PUBLISHED January 18th, 2020 05:00 am | UPDATED January 21st, 2020 06:24 pm
A young punk among nations, Singapore clings fiercely to the precious few founding legends we have. Think the hoary old tales of Sang Nila Utama and Sir Stamford Raffles – the bread and butter of countless social studies lessons, commemorative speeches, and spoofs. Yet before long, a diet of bread and butter inevitably gets stale – isn’t it time we cooked up fresh myths to feed our futuristic dreams?
This, at least, is the bold premise of The Utama Spaceship, a visionary play staged by Spacebar Theatre as part of this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Created and performed by fresh-faced duo Lee Shu Yu and Eugene Koh, the play launches us into a not-so-distant future of space exploration.
Singapore (in typical over-achieving manner) has just sent out the first-ever passenger spaceship to colonise a habitable planet in the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri, a full decade away. To pass the time, the crew stages the beloved tale of Sang Nila Utama over and over, complete with bathtowel sarongs and Javanese dance movements. It’s one giant leap for our little red dot… until we get lost, that is.
After a record-breaking 500 days on board, we discover to our horror that the ship has been heading in precisely the wrong direction – away from Alpha Centauri. It’s an intriguing subversion of the path of progress that Singapore constantly strives for – even as we believe ourselves to be hurtling forward, we’re also unknowingly held back by the past and the legends we lionize.
Set adrift in the void of space, the crew no longer finds anchor or comfort in these old myths. Instead, they take to unravelling them in ever wackier ways, mashing them up gleefully with modern-day quips. By the time the Singa-nauts are done, Sang Nila Utama has turned into Abang SNU, a princely beefcake who lands at White Sands Mall to check out the army boys.
There’s a method to this glorious madness, of course. Nations can only dream when they make room to tell themselves new legends – and the Singa-nauts do just that, freely mingling the Utama Spaceship’s splendid deeds to come with those of its namesake prince. In this way, these lost explorers fuel themselves with hopeful possibilities, reinventing fresh paths out of a very sticky situation.
Swinging between zany and poignant, The Utama Spaceship makes for a compelling ride – not least because of the clever ways in which we, the audience, become part of the adventure. As we settle into our seats pre-show, we’re handed game controllers and drawn into a lively round of Space Invaders – the very video game that the spaceship crew later plays to while away time. In fact, it soon becomes clear that we’re no longer audience but crew members, thanks to an on-stage camera which projects a live view of the audience onto the screen. Ingeniously and a little uncannily, we’re drawn into seeing ourselves as part of the voyage onstage.
Besides these screen projections – and a toy spaceship cobbled together with not much more than aluminium foil and plastic spoons – the set design is strikingly sparse. Such a bare stage demands much of its actors, and Shu Yu and Eugene fill the space with aplomb. Miming everything from brushing their teeth to conducting repairs in zero gravity, the duo easily charm us with their astounding knack for sound imitations and eloquent movements.
By the time we get off the spaceship (or rather, theatre), we’re left surprisingly hopeful about what lies ahead for Singapore – economic recession, AI revolution, WWIII and all. At the very least, we’re sure looking forward to more stellar tales of tech and future times from this dynamic duo.
All images courtesy of Brandon Koh.