[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

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[Theatre Review] Lavish Panto-fusion

monkey_goes_west_2016_pic_5

Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Monkey Goes West

W!ld Rice

29 November 2016

Drama Centre Theatre

18 November–17 December 2016

W!ld Rice is well-known for adopting the pantomime, and infusing it with local references and jokes. With Monkey Goes West, the company pushes the envelope by adapting a Chinese legend into a British theatrical convention, while bringing in Asian practices such as martial arts, Chinese opera, and shadow puppetry as narrative devices.

The plot revolves around Ah Tang (Joshua Lim), a teenager who has lost his mother and has to live with Uncle Moo (Darius Tan), Auntie Fanny (Chua En Lai), and their spoilt child, Xiao Hong (Kimberly Chan). Feeling unloved and missing his mother on her death anniversary, he runs away from home and goes to Haw Par Villa.

Falling asleep, he falls into a dream state and he finds himself assuming the role of the monk in Journey to the West as he supposedly attempts to travel from Haw Par Villa to Jurong West with the help of his disciples: Wu Kong (Sugie Phua), Pigsy (Frances Lee), and Sandy (Siti Khalijah Zainal). Knowing that any journey made within Singapore’s borders is physically unimpressive, playwright Alfian Sa’at cleverly turns it into one of self-transformation.

First staged in 2014, this ambitious show could have gone the way of most fusion cuisines; a hodge-podge of ingredients that form a veneer of the exotic, but they do not go together and one is left with an odd aftertaste. What keeps this production together is director Sebastian Tan’s methodical conceptualisation of where the elements should go.

Alfian manages to serve up a delicious fare of innuendos, satire, and jokes which send the audience rollicking in their seats, while offering an important lesson of self-control to the children. Having entertained the audience and building up their expectations for most of the show, he falters toward the end with a slightly trite resolution in order for the moral of the story to be delivered. Additionally, the headstrong nature of Sandy which is in the original tale and key to the moral of the story is not apparent.

With the script being resolutely steeped in the pantomime tradition, Elaine Chan’s music enhances that with its offering of cabaret-style tunes with the occasional Chinese motif. The songs were well thought out and it gives space for every cast member to display their vocal chops.

The Chinese opera sequences and shadow puppetry figure in the fight scenes as the disciples, mainly Wu Kong, have to battle various monsters and demons (Darius Tan, Chua Enlai, and Kimberly Chan double up as King Bull, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy respectively) along their journey. There, these practices are left as is with traditional Chinese percussion playing in the background. As it impossible for the actors to ramp up the intensity of the Chinese opera sequences without years of training, movement coach and fight choreographer Gordon Choy circumvents this limitation by introducing farcical sequences that play to the actors’ strong sense of comic timing.

Top it off with Wong Chee Wai’s lavish sets, sleek transitions, dazzling stage effects, and some of the most versatile actors in the industry, Monkey Goes West is a sheer treat for the senses.

With this show being a milestone for W!ld Rice’s pantomime tradition, one wonders if it is possible for the elements from different cultures to be more intertwined without it being an incomprehensible pastiche. All the more reason to look forward to Mama White Snake, W!ld Rice’s next pantomime which draws from another Chinese tale, Madam White Snake.

Other Reviews

“Making fun (of)” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“An ‘A’ Production — Artistic, Amusing, and Adept!” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Monkey Goes West: Embark On The Happiest & Funniest Journey To (Jurong) West” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“[Review] Monkey Goes West by Natalie Danielle, Campus Magazine

“Review: Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Listing] Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice

monkey-goes-west

Bringing the Year of the Monkey to a happy climax, W!LD RICE’s award-winning Monkey Goes West will be returning for a strictly limited season to the Drama Centre Theatre for the holidays.

Monkey Goes West completely sold out its first run in 2014, playing to an audience of more than 15,000 at the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre. It dominated the 2015 Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards with seven nominations – more than any other production that year. It eventually took home the awards for Production of the Year, Production of the Year (Reader’s Choice) and Best Costume Design (Tube Gallery).

“The W!LD RICE pantomime is a unique annual tradition for family audiences in Singapore, and Monkey Goes West set a new benchmark in terms of the artistic excellence that we always strive for,” says Ivan Heng, Artistic Director of W!LD RICE. “In the Year of the Monkey, we are thrilled that audiences, both loyal and new, will have the opportunity to experience this incredible show for themselves!”

With an affectionate, cheeky script by W!LD RICE Resident Playwright Alfian Sa’at, music by acclaimed composer Elaine Chan and direction by Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan, Monkey Goes West is the first W!LD RICE pantomime to take inspiration from the East, relocating beloved Chinese literary classic Journey To The West to modern-day Singapore.

Tan, who earned a Straits Times Life! Theatre Award nomination for Best Director for his work, will return to direct the production, which he describes as a “dream come true”.

“Monkey Goes West turned out to be this award-winning show that audiences loved and couldn’t get enough of, which is really why we are bringing it back so soon,” Tan explains with pride.

Young talents from Martial House – Singapore’s leading wushu academy – will be showing off their impressive martial arts skills on stage. The academy will also work closely with the children of W!LD RICE’s FIRST STAGE! programme, aged 5 to 12, in preparation for their stage debuts.

The cast of Monkey Goes West includes some of Singapore’s finest veteran actors and rising stars. Familiar faces like Chua Enlai (The Importance of Being Earnest, TV’s The Noose), Siti Khalijah Zainal (HOTEL, Best Of) and Darius Tan (Army Daze, Twelve Angry Men) will share the stage with Sugie Phua (Project SuperStar, Liao Zhai Rocks!) Joshua Lim (My Mother Buys Condoms, Café), Frances Lee (Beauty World, Fat Pig) and Kimberly Chan (High Class, Hotpants).

Monkey Goes West runs from 18 November–17 December 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.

[Theatre Review] Turning Up The Heat on Politics

STF2016 GRC by Teater Ekamatra pic 2

Courtesy of Teater Ekamatra

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Geng Rebut Cabinet

Teater Ekamatra

Commissioned by W!ld Rice for Singapore Theatre Festival 2016

14 July 2016

Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts

14 — 24 July 2016

Neither our theatre scene nor playwright Alfian Sa’at is a stranger to political plays. But what the avid theatre-goer would have been used to is a play that focuses on a particular issue, and offers a barrage of criticisms; some vociferous, while others are comical.

In Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC), we see Alfian Sa’at unfurling his list of criticisms of government policies, especially those which affect different racial groups, and frame all of them within the boundaries of a political farce. From the lack of Malays in the main military roles; to the lack of Malay representation in local popular culture; to the media releasing negative statistics according racial lines, nothing escapes this playwright.

Despite packing in so many issues and criticisms, he achieves the incredible feat of not allowing it to be overbearing, didactic, or a tiresome lament. His creation of a hypothetical Singapore with Malays being the majority, while the Chinese the minority of the population is a defamiliarising element that throws the justifications the government gives for their policies into sharper relief.

It is within this sophisticated structure that the plot of five candidates from the ruling party contesting to win a group representational constituency in an election progresses. As Catherine Seah (played by Serene Chen), the minority Chinese candidate, deviates from the party line by campaigning for improving the Chinese community, the play poses questions that transcends beyond race issues: Who should a politician represent? What constitutes the people? Should one campaign for what one believes in despite in displeasing one’s constituents?

These questions are raised as Catherine comes into conflict with her colleagues: grassroots activist Zainab Halim (Dhalifah Shahril), Minister of Human Resources Roslan Jantan (Khairudin Samsudin), retired Brigadier-General Bukhari Ghazali (Fir Rahman), and Maisarah Hamdan (Farah Ong); a lawyer who neither harps on her homosexuality nor identifies herself to be part of the LGBT community.

While characters in a farce are not meant to be complex, the cast should be lauded for their robust performances. The comical moments are buoyant and entertaining as the actors pick up on each other cues quickly, while the tense moments are played with emotional truth as each character knows what they want out of the exchange.

All said and done, the successful staging of the show, with merely an advisory that says the show is suited for 16 years and above, raises another political issue. Why did the powers that be let such a show pass?

Of course, I can only offer speculations.

While I would love to think that the authorities have become enlightened to allow the airing of such issues, they could be acting based on yet another old argument. Plays have very limited reach, and theatre-goers are usually more “sophisticated” than the lay person. Furthermore, the “problematic” character is Chinese and not Malay. As such, the Malay audience members would not identify with her too strongly. If that were the case, then the very existence of GRC as a staged play is a manifestation of the problems that the playwright is trying to raise.

Other Reviews

“The Party Don’t Stop: A Review of GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen

“Review: GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Chasing our dreams… together?” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

““少数与多数之间的互换与碰撞” by Zekson Tan (陈迦笙), Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

[Theatre Review] A Celebration of Two Countries

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Another Country

W!ld Rice

27 June 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

25 June–11 July 2015

”If only at one point our hands could clasp,

What rich variety and gesture could be ours.”

~ Dance by Fadzilah Amin

Like any love-hate relationship, Singapore and Malaysia have often come to fisticuffs. But in Another Country, we waved at our cousins, raced across the room, pulled them up, and danced with them.

We danced to the melodies and sentiments excavated from the texts of both countries that span five centuries. Drawing from literature, interviews, and even legal documents, Alfian Sa’at intricately weaves together the text for Sayang Singapura while Leow Puay Tin does the same for Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2.

The Malaysian ensemble (Ghafir Akabar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, Iedil Putra) interprets the Singaporean texts and the Singaporean ensemble (Sharida Harrison, Lim Yu-Beng, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Siti Khalijah Zainal) performs the Malaysian texts.

What emerges is a beautiful testament to the rich cultural resources we share that present a socio-historical account of the concerns that the writers had. This compels the audience to re-look at their own stories from a fresh perspective while listening and learning more about the other side.

The curators must be applauded for picking texts which not only cover events running up to the merger or just after the separation, but also broach uncomfortable topics.

Notable selections from the Malaysian corpus include Tunku Abdul Rahman dreaming of a bad omen which preceded the race riots in Malaysia, Amir Muhammed’s 120 Malay Movies which discusses Singapore marking the start of the national narrative at 1965 and parallels that with the Malaysians not acknowledging their cultural roots from the Hindu empires of old, and the self-reflexive The Myths that Cloak Our Theatre by Krishen Jit which criticises the industry for the lack of community theatre projects and turning theatre into a polished product meant for the middle classes to consume.

The Singapore selection explores political censure, among other topics, by choosing The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ by Eleanor Wong, Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How, and Gemuk Girls by Haresh Sharma. The most interesting choice of them all is Elangovan’s Talaq which portrays how some Indian-Muslim husbands intentionally misinterpret Islamic principles to justify their infidelity and subjugation of their brides from India. I was surprised that the Media Development Authority allowed this to pass given that they banned the original performance of the English script.  I hope that the audience would be compelled to read the play in full and judge it for themselves.

The possible dialogues sparked off by this production would not have been possible without the brilliant performances by both ensembles. Their talent and versatility are clear for all to see as they are able to smoothly transit between texts that have very different demands and characters. The actors are also able to command the stage during their individual scenes and immediately reintegrate back as an organic whole once that is over. I would not be surprised if this production gets a nomination for best ensemble at the Life! Theatre Awards and it will be such a lovely gift to the Malaysian actors as well.

This project needs to be revisited every decade and updated with new and exciting writing. Apart from the texts we have, future iterations should boldly experiment with performance practices and forms. Who knows? Perhaps we could develop a performance vocabulary unique to both sides of the causeway—our own artistic secret handshake.

A Hypothetical Anthology

This semester, I took a module on Singapore English-Language Theatre. It made me realise how rich our local theatre history is and how one generation of playwrights builds on the previous generation. As part of our course assessment, we are required to put together a hypothetical anthology and write a critical introduction to said anthology. The following is an excerpt from the introduction which offers a brief analysis of all the plays to be included in the anthology based on the theme of invisibility.

If you are interested in reading the plays, click on the links to either purchase or borrow (when they are not freely available) the collections which feature the particular play.

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This collection starts with Elangovan’s Talaq. It is arguably the most controversial play of the collection as it was perceived to be against Islamic principles which offended the Indian Muslim community (Hamilton 1999). This resulted in the English version being banned in 2000. Talaq explores the plight of Muslim brides from India being married off to Indian Muslim husbands in Singapore. They are often ill-treated and Islamic precepts are intentionally misinterpreted as a justification for their subjugation. The use of monodrama thus empowers the wives as we only hear their perspective and anguish which is normally silenced in the public sphere. Having the wife voicing the comments made by her husband and her community gives one a vivid impression of how she is personally affected by it. Cyril Wong (2014) also notes that it evokes a sense of schizophrenia and that “[i]n a world gone insane, patriarchy is the unscalable wall that the victimised woman in the monologue rams and rails against, and predictably to no avail.” In a society that is so afraid to discuss anything pertaining to religion, Talaq boldly breaks the silence and insists we take a look at what is happening to Indian Muslim women.

Apart from its historical importance of it being used as incriminating evidence against members of Third Stage, Esperanza by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng, presents the struggle of maids trying to earn a living in Singapore (Li 2012). It is unfortunate that, despite a rise in advocacy of their rights, some of the scenes in the play still ring true almost 30 years on. The employment of naturalism allows the playwrights to present situations that mirror the treatment of maids in some households.  This affords easy identification with the plight of the maids which is evident from the sympathetic and positive press reviews of the performance (Speeden and Sampang 1986). Yet, Esperanza is controversial in other ways. It raises the question of why there was a clamp down on this rather tame play with modest ambitions and whether the maid character is truly pitiable considering that she did certain things out of revenge. While there are no easy answers, this play should not be dismissed simply because it was mired in some political controversy.

Russell Heng’s Lest The Demons Get to Me is one of the few plays that depicts the experience of a transsexual in the face of societal pressures and expectations. While it is also a monodrama, Heng adds an additional layer by including the voices of other characters but they are only heard off-stage. This gives a sense of the public intruding on the private—familial and societal demands encroaching on the privacy of Kim Choon (KC) as she has to decide whether to capitulate and conduct her father’s funeral rites as the only son, or to secretly pay her respects as the disgraced son-turned-daughter. To make matters worse, the impending closure of Bugis Street also threatens the collective memory of her and other transsexuals. Should she hold on to the identity that she identifies with or should she conform to that which society puts on her? Unlike other plays which present issues about transsexuals within a socio-political framework as camp is used to subvert societal norms, Heng’s poignant piece is firmly grounded in a personal struggle. The title is most fitting for as a child, KC wears an earring to ward off traditional supernatural demons. But as an adult, she must decide if she wants to don her earrings to reclaim her identity and fend against demons of tradition.

While the prevalence of dementia is generally known, it is rarely talked about. Haresh Sharma’s Don’t Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association of Singapore. Such a collaboration shows that organisations can tap into the potential of theatre to inform without resorting to a skit filled with clichés and awkward writing. This lyrical piece juxtaposes the reality of the dementia patient to that of the caregiver and it depicts the struggles that both face. Getting the mother and daughter to converse in different languages not only marks the generation gap but it also emphasises the difference between the two realities as both try to reach out to the other. Kenneth, the day care centre manager, delivers the medical information but without sounding as if he is reciting a medical brochure. The ability to write such a heartfelt piece while including the need of educating the audience about taking care of dementia patients is a strong testament to Sharma’s skill as a playwright. It is unfortunate that this play had a short run before touring to selected communities for it deserves more attention not only for the message, but for the writing as well.

In terms of technique, Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings can be said to be the most complicated of this collection. Similar to Asian Boys Vol. 1, this play has a strong inter-textual element in which Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris (1992) lies at the heart of the play. The play revolves around Joe who sets out to write a novel called Peculiar Chris. In the process of crafting his novel, his Muse and the characters in the story will question his authorial choices and the audience gets to see the storyline of the novel being enacted. Based on this simple premise which is enhanced by meta-theatrical (the actor playing Joe will play Chris) and meta-narrative (the Muse and characters asking him whether the plot should be that way) devices, Alfian Sa’at presents us with a typology of gay men and some of them will be based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in a hetero-normative society. We are thus compelled to examine our own perceptions, especially if we are heterosexual, of the gay community. This is emphasised further by the characters discriminating among themselves or arguing over whether they should agitate for change or be content with the limited freedoms that they have. Whatever opinion one holds, Happy Endings makes you recognise that the gay community is not homogeneous and perhaps convince you to get to know the individuals better.

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All the plays in this anthology have received previous publication. The details are as follows:

Elangovan. “Talaq.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 13-53. Print.

Heng, Russell. “Lest The Demons Get To Me.” Fat Virgins, Fast Cars and Asian Values. Singapore: Times International, 1993. 28-53. Print.

Sa’at, Alfian. “Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings.” Collected Plays Two: The Asian Boys Trilogy. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 191-272. Print

Sharma, Haresh. “Don’t Forget To Remember Me.” Don’t Forget To Remember Me. Singapore: Necessary Stage, 2013. 124-146. Print

Wong, Souk Yee, and Tay, Hong Seng. “Esperenza.” 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of  Five Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chuan. Third Stage, 2004. 100-129. Print.

 

Works Cited

Hamilton, Andrea. “The Rights of Marriage: A One-woman Play Has Caused a Stir in       Singapore’s Little India.” Asia Week. Cable News Network, 26 Mar. 1999. Web. 12    Apr. 2015. <http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0326/feat3.html&gt;.

Lee, Johann S. Peculiar Chris. Singapore: Cannon International, 1992. Print.

Li, Lisa. “Third Stage: Theatre Company or “Marxist Network”?” Remembering 1987. 26 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015 <https://remembering1987.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/third-stage-theatre-company-or-marxist-network/&gt;

Speeden, Muriel, and Crisanta Sampang. “Play May Help Bridge A Yawning Chasm.” The Straits Times 7 June 1986. 34. Print.

Wong, Cyril. “Preface.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 5-9. Print.