[Book Review] A Cheeky Memoir That is a Basis for an Exposé

Guards Gone Wild
Loh Teck Yong
Self-published (2018)/ 200 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Security guards often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are sometimes viewed as lazy or ineffective given that most guards one sees are either rotund or getting on in their years. For those who carry out their duties assiduously, they are seen as party-poopers.

Their situation is not helped by the powers that be thinking that the security industry can be improved by slapping individual guards with fines and jail time, thus perpetuating the idea that the problem lies in the individual.

Cue Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong.

Either by coincidence or telepathy, Loh seemed to have anticipated this change in the security industry by writing about his experiences as a security guard which spanned decades.

Mirroring the cheekiness of the title, Loh’s writing is exuberant, making the book an enjoyable read, which can be devoured in a couple of sittings. One could almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as he scribbles down his first draft.

With anecdotes about know-it-all superiors, uncoöperative colleagues, and impenetrably bureaucratic management, it feels like Loh is shooting the breeze with his readers over post-work drinks.

Hence, imagine my surprise when the second half of the book comes around. While retaining its breezy tone, Loh candidly reveals the tricks security companies get up to make up for the chronic problem of a lack of manpower.

From staging a charade by co-opting guards from other posts during audits to allowing guards to go on 24-hour shifts, these scams—as Loh calls it—are worrying and indicates an underlying systematic problem in the security industry, rather than a problem with a few bad apples.

If any of this is true, Guards Gone Wild must be an initial prescribed reading for lawmakers to rethink their strategy, and an extensive surprise audit is in order for the security industry.

That said, this book will benefit greatly from the guidance of a publishing company to par down certain excesses and correct the inconsistencies in typesetting.

With this book being an entertaining and educational read, it is hard to see why any publishing company would not want to republish this book.

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[Theatre Review] Reinterpreting the Dust of Dead Men

Cherilyn Woo reimagines Faust by putting humanity front and centre.

Photo: Crispian Chan

Faust/Us
Nine Years Theatre
24 March 2019, 3 p.m.
Drama Centre Black Box
21‒24 March 2019

Stage a conflict between God and Mephistopheles within a two-storey wooden structure? Recast Faust as a young woman? Rewrite the second part of Faust?

Nine Years Theatre (NYT) new associate director Cherilyn Woo, has achieved all that and more in Faust/Us, the company’s Mandarin adaptation of Faust.

This production marks a couple of firsts for the company: the first show that isn’t directed by Nelson Chia, and the first production in which a part of the plot is completely rewritten.

Woo turns the cautionary tale of man’s greed into a humanistic piece that ennobles the human struggle.

The wager between God (Hang Qian Chou) and Mephistopheles (Timothy Wan) is no longer a symbol of sin and redemption, but a childish and selfish bet at the expense of humanity. Faust is not a crazed man, but Jo Faust (Mia Chee), a woman who signs a pact with Mephistopheles after being bogged down by ennui. She does not fall in love with Grett (Neo Hai Bin) out of lust, but out of admiration of his writing. At the show’s climax, Faust does not give in to one side or the other, but proceeds with the pact on her own terms.

This bold reimagination by Woo is arguably more in line with the Enlightenment ideals than Goethe’s version.

While Faust/Us may not have ensemble scenes that have become a signature of NYT’s productions, Woo does tap into the ensemble training that the actors go through with occasional synchronised movements, and having Grett glide across the space as God tries to convince Faust to come to his side.

Mia Chee balances between Faust’s ambition and her emotional vulnerability wonderfully, imbuing the titular character with more complexity.

Timothy Wan’s Mephistopheles is quick-witted with a sharp tongue to match. Wan plays off Chee very well, charming her every step of the way. It is easy to see why anyone would root for the devil for most of the show.

Neo Hai Bin endears himself to the audience with his earnest portrayal of the fruit seller, while sending students giggling when Grett and Faust are in the first blushes of love.

Hang Qian Chou does not leave much of an impression as God, but elicits sympathy as Wagner, Faust’s faithful friend.

It is difficult to stage a spectacle of cosmic proportions in such a small space. But lighting designer Adrian Tan and sound designer Zai Tang makes do by signalling a chance of space with coloured lights strategically fixed on to the set (designed by Petrina Dawn Tan) or a layered soundscape.

The creative team must be commended for managing to create a foreboding atmosphere when Mephistopheles suddenly appears without resorting to the age-old trick of smoke machines.

When she first appears, Faust laments that all human achievement will turn to dust eventually, and we are merely piling dust on layers of dust.

Woo responds by clearing away centuries of dust and allowing us to view this tale afresh, while offering a glimmer of hope to the seemingly Sisyphean struggle that is life.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: FAUST/US by Nine Years Theatre is fiendishly good” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“She Creates: Nine Years Theatre’s ‘FAUST/US 浮世/德'” by Daniel Teo, Arts Equator

“The Spectacular Mundane in Faust/Us by Teo Xiao Ting, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: FAUST/US (浮世/德) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu raises important issues, but can’t quite find its feet.

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu
Grace Kalaiselvi
23 March 2019, 8 p.m.
Play Den, Arts House
21‒24 March 2019

 Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu by playwright and director Grace Kalaiselvi hits a snag quite early on.

In an early scene, we are told sexual assault includes lewd comments and jokes. Shouldn’t that be classified under sexual harassment? Shouldn’t the differences between both terms matter?

Initially conceived to explore works by Indian female poets writing in English before evolving into one about sexual assault, the work finds itself caught between advocacy and poetry, rather than combining both aspects in a cohesive whole.

Its advocacy efforts consist of preachy scenes and skits such as telling us how we are complicit in “rape culture” with our words; that there is no clothing that is rape-proof; and not forcing others to eat briyani as an analogy about consent.

While the whole spectacle is fun and tongue-in-cheek, one wonders who it is meant for. In one segment, the audience has to indicate whether certain statements are appropriate through holding up the programme booklets, which has a red background on the front and green on the back. However, the statements are so ludicrously inappropriate that one just holds up the red background all the way and tune out.

As well-meaning as those segments are, it really is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Malicious abusers are without scruples, and will not recant if they were to watch this. But for the majority of us, who may say something insensitive unknowingly, or misread signals in the heat of the moment, the show is too simplistic and does not address these issues.

In fact, I found the post-show dialogue to be more enlightening and nuanced. But a show should stand on its own rather than be a prelude for the post-show dialogue.

As for the poetry, Grace and her cast (Pramila Krishnasamy, Mumtaz Maricar, and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) made a judicious choice in selecting the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Through movement sequences; drawings; and turning the verses into song, these segments are evocative and poignant. This is complemented by the haunting flute playing by Raghavendran Rajasekaran.

While the poems are not about sexual assault, the images of struggle and hurt makes it seem as if the poet is reaching across the ages to tell the women that she understands what they are going through.

To top it all off, the performers then perform monologues detailing actual stories of assault, including their own. The deliveries of the monologues are relatively cautious, as if they are too painful for the actors to delve into. This is a wasted opportunity as the stories are not told to its full potential.

That said, one cannot deny the effect the show has on the audience. A few audience members walked up to the performers to hug them, and some can be seen crying.

While one hopes that the show gives those affected a certain sense of consolation, the dramaturgical and artistic merits of the show must be assessed independently of the audience’s reaction in this case.

Other Reviews

“Review: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Awkward Company

Pangdemonium’s Late Company unearths uncomfortable truths about cyber-bullying.

Late Company
Pangdemonium!
22 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
22 February‒10 March 2019

“It takes a village…” It is rare for a play’s bigoted character to utter something which sends the whole audience recoiling in horror, while bearing a kernel of truth.

For Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company, it is Bill, whose son, Curtis, was one of many who bullied Joel online because of his sexuality. This results in Joel’s suicide.

Bill (Adrian Pang) may have uttered those words to selfishly protect his son (Xander Pang) from the perceived siege by Joel’s parents, Debora (Janice Koh) and Michael (Edward Choy).

But if we could put aside our knee-jerk reactions of yelling “victim-blaming” or “toxic masculinity”, as if they were incantations to cast out the demon of bigotry, is it just a simple equation of Curtis’s cyber-bullying leading to Joel’s suicide?

Set over the course of dinner hosted by Debora and Michael in the hopes of seeking closure with Bill, his wife Tamara (Karen Tan), and Curtis, Late Company brilliantly fleshes out an awkward encounter that is true-to-life, while raising pertinent questions, some of which are barely heard in discourses about cyber-bullying and suicides of LGBT teens.

Closure is never to be found with Debora wanting a sense of sincere remorse from Curtis (what that is, no one knows), while Tamara wanting everyone to get along. The chaotic mix is finished off with the two fathers, who do not believe in the purpose of the dinner to start with, crossing swords. Bill insinuates that Edward, who is a politician, is an absent father and is currently exploiting his son’s death for political gain. Edward parries by accusing Bill of callousness and selfishness.

Despite the ostensibly confrontational nature of this palaver, issues are skirted around, and the adults are none the wiser by the end of it all. It is through this awkward mess of human frailties and contradictions that director Tracie Pang manages to coax a fine piece of naturalistic acting from the cast.

Janice Koh as the sculptor and bereaved Debora sensitively navigates the currents of contradictory emotions that hits her as the evening unfolded. Edward Choy’s portrayal of the reticent Michael is an anchor to Debora’s unravelling. Adrian Pang occasionally hems it up as Bill and belligerently exploits Debora’s and Michael’s oversight as to what Joel was doing online in order to protect his son.  Karen Tan excels as the well-meaning, but unsophisticated Tamara who naïvely thinks all will be well as long as everyone tries to get along.

That said, I am not so sure about Xander Pang’s Curtis. Even though Curtis has very few lines, Pang still has room for interpretation. Is Curtis just keeping his head down till the storm blows over? Is he annoyed by his parents? Is he hiding behind his father? Does he want to reach out to Joel’s parents, but not quite sure how? Pang’s approach is unclear here. What my colleagues see as “sullen”, I see as inactivity safe for the scene in which he reveals his nightmare.

Yet, even though Curtis has few words, his apparent justification of his annoyance with Joel, the latter goes around greeting everyone, “Hey faggot!”, should be a pause for thought.

While this annoyance is never a justification for bullying, where is the line between being confident in one’s sexuality, and being excessively provocative? If Joel is merely acting out due to a sense of repression, how best should his parents help him? Is Joel never at fault in all instances simply because he has died and is part of a minority?

What about Curtis? Where does his fault end? What is an adequate punishment for him? Is he acting out, however misguided it may be, in some way?

How then should we stop cyber-bullying? How should we go about “educating” people not to bully others? Is that even effective?

All of these complex questions relate to the line I quoted to start the review. The chief merit of Tannahill’s play is to warn us not to be Tamaras, but to try and tackle these questions with honesty and in their full complexity.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: A deep look at bullying and suicide” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (*Only for subscribers to the newspaper)

Late Company: Nothing’s Normal (About Suicide)” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

Late Company by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalworlds

Late Company is just in time” by Lee Shu Yu, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Late Company by Pangdemonium” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] A Classic That Should Not Be Timeless

The latest staging of Off Centre harks back to the original.

Photo: Tuckys Photography

Off Centre
The Necessary Stage
7 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
7–17 February 2019

Much ink has been spilled on Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre ever since its first staging in 1993. The reviews have two common threads: the play being on-target about mental health issues, and the tragedy of the play still being pertinent after so many years.

To add, it is also a sophisticated play which touches on issues of different economic backgrounds, societal expectations, Singapore’s competitive school system, and national service, without being tedious. Furthermore, the several instances in which Vinod or Saloma questioning the audience directly might be a little shocking for audiences back then, who are probably  used to having the fourth wall in place.

All of that is brought to the fore in the latest staging by The Necessary Stage, as director Alvin Tan stays true to the original staging, except for having a slightly more elaborate set by Wong Chee Wai.

Abdulattif Abdullah (Vinod) and Sakinah Dollah (Saloma) reprise their roles to much aplomb. Apart from the difficulty of embodying behavioural ticks brought on by severe depression and schizophrenia respectively, they have to constantly toggle between being in character and stepping out to narrate or address the audience. The ease at which both actors achieve this seem to signify that their characters are not too far from us.

Apart from their technical flair, both actors handle the emotional scenes with a great deal of sensitivity, giving the seemingly simple words much nuance.

While I would have liked for the play to be updated in terms of references and staging, I acknowledge the merits of being faithful to the original staging to mark the show’s anniversary and being a reference for students taking their O and N level exams.

Undoubtedly, most of us would feel uncomfortable about how relevant the play still is, but what is more troubling for me is that it is not as hard-hitting for the modern audience as it probably was for our counterparts in 1993.

With a more theatrically sophisticated audience, the direct questioning seems a little crude. Furthermore, both Adulattif and Sakinah seem to direct them at a general direction rather than directly at a particular audience member.  Thus, as Saloma pleads with the audience at the end, one is filled with dread that nothing is going to change.

Being timeless or evergreen is a compliment when describing most plays, but it is certainly not so for this one. One hopes that the play’s concerns will be deemed as dated and irrelevant by the time a theatre company considers another restaging.

Other Reviews

Off Centre is still spot on” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Off Centre” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“[Review] Off Centre overwhelmed by nostalgia” by Sam Kee, ArtsRepublic.sg

“Review: Off Centre (2019) by The Necessary Stage” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Check Point Charlie

What do you tell a twelve-year-old girl who has never seen the outside world?

Charlie           
Bhumi Collective
27 November 2018
Goodman Arts Centre, Block L, #01-46
20 November–7 December 2018

We have all entertained thoughts about what we would tell a Martian about us, if we were to meet it. My experience meeting Charlie is the closest you can get.

Charlie is a twelve-year-old girl, portrayed by Victoria Chen, who has been raised in a sterile room. For some unknown reason, one is given a fifteen-minute visitation, in which one is allowed to talk to her about anything. The only ground rules are not to touch her, or let her out of the room.

I should have heeded the advice of countless etiquette books of not arriving at someone’s place a little too early. Being the first in the shift, I arrived fifteen minutes beforehand, and “the woman”, as Charlie calls her, has yet to complete setting up. Throughout my wait, it felt that I was waiting to see Victoria Chen perform something, rather than waiting for this opportune moment to meet Charlie.

All of that changed when “the woman” opens the door to a spartan room with fluorescent lights. Charlie is lying on a mattress covered with a white bed sheet. Beside the mattress are scattered drawings, which Charlie later reveals that they are scenes from her dreams.

Eager to discuss as many topics as possible, I ask a series of questions to find out more about Charlie. I established that a “professor” visits her to check on her and give her more paper and markers, and a “woman” would usually deliver food and drink to her.

Before I knew it, Charlie turns the tables, “How do you spend your time?”

Explaining to her the concept of work and money sparks off a philosophical dialogue:

“Why would you do something you don’t like? Shouldn’t you do what makes you happy?”

“I like it for the most part, but as with anything, there are parts that you don’t like and you have to do it.”

“But why can’t you just do the parts that you like?”

“Unfortunately, to get ‘money’, you have to do both. Then, you use the ‘money’ to buy food and other stuff that makes you happy.”

Charlie is unconvinced—so am I.

Apart from being philosophical, she is incredibly attuned to the ebb and flow of conversation. There are moments when she simply keeps quiet and looks at you as you continuously explain things, while trying to assess whether she shares the same set of concepts as you do. Soon, Charlie unwittingly becomes your psychologist as you become increasingly aware of what matters to you based on the topics you chose.

Suddenly, the door opens and our time is up.

“Bye bye… Isaac.”

This takes me by surprise. I only told her my name at the very start, and she still remembers. The slight pause before saying my name sparks an internal struggle: What is stopping me from taking her out of the room? Who are these people that I have to listen to them? If I “rescue” her, how do I ensure that she is safe?

Before I could formulate any answers, I am already on my way to the train station.

It is odd how one could connect to a fictional child embodied by a wonderful actor. Who would have thought that I would benefit more from the conversation than Charlie?

Other Reviews

“Meeting Charlie was also seeing my inner self – A Reflection” by Sam Kee, Arts Republic

“Review: Charlie by Bhumi Collective” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Cycles of Violence

Cerita Cinta presents a nuanced view of domestic violence. 

Cerita Cinta
akulah BIMBO SAKTI
3 November 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
1–4 November 2018

Violence is a very delicate tool to employ in theatre. If one is not strategic and very intentional in its employment, there is a risk of harming the actors and audience. Its presence also demands so much attention, that it risks eclipsing any other issues explored in a show.

In Cerita Cinta (Love Story), which was first staged in 1995, playwright and director Noor Effendy Ibrahim does not merely get his actors to strike each other, but he deploys the full arsenal of violence; the trauma from a mere threat or anticipation of violence.

Throughout the show, we see cycles of Roslan Bin Hj Osman (Shaiful Amri Ahmad Elahi) coming home and hitting, threatening, or yelling at his wife, Maslina Bte Abdul Samad (Dalifah Shahril). The children, Juliana Bte Roslan (Shafiqhah Efandi) and Zaki Bin Roslan (Al Hafiz Sanusi) helplessly watch on, and the latter even manifests certain impediments due to trauma.

On the flip side, we also see Roslan taking care of his father, Hj Osman Bin Hj Hitam (Joe Jasmi), by visiting his grave and tending to it. This is embodied through Roslan carrying his father and putting him to bed. To add a further complexion, Roslan also treats his dog (Kaykay Nizam) with affection by feeding and rubbing its body—a definite religious and cultural taboo for modern Muslims.

Is Roslan a complex man who is capable of immense love and violence, or is he a monster for treating the dead and a dog better than his own family members?

This is ambiguous, and I found myself constantly changing camps throughout the show.

The real value of Effendy’s creation does not merely lie in bringing issues of domestic violence to light, but also to point out the various nuances of the matter. None of the characters are purely perpetrators or victims.

Maslina does not take her abuse lying down, but fights back in any way she can, even if it is something as feeble as only cooking leftovers for the family. It is also crucial that the only other person that she displays aggression to is her son, despite him being the most sympathetic towards her. 

Juliana may have kept her head down and focused on taking care of her brother throughout the whole ordeal, but she is quick to unleash a torrent of smacks on her boyfriend, Rizal Bin Hashim (also played by Kaykay Nizam), when the relationship sours.

Through these quick exchanges in a tightly-paced show, one gets the impression that domestic violence is borne out of intergenerational violence. One also wonders what sort of man Roslan’s father is that might have made Roslan that way.

Furthermore, the violence enacted can be, in a certain sense, reciprocal. This seems to echo family care activist Erin Pizzey’s view that domestic violence is perpetuated through cycles of violence. And while some of the most violent acts are done by men, women are not entirely blameless.

Effendy’s grip on the play also extends to his set design, which looks like a chicken coop being rendered as a HDB flat. With the audience surrounding the set on all sides, we are forced to be voyeurs as we look into this chaotic household. Despite the porousness of the set, the inhabitants cannot seem to leave the coop, nor could they see a way out of their situation.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and is unafraid to be vulnerable, yet intense when it comes to the movement sequences and violence. Top that off with the conscious choice of taking away proper chairs and making the audience sit on hard surfaces, we have a play that is also cruel to the audience.

While it is not healthy to indulge in the world of the play for too long, one cannot help but be compelled to watch the show multiple times while sitting at different sides of the room each time, just to see how different the show feels from different vantage points.

It is rare for a play to hurt, provoke, and confront its audience at the same time, while making this reviewer wanting to revisit the show. But given that the company’s aesthetics are inspired by sadomasochism among other things, only akulah BIMBO SAKTI can achieve that in a play.  

Other Reviews

“Family stuck in violence” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“A History of Violence: The Sharp Edges of ‘Cerita Cinta'” by Nabilah Said, ArtsEquator

“Review: Cerita Cinta by akulah bimbo SAKTI” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Saya Tak Sihat!” by Dumbriyani

[Theatre Review] Well-Pitched Souvenir

Souvenir brings out the tender friendship between Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon.

Souvenir
Sing’theatre
25 September 2018
KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT
19–29 September 2018

Leigh McDonald’s singing is a torturous mixture of a rusty kettle whistling; frogs being forced to croak as they are placed on a hot pan; and a screeching banshee on speed.

But no one is complaining because she is playing self-styled opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins in Sing’theatre’s latest production, Souvenir.

In this two-hander written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, there is less focus on Jenkins’s infamous croaking, but more on the friendship between Jenkins and her piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Hossan Leong).

McMoon recounts his time with her—from the first meeting all the way till her death shortly after her concert at the Carnegie Hall, which was packed to the rafters.  He also struggles with how best to deal with her; does he tell her the truth or prevent her blissful bubble from bursting?

What starts out as an expedient relationship—McMoon falling behind on his rent—soon develops into a bosom friendship.

Appearances can certainly be deceiving. Despite the simple set and staging (piano, chair, tables, three layers of satin curtains, light change to differentiate the scene and McMoon’s internal monologue), the whole show can easily crumble if the friendship between the two characters are not established gradually but surely.

I am happy to report that by the end of the show, we are cheering for Jenkins and McMoon. This is not out of derisive amusement, but of genuine affection.

McDonald, while clearly having fun on stage, is careful not to portray Jenkins as some crazy old bat. She has a balance of child-like innocence with a sort of confidence that is not merely delusional, but it also comes from her wealth and status.

This proves to be an irresistible mix as we see her swaying to her own recording with her palms facing outwards at shoulder level at one moment, while at another, she assures McMoon that she is going to secure his future.

But where McDonald really shows her acting chops is when Jenkins is hurt on two occasions—when McMoon flares up at her, and when she realises the audience is laughing at her. It is interesting to see how she and Leong navigate the gamut of emotions and negotiates a reconciliation for both characters.

Speaking of Leong, despite struggling to maintain his accent, he is a joy to watch. His constant reactions to Jenkins are pitched perfectly. From the widening of the eyes to gasping for air, or his legs buckling a little on encountering her delusions of grandeur, Leong is a brilliant counterpoint to McDonald. Apart from sending the audience roaring with laughter, the subtle changes of his reactions over time also allows one to see the blossoming of an endearing relationship.

That said, it must be noted that McDonald gets too carried away with being out of tune, especially during the scene of the Carnegie Hall concert. Based on the actual recordings, those unfamiliar with the song can roughly make out the original tune. However, McDonald’s renditions comprise a cacophony of sounds.

Yet, Sing’theatre has undeniably given us a souvenir that is not only entertaining and comforting, but it also sends us out with our hearts singing.

Other Reviews

“Souvenir by Sing’theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Souvenir by Sing’theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Easy, Tiger!

Tiger of Malaya is a self-reflexive look at historical framings, identities, and representations.

Tiger of Malaya
Teater Ekamatra
19 September 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
12–23 September 2018

Meta-theatricality has often been used as a device to show the contingency of representation, or a particular issue being explored. But very few productions actually look at the significance of the particular actor involved in the process of representation, much less use theatre to critique a film.

This is where Alfian Sa’at’s latest play is ambitious in its complexity. Yet, director Mohd Fared Jainal, with guidance from Shawn Chua (dramaturg and translator), manages to pull all the strands together in an expansive tapestry, while being unafraid to show the stitching required to do so.

Through critiquing the 1943 Japanese propaganda film, Marai No Tora (Tiger of Malaya), Alfian Sa’at not only teases out how one should look at history, but the significance of the people—taking into account various aspects of their background—involved in the actual historical moment, as well as the retelling of it.

The play revolves around a group of actors (three local and two Japanese) trying to recreate the film which is a glorification of Tani Yutaka—a Japanese who has lived in Malaya before the invasion, but eventually becomes a spy for Japan. His suffering under the British-led system and eventual sacrifice for the Japanese cause is portrayed as a glorification of Japan’s purpose in WWII.

Through this re-creation, the actors balance between a faithful re-creation versus adding one’s commentary, an inevitability when one departs from the original. Such negotiations bring various issues of identity, historical framing, and stereotypes come to the fore.

When the characters suggest a change or simply react to the original, one is made aware of their background and identity, and we get to see how the changes play out. Even things such as how a local character relate to the Japanese character would hit a nerve despite one being aware of the context of the original film. On a couple of occasions, when a character suggested a switch in casting, I found myself eagerly anticipating that switch just to see how different the scene would feel.

Theatre being a safe space to rehearse identities and social dynamics is a terrible cliché that has been intoned to death. However, this is the first time that I truly experienced it in action.

Additionally, I became increasingly sensitive to the reactions of my fellow audience members as their reactions are part of the exploration of relooking at history. For example, the audience was more impressed by the Japanese actors (Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa) delivering lines in Malay with a believable intonation as opposed to the local actors (Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal, and Rei Poh) saying their lines in Japanese.

This sparked several questions: what pre-conceived notions about the Japanese did the audience have? Is this a matter of being more familiar with the capabilities of our local actors, hence the disparity in reaction? Or could it be that Japanese culture and its products have a wider circulation, making a non-Japanese speaking the language decently less surprising than a Japanese speaking Malay?  

To top it all off, the production avoids being too caught up with its own devices, as it plays with varying levels of self-reflexivity. Just as the audience gets comfortable with the play-within-a-play set-up, the fourth wall is broken as if to remind them that they are complicit in the re-creation.

This is best exemplified when Farez Najid as Adnan declaims various academic treatises on reverse racism being impossible due to extant power dynamics or about the colonial gaze, he points his Japanese compatriots to the Japanese surtitles on the screen.

Alfian also jibes at the local theatre industry by raising stereotypes of Malay theatre and Chinese theatre, as well as a reference to Ong Keng Sen’s brand of intercultural theatre, where characters speak in different languages to each other, but they somehow understand each other. This is not merely a cheap trick to elicit laughter from industry insiders, but a subtle reminder that the representations we are watching are also tied to theatrical genres and conventions. This rebukes the idea of every play or actor starting from a blank canvas and is slowly crafted to tell a story.

Paired with a stellar cast which is versatile, and has a keen sense of comic timing, one not only leaves the show being thoroughly entertained, but also buzzing with a healthy dose of scepticism about how things are represented to us.

Despite how several productions market themselves, it is very rare to find one that truly pushes the envelope. I believe a case can be made for this one.  

Other Reviews

“Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger Of Malaya presents perils of oversimplifying history” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“’Tiger of Malaya’: The Body Remembers What the Archive Cannot” by Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

“Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya’s revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft” by Aravin Sandran, Buro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: Tiger of Malaya by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Dance Review] Bharatanatyam and Thai Classical Dance Take Flight

Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance truly intertwine in this production laden with significance. 

Photo: Vilvam Ramu

Manohra
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and independent Thai artistes
9 September 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
8–9 September 2018

Manohra, a mythical Kinnari (bird-human creature), who was chanced upon by a hunter; captured and sold to a prince; became a princess; was asked by the king to sacrifice herself while the prince was at war, but escaped; and wooed back to the palace by the prince is certainly an epic tale.

But not many would know that the transmission of the tale matches the grandeur of the plot.

The tale is one of many Jakata tales, which form part of the Buddhist literature that is native to India. It travelled to Thailand and soon became an iconic dance-drama. A chance encounter of the tale in 1990 inspired Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA, to interpret it through bharatanatyam and make it a mainstay of BAA’s repertoire, thus returning it to Indian culture through dance.

It is in this context that Manohra has truly come full circle in this third iteration, as we see bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance coming together to tell the story.

It is a partnership in all senses of the word as Mrs Bhaskar’s choreography intertwines both art forms, rather than allowing it to merely co-exist.

This is clearly seen in the first half of Kinnari dance with certain hand gestures, the signature cocked leg, and shuffling of feet before transiting into the second half, which sees more rigorous movements and footwork. While the dancers (Chayanee Sunthonmalai, Davinya Ramathas, Malini Bhaskar, Montakarn Roikaew, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, and Sarenniya Ramathas) are clearly more comfortable in their respective art forms, all of them dance beautifully and regally among plumes of smoke. 

The Mythical Kinnaris. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

Another thing that stands out about this interpretation is the space given to Manohra’s thoughts and feelings. This augurs well with the expressiveness of Bharatanatyam in terms of movements and facial expressions. Shruthilaya Ramachandran, as Manohra, steps up to the plate admirably as she is able to convey the depth of emotion needed without making it a sob story. Set against Prince Sudhana’s (Puwapon Pinyolapkasam) subtler movements, it is clear that Manohra drives the plot.

Pinyolapkasam is defined by stillness with an active presence. And in it lies an excruciating exactitude in the execution of his movements. His fingers are constantly arched backwards, and every step is slowly placed on the ground, activating every bit of muscle in his feet.

Despite the movements being gentler in nature, his virtuosity shines through in quicker sequences such as when the prince is being put to the test of identifying Manohra among her Kinnari sisters in order to bring her back to the palace. He has to pulse his body and execute small steps to a rather quick tempo, while maintaining the stillness in the carriage of his upper body, and exuding an overall sense of grace and style. Like a thrilling illusion, one cannot stop wondering about the technique behind what one sees.   

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

The other principal characters do not pale in comparison. Sarinprapa Bhutrachinda, is serpentine and flexible as Spirit of Doom; Nishalini Lakchimanathas indulges in moustache-twirling villainy as the cunning minister who advises the king to get rid of Manohra; and the energetic Bala Saravanan Loganathan who plays the hunter and King Adityavamasa to equal aplomb.

As if there aren’t enough to take in, contemporary choreography, possibly by Malini Bhaskar and Pallavi Sharma (as they are cited as having provided additional choreography), is performed by an ensemble of younger dancers who represent the obstacles that the prince has to overcome. On the surface, bodies on the floor shooting up at different times into a sort of a crunch may seem like an aberration when it is set against classical Asian music. But for some reason, it works and it is a testament to the innovative streak of BAA.

Speaking of music, the composition by Ghanavenothan Retnam, in close collaboration with Dr Anant Narkkong, mirrors the dance. Both classical Indian and Thai music have their solo moments, but it is when they come together that something exciting happens.

The percussion of the tabla (played by Hem Kumar) and mridangam (played by S Harikrishnan) provide the heartbeat while the ranat (Thai wooden xylophone played by Tossaporn Tassana) provides a snappy and cheery lilt, which harmonises with the veena (played by TK Arun), violin (played by TV Sajith), flute (played by Ghanavenothan Retnam), and vocals (Ampili Pillai and Arasakumari Nagaradjane). Other featured instruments include the Saw Duang and Klong Tuk (played by Dr Anant Narkkong).

This culminates in a ritualistic but jovial music as Prince Sudhana dances with the Kinnaris in order to identify who amongst them is Manohra.

Another highlight sees the inclusion of lyrics and vocalisation that almost sounds like a rap in Tamil and Thai to introduce the cunning minister.     

While there is a wonderful balance in the movement and musical vocabularies, the same cannot be said of the story-telling. Certain key dramatic moments are not given enough emphasis. It is tough to tell when Manohra actually falls in love with the prince as she goes from being hesitant and unwilling to suddenly smiling and striking a pose with him.

Additionally, the scene of the court dance and the subsequent escape is so bare—only the king, his minister, and Manohra are present—that it feels as if Manohra is playing a prank, rather than escaping from her impending doom. It is also unclear that she is asked to sacrifice herself in order to avert disaster befalling on the kingdom.

In contrast, the scene with hunter hunting for food before falling asleep, while wonderfully performed, goes on a little too long.

That said, one cannot underestimate how this iteration of Manohra is laden with so much significance due to the origins and transmission of the tale. One hopes that it can travel to Thailand to see how the locals take to it.

While Manohra chooses to return to the palace, Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance have certainly taken flight in this production.