Impenjarament (Imprisonment)

I caught Impenjarament, a Teater Ekamatra production, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio last night. I've always felt the quality of Singaporean theatre is particularly high, and the show didn't let me down - there was solid acting from the all-male cast, excellent use of space, and a vivid script that director Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit exploits well.

As the title implies, Impenjarament is a play about imprisonment in Singapore; specifically, it depicts the stories of eight inmates as they struggle to deal with life in prison. The prisoners - all acted excellently by the all-male cast - at various times tell the stories behind their imprisonment: the South Asian overstayer who unwittingly had an illegal visa, the old Malay man who committed a crime of passion, the Javanese man who wants desperately to leave the country, the Chinese man who fights, the failed bank robber. The litany of stories is heartbreaking, particularly when, as the inmates themselves show, the moment that led to imprisonment was often borne of hotheadedness, often reversible.

The play pulls no punches about prison life, from the deprivation that makes the smell of grass a luxury to the brutalities of prison rape. But just as inmates make bitter jokes about their conditions to make the conditions more bearable, Impenjarament sprinkles in moments of levity: dance, standup comedy, cross-dressing as weepy mothers and cackling wives.

Perhaps the play's most striking feature is its use of space: the black box of the studio is laid out such that audience members sit interspersed on the path between the inmates' cells and the centre of the stage, while all around surveillance monitors depict a man screaming out questions in the isolation cell as he teeters on the edge of sanity. (Admittedly, the blocking made for some awkward moments for the audience members - the multilingual nature of the play naturally required subtitles, but it wasn't always possible to crook one's head to read the subtitles and look at the prisoner speaking at the same time.)

Getting to know their personal stories naturally makes the prisoners sympathetic characters, and that stands as perhaps the best possible antidote to the play's own undertone of cynicism about whether an ex-convict will be accepted by society: clearly, sensitising an audience to the underlying individuality of convicts will have an impact on how they are treated.

Where Impenjarament falters is when it tries to say something universal about everybody being a prisoner - the message feels heavy-handed and clumsily hammered in, which stands in sharp contrast to the vivid depictions of the individual prisoners. That aside, however, the play is a stark depiction of what it means to be a prisoner in Singapore, and a strong reminder of the humanity of a class of people often treated as monsters.

Also posted on Delta Sierra Arts.

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