Goh Boon Teck Tackles Cultural Erosion Head-On

Art & Design

February 20, 2017 | BY Hashirin Nurin Hashimi

Playwright Goh Boon Teck's latest play spotlights the struggle between progression and urban development, and eroding a nation's heritage and culture.

By his own admission, Goh Boon Teck, chief artistic director of Toy Factory Productions, is an old soul. Take a look at his body of work, both as director and playwright, and you get the idea why. Besides a knack for exploring unlikely genres and topics, many of his productions delve into tatler_tatler_stories of the past. Titoudao looks at traditional Hokkien opera; December Rains is a love story set in the tumultuous 1950s; Kumarajiva pays tribute to the legendary fourth-century Buddhist scholar and translator.

Goh’s latest English language play Prism is no different. First staged in 2003 as a multicultural six-country collaboration, the play spotlights the struggle between progression and urban development, and eroding a nation’s heritage and culture—a storyline that will resonate with audiences in Singapore, where many a time, historical landmarks are demolished to give way to high-rises or tunnels and expressways, in the name of progress. 

“Where is our National Library that we love so much? Where is the National Theatre where Singaporeans contributed $1 each to build but was demolished to make way for the construction of the MRT line. Now they are taking away Rochor Centre, and Dakota Crescent is next. It’s easy to demolish buildings, but a heritage area takes years to develop, and along with it the people, the cultures, and the tatler_tatler_stories,” laments Goh.

Prism explores the struggle between progression and loss; Images: Toy Factory Productions

“But this is not just in Singapore, it’s happening elsewhere whether it’s Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or every city in China. We want to talk about cultural preservation and bring these questions to the surface.” Prism, which runs from February 23 to March 5, at Drama Centre Theatre, is helmed by rising director Rei Poh and features a Singaporean cast led by Fir Rahman of critically acclaimed local film Apprentice. Goh tells us more. 

How can we preserve a nation’s heritage and culture, even as we move into the future?
We are always opting for change and development in a fast-moving aggression. There are two sides to being human: one is to move forward and the other is to remember the past. We should set a time frame to assess the past, to compare, and to evaluate what we do next. Discussions should be ongoing—I hope we can focus more on that. Sometimes, the obvious choice is not the only choice. There might be alternatives. We should think further, deeper and find another way to do it. 

What has changed since you first wrote the script in 2003?
I wished some things have changed, but nothing has. Humans are forgetful. When we move forward with a new project, we dive in without much consideration of the baggage or what changes after. It’s not that progress is bad but we need more careful thinking to preserve our culture and heritage. We move so fast, we forget so much and we have no time to ponder what is precious to us.

How is this new staging different?
[The director] Rei is going for something darker—he wants the audience to experience the pain of loss. This version goes back to the story itself, different from the one I directed, which was more flamboyant.

Toy Factory has always worked with budding talents in its productions. Why do you see a need to provide this platform?
They may be up-and-coming but I see great potential in them. In the theatre ecosystem, you are not building a temple to honour yourself. It’s more like a community where you bring people in to collaborate with you and give a new lease of life to Singapore theatre. 

How do they contribute to the creation process? 
A young director sees things differently. They would take a script apart, reconstruct it or do something else with it. To me, that’s exciting. I have my own vision as a playwright, and if I’m directing, I would look at it the same way because I’m the same person. But with a new director, it would turn out differently, a new story is created.