of several violent confrontations in the play. Beyond the gloomy rain, the first half of the play also sees the blossoming of xenophobia in a post-Brexit England, where Leslie is subjected to a litany of abuse at the hospital while trying to get medical care for Margaret.
Xenophobia’s subtle influence lead to Leslie and his family being unable to retain their family home in England due to a discriminatory legal technicality and are forced to uproot themselves back to Singapore to live with Annabel, where the second half of the play takes place. The undercurrent of xenophobia doesn’t abate here however and the family has no respite from it.
The introduction of Asif Ahmed, a foreign worker played by Jamil Schulze, into the lives of the Chen family also lead to some of the most biting commentaries on the casual xenophobic and racist sentiments that we unwittingly sport, embodied by Annabel Chen’s unabashed disdain for Asif as she disparages him during their first meeting.
Ultimately, Maxine’s activist tendencies and desire to do right by others puts her on a collision course towards the play’s main dramatic conflict: a riot in Singapore. Drawing together multiple plotlines and story beats, the climax deals a double whammy of fatality and calamity, inflicting tragedy upon the Chen family that leaves them broken and despondent. In spite of this, the characters rise above it and forge ahead; the play may have had an aggressive salvo of violence and death, but it manages to come full circle with the gift of new life with its hopeful ending.
Despite the play’s heavy themes and tackling of mature subject matter, it is impressive that humour was used to great effect consistently throughout the play. The cast gave forth a stellar delivery of lines that were full of wit and cheekily extended an invitation for the audience to laugh and have fun. Not only did it make the play well-rounded and set forth an easy ebb and flow of tension, it also slyly drew attention to pertinent issues and gave audiences a chance to laugh at their own flaws being displayed on stage. Stephanie Street’s mastery of her craft in Dragonflies is impeccable and a delight to watch in its full bloom.
The human experience is a fragile and arbitrary thing, where lives are shaped and then reshaped along invisible ley lines that elude control. Such are the tides of the world we find ourselves living in today that the small everyman of society can only do so much and so little when we are challenged to do the right thing in spite of the titanic forces that collude and conspire against us.
Our homes and identity are uprooted, and like dragonflies, we may find ourselves having to traverse an entire ocean to find a better home, with only a pair of gossamer wings on our backs. Dragonflies is a truly powerful and relatable play that asks us to rethink our attitudes towards the environment, the world-at-large, and our loved ones.
But most importantly, it asks us to keep on holding onto hope in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
- Date: 18 May – 3 June 2018
- Venue: Victoria Theatre
Tickets start at $60. For more information, visit: http://pangdemonium.com/productions/dragonflies
Photos courtesy of Pangdemonium.