From The Belly Of The Carp lends itself to dramatisation! The Glowers Senior Drama Group, based at Kampong Glam CC, staged a marvellous version  (in June 2014) incorporating a lot of dialects, which was highly appropriate, given their focus on the first part of the book dealing with the flood of migrants in the nineteenth century.

If ever a book was suited to celebrating Singapore’s 50 Anniversary, From The Belly Of The Carp is it!

Review by Richard Lord

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002

Back in early February, we were treated to a strong theatrical experience - The Belly of the Carp, which was Roger Jenkins’ stage adaptation of his own 1996 book of poems, From The Belly of the Carp. Jenkins also directed this the latest stage rendition of his Singapore-Literature-Prize-winning book.

Admittedly, this volume always packed a good deal of dramatic potential, being a series of dramatic monologues giving voice to the famous, the little-known, or the totally unknown (usually fictional) in Singapore’s history. In fact, most of these poems actually work much better in dramatic presentation than being read from the page. No great surprise there, as Roger Jenkins was already a highly seasoned theatre practitioner when he wrote this volume, and it’s not too difficult to surmise that as he was writing the poems, he was already thinking of putting the richest pieces on stage.

But let’s concentrate here on how well Jenkins and his talented cast have sliced and stitched to make this a most enjoyable evening of theatre. The programme offers quick sketches of various personages, real and imagined, for whom the Singapore River has played an important role. (The “belly of the carp”, we are to learn, is Boat Quay.) Starting with the unavoidable Sir Stamford Raffles and ending with a modern-day angler who plies his trade or hobby at night, then sits back to watch modern, high-rise Singapore re-emerge from the dark, this show provides a beautifully minimalist history of this island.

Jenkins and company look at a broad collection of personalities who have contributed to the history of Singapore since Raffles first declared it the property of the British crown. We meet coolies, thieves fortune-hunters, civil servants, domestic servants, dhobies and nightsoil (i.e. excrement) collectors. We get informed and enlightened about how this Singapore was built by the various hands involved in the process: sailors, boat builders, samsui women (female construction site workers), seamstresses, shopkeepers, prostitutes, dance hall girls, gardeners, peons, real estate speculators. Even a few tourists wander in, take a quick look and gulp, before moving off to another scheduled destination.

The trip is exhilarating, and at the end we feel that we have seen so much of the history of this place and wish we could see even more. It’s true that the work as a whole still exhibits a structure which at times seems a little disjointed or too convenient, so the whole stands as a collection of individual gems rather than an integrated work with a clear thrust. But taking the show on its own terms, this objection seems a little beside the point. What Belly does, it does very well, and we should appreciate it for that. Not that every piece in the program is a flawless gem (there are a number of caricatures, such as our tourists, and a few sketches are just too sketchy), but there is much more true value than dross here.

Author-director Jenkins was served beautifully by his highly talented ensemble cast, who handled their multiple roles in a very admirable way. If I had to single out one or two from the cast of six for special praise, I’d choose - no, let’s give them all equal praise, as it's a truly collective achievement we saw here.

So, kudos to Wendy Kweh, Lim Yu-Beng, Tony Quek, Gene Sha Rudyn, Catherine Sng and Karen Tan. Whether they were providing a little flesh and blood to historical names figures usually cast in chalky plaster or giving voice to someone whose voice has never really been heard, these actors were all stars for a few minutes, and a little later for several minutes more. Working closely with Jenkins, these performers put real heart into the belly of this carp.

I have staged From The Belly of the Carp twice - first in 1998 at the Junilee Hall and then in 2002 at SRT’s home in (what was then called ) the DBS Arts Centre on Merbau Road.

As Richard Lord surmises in his review, as the book consists of dramatic monologues, even as I was writing it I was imagining the possibilities of staging it.

In both productions I have chosen to work with a cast of six who play multiple roles (between 8 - 10 each!)

Catherine Sng in her work with The Glowers’ senior citizens group has used many more and to great effect, and has often had characters speak in dialect too - as they would have done if they were real characters - which I have found very moving.