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Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Press Gang’ by Tan Tarn How

Tan Tarn How‘s newest play Press Gang was part of W!ld Rice‘s Singapore Theatre Festival, and played at the Singapore Airlines Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts from July 5 to 15 2018.

Know for his controversial, albeit true, works such as Fear of Writing which touched on censorship, Tan returns to form with Press Gang, which examines the workings of a newspaper whose journalists have to constantly walk a tightrope between exposing the truth and bearing the cost of doing that. Things get bad when a rumour circulates that the Prime Minister’s son slapped the Deputy Prime Minister because he didn’t like the latter’s line of questions. The press gang at the fictional The Singapore Times has to decide if they want to print this piece of news, given the government’s control of the media and unopposed firing of editors and journalists who don’t toe the government’s line of censorship – even when sources begin to confirm the truth of this gossip.

For those too young to remember, or too removed from Singapore’s politics, there was a real-life rumour some years back that the then-Prime Minister’s son (who is now our current Prime Minister) did indeed slap a cabinet minister during a heated meeting. The real national newspaper, The Straits Times, did not print anything about the incident.

Hence just like that, Tan presents a situation with a sly wink to us all that what we see on stage might very well mirror real life. Adding to this main narrative are a slew of characters and situations we would also be able to link to the real Singapore or the real Straits Times. For example, Kerin Khoo (Amanda Tee) is clearly The Straits Times‘ Sumiko Tan, who is both hated and loved by our society; the political pundit Clarence George is definitely the well-known political commentator and academic Cherian George; and Mariam Wong (Yap Yi Kai) who starts an online news website represents the few who did so in Singapore and were subsequently targeted by the government.

In Press Gang, Tan has crafted a narrative and characters that speak out to every Singaporean, and one that guarantees full interest and investment from the audience as we see the exciting plot unfold. Journalists meet, discuss things, and make deals in clandestine fashion as each one decides how to go forth in tackling the piece of salacious news amidst a government intent on censoring what the public knows, and editors who struggle to find the balance.

Directed by Ivan Heng, Press Gang also used music and movement, along with connotative props and set pieces, to bring an already thrilling plot to a higher level of captivation, as in the last scene which sadly pronounces (ironically, with meaningful intimation) the reality of the media in Singapore. Thankfully in Singapore theatre though, with writers like Tan and production companies like W!ld Rice, we get to actually see what will never be printed in our press.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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