[Interview] Finding Resonances in Poop! with Berak

To kick off their 2020 season, Teater Ekamatra presents Berak, a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop!, which chronicles an aftermath of the suicide. 

I spoke to transcreator Zulfadli Rashid (ZR) and director Mohd Fared Jainal (MFJ) to find out more about the piece and what drew them to Chong’s original play, which can be considered a modern classic in our theatre canon. 

The work is described as a transcreation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop! Could you explain what do you mean by “transcreation”?

MFJ: Transcreation is becoming quite synonymous to our line of work at Ekamatra. Apart from creating original plays, we find originality within these scripts that resonate strongly as viewed through the lens of an ethnic minority.

In Harap (2017), it was about suicide and homosexuality; Potong (2018) talks about dementia in the family with a transgender character; and A Clockwork Orange (2019) was about violence.

Poop! is a great play written by Chong Tze Chien and it’s one of those that strike an emotional chord based on the plot and premise—a broken family whose father committed suicide and a daughter fighting cancer and on the brink of her impending  fate.

What drew you to transcreate Poop! in the first place?

ZR: I watched Poop! a few years ago. I remembered that I left the theatre with such sorrow. No silver lining, no moral of the story. Still so beautiful. I loved how honest it chose to be. Then, sometime in 2018/2019, Shaza asked if I was interested in adapting Poop!  I just had to do it.

MFJ: As depressing as it may seem, on a micro level, these characters represent people who have lost so much—dignity, will, trust, identity, and the meaning to live. They could be our family; friends; neighbour; colleague; the person sitting opposite us in the train; the taxi driver; the stall owner; the man in suit; the lady on a bicycle. Just anyone.

But on a larger view, it reflects how the system is causing people to struggle, to have a skewed perspective and face death way before we are boxed up. 

Are death and berak taboo subjects in a “Malay” cultural context and in Islam? If so, could you elaborate on this?

ZR: I don’t think the Malays view these things as taboo. We talk about both death and passing motion all the time, but some do it  “beralas” (Malay-styled euphemism).

Islam also does not view these subjects as taboo. Death is merely a rite of passage for a human being, and it is not the final destination. How one dies, however, will determine one’s fate in the afterlife.

MFJ: About 98 per cent of Malays are Muslims by default and these plays may contain difficult issues or taboos that do not sit comfortably to some. However, they deserve the attention as we continue to represent a wider spectrum of people within our community. It may not lead us to any solutions, but the bottom line is to acknowledge and say that some people need more help than others. Let’s not sweep it under the carpet.

Are there any interesting discoveries that occurred in the process of transcreation and rehearsals?

ZR: I am always discussing with Fared and Safuan (the sound designer) on how to ensure that Berak is not merely a translated play performed by Malay actors. Berak must exist in a Malay universe with all its absurdities and peculiarities. Only then, I feel that we can have an honest conversation with regards to the play’s subject matter.

MFJ: Zulfadli Rashid (Big) is a bilingual writer who has strong sensitivity towards the Malay language, culture and psyche. He has been brilliant in trans-creating the works at Ekamatra, especially Berak. However, the creative input is not just limited to the playwright or director. Actors, designers, managers and crew help to carve and colour that world, and make it as authentic as possible.

Perspectives definitely change and heightened once culture is brought into the picture. The process of transcreation gives us the artistic licence to build a world within our own parameters and identity.


Berak runs from 25–28 March 2020 at Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, WILD RICE @ Funan. Tickets from Sistic

Update: This performance has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Interview] 4.48 Psychosis is “already an intercultural work to me”, Director Andy Ng Wai-Shek

In slightly over a week, the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will present the first ever multi-lingual adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. I spoke to director Andy Ng Wai-Shek, an award-winning practitioner from Hong Kong  and alumnus of ITI’s pioneering batch, to find out more about the production.

Andy Ng Wai-Shek / Courtesy of ITI

How does it feel to return to your alma mater as a guest director? How has ITI changed over the years since you were a student?

I still feel very much part of the school even though I have met different faces. There is a vibration that keeps reminding me this is where I came from. After 17 years, I’ve come to realise how this programme isn’t just about simply doing theatre — it’s about personal perceptual experiences.

This programme synthesises the differences between cultures; perceptions of different bodily experiences; the possible marriage of body and mind; and, most importantly, the unanswerable question of how to put different training methods into one. It sets a foundation of life-long research for a person in the evolution of his life. In fact, this is the research I’m still doing all these years since my graduation. I suggest ITI can also play a role to encourage the research.

4.48 Psychosis is not immediately thought of as an intercultural work. What drew you to adapt this piece for ITI?

It is already an intercultural work to me when I knew that I had to work with students from Taiwan, Malaysia, India, and Korea. 4.48 Psychosis is more on personal thoughts and feelings than drama. The structure of it drifts on a stream of consciousness. It is logically disrupted. In other words, it can be very personal.

Though the work is in English, I would like them to try certain scenes in their mother tongue. The idea of it is that there are five storytellers telling the story, sometimes deeply immersing themselves into the very thoughts and feelings of “I”. One of my interest when directing is the connection between one’s consciousness and his or her being. Now, the text says it. The actors need to find their ways to reveal it. They show me according to what they can do individually. That’s already intercultural.

ITI’s graduating cohort rehearsing 4.48 Psychosis / Courtesy of ITI

Given that your actors are from different countries and from all walks of life, were there any interesting conversations about mental health that arose during the rehearsals?

I had depression since last August and have recently stopped my medication. I shared my experience with the students. They shared their experiences with me and their fellow peers. Some students have also consulted a counsellor. I think depression or mental health is already a common issue nowadays, it is just a matter of seeing whether it is serious enough for a person to consult a doctor or not. I am not interested in telling a story of mental disorder. I think the playwright did try her last call for help. Why? I hope that the audience can understand that.

Could you give us a glimpse of what the show would be like? Do you tap on the actors’ intercultural training in your direction of the show?

Five storytellers telling this story, using a psycho-physical approach to develop the work of a visual poem. Yes, some of the scenes to use their intercultural training, but it’s a different look. How so? You will have to come to the show to find out.


4.48 Psychosis by Intercultural Theatre Institute runs from 12–14 March 2020 at The Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] Cats, presented by Base Entertainment Asia

I am honoured to be invited by Hawk Liu (singing teacher, singer, and actor) to share my thoughts on Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, brought to Singapore by Base Entertainment Asia.

Full details can be found on Hawk’s website.

In this spontaneous exchange, we talked about the background of the show; how it compares to previous stagings; and what we liked about the actual show that we watched on 19 December 2019.

Addenda

♦ The Guardian article I was referring to is by Katherine Hughes on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Dance / Movement
♦ While we spoke mainly of ballet, there were elements of tap dance, jazz, and contemporary in this musical.

♦ A key element in the musical is audience interaction. The cats were scampering from the audience onto the stage. It may be easy to stand up and do a few cat-like twitches of the head. But the actors actually crawled up and down the aisles. The embodiment here is wonderful. 

♦ There was a strong synchronicity and control in the cast. 

Music

♦ Some may complain that the timbre of the music, with the multiple keyboards, may sound a little dated. But I think it still works for the musical as it creates an unnerving feeling created whenever Macavity is thought to be nearby. 

♦ As with the dramaturgy, there is also a range of music styles present such as rock, music hall, pseudo-opera, and many more.  

♦ “Memory” sung by Grizzabella is good, but slightly marred by the extreme jacking up of her mic’s sound level during the climax of the song. This limits the actor’s ability to expand her presence and voice. It becomes a little jarring. 


More About Hawk Liu

Hawk has interviewed many actors and creatives of big musicals that were brought to Singapore. Visit his website to watch them. 

If you are interested in singing, you can learn more about Hawk’s singing lessons here.

[Theatre Review] Ploddy Todd

Sweeney Todd (Jett Pangan) and Mrs Lovett (Lea Salonga)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre
3 December 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
28 November‒8 December 2019

We all know that Mrs Lovett has the “worst pies in London”, but at least she could tell us what is in them.

The same cannot be said of Bobby Garcia’s production of Sweeney Todd.

In the programme notes, he states that he drew his inspiration from Hitchcock’s thrillers and wanted to create a scary atmosphere filled with suspense. He also wanted the visual aspects of the show to “subtly comment on the industrial revolution” when technology and automation took over “home made [sic] manufacturing”.

The result?

A production that borrows its vehicles from Grease and wardrobe from Rent. Set designer David Gallo then sprinkles the vehicles all over, while costume designer Rajo Laurel refashions the slum-dwellers as sloppy American teenagers—his idea of deconstructing Sweeney Todd.

The show then starts with the characters spending five full minutes exploring the set with torch lights only to remind the audience to put away their mobile phones—scary and suspenseful indeed.

Worse still, most of the major action is carried out on the back, the bonnet, or inside a utility vehicle. Mr Todd’s barbershop is on the back of a utility vehicle while Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is on the stage. Todd’s victims simply get up from the chair, slides off the side of the vehicle, and walks into cage-like oven on stage right.

As if that cannot get any worse, the utility vehicle has to be manually moved by the ensemble as the floorboards crackle, even in the quieter moments.

Vehicles borrowed from “Grease”, costumes borrowed from “Rent”

Continuing the theme of incoherence is Jett Pangan as Sweeney Todd. Rather than being hell-bent on revenge for his wrongful conviction and the loss of his wife, Pangan’s Todd comes across as a bored teenager in a math class. His sudden outbursts of anger are completely unmotivated. To top it all off, his accent zips across continents at a pace that would put the Concorde to shame. It varies between faux-British, American South, and a sprinkle of the Bronx. His only saving grace is that he could carry a tune, albeit in a very studied fashion.

This is in stark contrast to Lea Salonga’s vivacity as Mrs Lovett, and she maintains her cockney accent impeccably. Her eccentricities are endearing and the way she plays up the comical aspects of Mrs Lovett is refreshing. Mrs Lovett’s pies may be half-baked, but Salonga’s performance is anything but so. One feels sorry for her in “A Little Priest” as Mrs Lovett imagines the various victims that would be used in her pies. Salonga gives everything she got and hits every joke only for it to fall flat when it comes to Pangan—imagine trying to bounce a tennis ball off a soggy pile of mud.

An imperious baritone voice is quite suitable for Judge Turpin (Andrew Fernando), who sentenced Sweeney (then known as Benjamin Barker) while taking the latter’s daughter, Johanna Barker, as his ward. Unfortunately, Fernando cannot seem to shake off his opera training, resulting in some lyrics and spoken text being garbled by the plummy timbre of his operatic baritone voice.

Nyoy Volante’s Adolfo Pirelli, Todd’s competitor who knows of his past, is delightful dainty and one relishes his camp posturing.

Gerald Santos tries his best with the accent as Anthony Hope. He succeeds by delivering his lines with two different types of inflections, thereby giving us a forgettable performance. This is slightly improved when he is with his love interest, Johanna Barker (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), who has a pleasant singing voice, and Sondheim ought to be chastised for not giving her more music.

The ensemble as chorus commenting on the story is decent. They serve as the glue that is just about strong enough to prevent this slap-dash production from collapsing into a junk heap.

At the end of it all, one goes away not being spooked one bit, but wishing Mrs Lovett and Pirelli got together and do a thigh-slapping revue instead.

Other Reviews

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street review at Sands Theatre in Singapore – It’s bloody and awful, but not bloody awful” by Andrew Leci, Robb Report Singapore

“Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment, Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

Continue reading

[Interview] Crossing Lines with Director Koh Wan Ching

In the latest public showcase by the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), they will be presenting a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, a new play by Australian playwright, Andrew Sutherland.

According to him, the play “attempts to untangle difficult concepts of futurity and futurelessness against the imminent existential threat of climate futures. From the natural to the interpersonal, the play contends with the deep exhaustions and ambivalences of witness and memory.”

To find out more about the play, I spoke to the director of the production, Koh Wan Ching. 

In your previous work, precise purpose of being broken, there is a scene in which you highlighted our insatiable consumption of plastic. How has that process of creating that work made you more aware of environmental issues?

For precise purpose of being broken, I had to collect hundreds of plastic water bottles to be used as props. Rather than partnering up with organisations that had an easy supply of used bottles, I decided to see if it was possible to accumulate the bottles I needed by doing tiny beach clean-ups along East Coast Park. The speed at which I began to accumulate bottles was shocking, and it became clear to me day by day that the so called environmental concern I was addressing is more rightly described as environmental crisis.

What is your process of working with playwright Andrew Sutherland?

Andrew and I worked sporadically together; I read his plays and poetry and followed his development as a theatre-maker, performer, and playwright. The seed for this project was planted two to three years ago, when I asked Andrew to write some texts with the stimulus: rising water, furniture and two women. Although this particular project did not take off, the texts he had written stayed with me until I was given an opportunity to direct this showcase by ITI.

I asked Andrew what most occupied him at the moment and what he would most want to write about. Likewise, I shared with him what kept me up at night. We exchanged articles and readings, notes, songs and videos. I think we built between us a well of thoughts, feelings, memories, stimulus and provocations that Andrew then drew upon to craft into a play.

ITI students in rehearsal (Photo courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute)

As you are working with students from ITI, will the show incorporate any intercultural elements?

The process that I try to bring to all my projects is one of exploration and experimentation. We spend a lot of time in the beginning of the process making compositions and devising assignments in and around the piece. We present these compositions to each other and thus develop a collective memory of movement vocabulary, sounds, objects, and imagination. These will then go on to inform the design, staging and blocking of the piece. In building up this rich and diverse store, the students negotiate their training and their contemporary bodies and sensibilities.

In the process of researching and directing this piece, have you discovered any interesting or shocking facts?

Definitely. I asked the cast to choose research topics they are interested in and we do weekly research presentations on a wide range of topics such as animals being affected by human action, costs of food production, lives of sea turtles, different types of lightning, and many more. 

While climate change affects everyone. Different cultures will have different relationships with the environment. In the course of working with a diverse cast, were there any differences that came to the fore which you found interesting or challenged your own perspectives?

In terms of the main question of the piece: What does it mean to face futurelessness and the environmental crises? We have gained a broader outlook and perspective by looking at them from different countries and societies.

For some of the cast, environmental issues may not be the most pertinent thing they want to speak about, as they currently face challenges far more pressing in their societies. But when we look at environmental concerns in less restrictive ways – it is not just about plastic in the ocean and using less plastic in our lives – we begin to see the ways that climate crises are linked to inequality and social justice. People who are the least equipped for climate adaptation and the least responsible for carbon emissions can be the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. Their food and water safety and supply can also be compromised by climate change. These issues are inter-connected. 


a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be runs from 5–7 September 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] The Last Generic Hurrah

La Mariposa Borracha (The Drunken Butterfly)
Creatives Inspirit
27 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Gateway Theatre Black Box
26‒28 July 2019

With a hospital hallway being projected onto a blank triptych, low beeps of medical machinery, and a digital display showing that a lift is out of order, one looks forward to how patient X (Shanice Stanislaus) will escape from the hospital and put on her final performance.

Unfortunately, the plot does not take much precedence after the prologue, and the show alternates between scenes when X is ill and a variety of dance sequences by the clown troupe (Snider played by Yazid Jalil, Tommy Wildfire played by Tan Rui Shan, and Z played by Dennis Sofian) as they try to carry on with the “show”. Thus, we see X struggling with different aspects of her sickness, and the dance sequences seem to cheer her up—to find the joy and love in laugh amidst life’s darkest moments.

Once the audience gets the basic premise, the show feels as if it is running on two tracks, and one learns to expect a fun bit, followed by a poignant bit, and that is it.

While it is enjoyable to watch the whimsical troupe and the larger ensemble (Krish Natarajan, Nicole Kong, Andrea Joy Alingalan, Alvyna Han, Zalifah Ibrahim, Carol Ee, Prema Latha) indulge in their inner disco divas; boy band heartthrobs; or Zumba junkies, these do not go beyond the idea of celebrating life.

Overall, Stanislaus, who also wrote this show, and director Alvin Chiam do have some good ideas: the heart-breaking phone call between X and her mother; and X perched on the ladder during a dance scene as Tommy passes her the balloons, making X the image of tragic clown as she bears the burdens of her illness. But they seem to be occasional moments of inspiration, rather than entry points into exploring an issue.

While the show could have been conceptually stronger, it is buoyed by the principal cast. The audience interaction with X is quite amusing, as Stanislaus has a wry sense of humour. Yazid Jalil puts on an engaging performance as Snider. While he may be the strict “master of punctuality” of the troupe, it is interesting to track his reactions throughout the show, as they betray a kind heart underneath a stern exterior. Tan Rui Shan’s Tommy is a ball of energy that keeps on giving. Dennis Sofian’s Z is endearingly earnest, and his sense of loss when X’s illness worsens does highlight the difficulty of caregiving.

Ultimately, the team needs to dig deeper and see what exactly it is about illness and caregiving they are trying to explore, while having both aspects of the show in a tighter weave. Apart from it being fun, what other potentials do the dance sequences have?

The drunken butterfly need not be in a hurry to take flight. It should take more time and consideration to plot its trajectory before doing so.