When I was young, I would make a trip each year to visit my great grandparents’ graves. Though I have never met my great grandfather and my great grandmother passed on when I was very young, I was glad there was still a place my family could go to to remember them and commemorate the lives they lived. And so, I have always thought of a cemetery as a place for the living to remember loved ones who had passed. The NTU University Scholars Program’s (USP) 2021 play put a spin on this idea – the cemetery as a home for the dead.
As part of their annual theater production, USPresents, USP students wrote and performed their own play, “Two Wandering Spirits, Three Government Officials (and other assorted ghosts)”. The story hinges on the exhumation of graves in Bukit Brown Cemetery for the construction of Lornie Highway. This was a hotly debated topic when the idea was first raised a decade ago. Many Singaporeans felt that while the highway would reduce traffic congestion, it came at the cost of losing a part of our Singaporean heritage. The play explores this issue from the perspective of ghosts residing in Bukit Brown Cemetery – what happens when they are forcibly removed from their home?
We meet Old Spirit, who has found comfort in the sanctuary of Bukit Brown Cemetery. As the cemetery is destroyed, Old Spirit is forced to relocate to the Garden of Peace – a new resting place for the dead created by the government. There, she meets Young Spirit, an overworked student who recently died. Old Spirit yearns to return to Bukit Brown Cemetery, and Young Spirit wishes to explore Singapore – something she never got to do when she was alive. Together, they formulate a plan to escape the Garden of Peace. The government officials soon notice that two ghosts have escaped the Garden of Peace and set out to pursue them.
I thought that the play was a creative take on a very local and relevant issue. While presented in a humorous manner, the plot was thoughtful in incorporating several messages: how regulations can often be rigid and unempathetic despite their practical benefits, and how excessive focus on climbing the corporate ladder can take away the joys of life.
After watching the play from the perspective of the spirits, I found myself wondering how I would feel if my burial ground was exhumed for redevelopment. The Bukit Brown Cemetery vs Lornie High debate is very much focused on the living. How would the destruction of the cemetery affect the heritage that living descendents wish to hold on to? How can the highway provide faster travel times for the living? It was refreshing to explore the debate from the perspective of the dead. Logically, it may not make sense as the dead are incapable of feeling or thinking. But as I thought about it, we often respect the wishes the dead expressed when they were living. Following this line of thought, I pondered: what were the wishes of the people buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery?
Aside from the thought-provoking themes presented, I enjoyed the humour and light-heartedness of the play. The actors did a great job, especially the three ensemble members (Shane, Timotheus, and Valerie) who portrayed multiple characters. I expect it must have been challenging to perform so many different roles. Megan, who played Old Spirit, really convinced me she was an old lady, despite the actor’s young age. Overall, I was very impressed with all the actors’ performances, given that they are untrained.
The set and costuming, while simple, were sufficiently well thought-out to convey key points in the story. In fact, I sometimes prefer a simple set over an extravagant one, as it directs more attention towards the plot and provides more room for the viewers’ imagination. It was definitely well done, especially with limited logistics in a student-led production.
While I greatly enjoyed the play, the ending was rather inconclusive. Perhaps this was a choice on the part of the scriptwriters and producers, but with no promise of a sequel, I felt like I was left hanging. Nonetheless, the play made for a great evening out and I was glad to have been part of the small audience that got to witness it live. (Shoutout to Priya for getting me a ticket to the show!)