Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #Causeway

In the final instalment of Baca Skrip, Teater Ekamatra takes us across the border and back with Aflian Sa’at’s “Causeway”. 

I spoke to the actors involved in this presentation to find out more about their processes and thoughts about the play. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: It has been fun! I’ve always enjoyed working with actors from around the region to share stories. The first session was a read and trying to understand the context of the play and how we are going to interpret it. The next few was to make sure we get everything in order. Being in a room with great talents is a blessing. Everyone is on the ball and gunning to make this production amazing! You might think that having to just sit in your room during rehearsal is easy, but it is quite tiring! You have to deal with the text and technology!

Hafidz Rahman: It’s definitely different doing zoom rehearsals but I think the good thing about zoom is that it keeps me alert throughout—I don’t get to zone out like I usually do during normal rehearsals. It’s a lot of reading, a lot of technical discussions, a lot of preparation and a lot of sitting.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: Most of the time I spend time solving tech problems! When it comes to acting, it is a strange feeling. While it is fun to get into character in my own bedroom, I’m not entirely sure if I’m all in. I feel like I’m giving my all but I’m not sure if my co-actors are feeling me, the way I want them to!

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Proses rehearsal secara online memerlukan para pelakon tidak hanya membaca skrip dan berlakon, tetapi terlibat dalam hal-hal teknikal. Pelakon perlu sentiasa bersedia untuk menukar aplikasi snap camera untuk kepelbagaian karektor. Juga berdepan dengan masalah-masalah coverage internet dan lain-lain. Namun proses interaksi yang baik antara krew dan pelakon dapat melicinkan proses latihan.

(The online rehearsal process requires the actors not only to read the script and act, but to engage in technical matters. The actors must always be ready to change the snap camera app for a variety of characters. We also faced internet coverage problems and others. But the process of good interaction between the crew and the actors help smoothen the training process.)

Arjun Thanaraju: The rehearsal process was definitely different than anything I have ever experienced before. Not only are we taking notes as actors but we are also taking notes as our own camera person, lighting director, special effects coördinator, and so much more! This made me appreciate just how much work goes into a production and how important every element is in making the show a success. 

Darynn Wee: It’s a unique kind of process compared to the usual physical rehearsal. It’s convenient because we don’t have to travel to the rehearsal place, but  it also not that convenient because of the technical demands. A few of us had to figure out some technical issues before the rehearsals and sometimes even during rehearsals. But once we got it settled, it’s a huge relief. With this group of people, it has been really fun! I enjoyed every bits with them. We especially had a good laugh over the ridiculous camera filters. That sort of broke the ice for us. Something we wouldn’t get to experiment with the ‘live’ sort of encounter. That’s a bit sad because we’re still missing that physical connection.

Gloria Tan: All rehearsals have been held online, with a good amount of time spent with us trying out new filters for each scene and giggling at one another, from Singapore to Malaysia.

What are some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: Technology can be your friend and your worst enemy. We always pray for smooth connection all the time. There were times during rehearsals when some of us had to drop out due to poor connection or tech difficulties. As actors, we need to learn to multi-task now and become tech-savvy along the way! It is definitely a new experience. I do miss being in one space with fellow actors and crew not forgetting the live audience. However, we could sense the energy from everyone involved, and everyone is rooting for each other to do well, so that is a nice feeling. The first few rehearsals were to understand the play, now, it is to make sure we get the technology down for a smooth run.

Hafidz Rahman: My main challenge is really bridging that human interaction online because I cannot talk to them in the flesh. We don’t get to hang out together during breaks or after rehearsals so it almost feels like a long-distance relationship.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: It is hard to get a sense of everyone’s energy while we are online. It’s hard to break the ice with the other actors and crew members whom you’ve never worked with on a zoom call. I wished we had more time to speak to each other.

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Saya seorang pelakon yang tidak boleh hilang fokus. Ia akan membuat saya stress dan gelabah. Saya juga kurang arif dalam hal teknologi. Saya selalu berdebar untuk menukar dan mengalih aplikasi. Di waktu yang sama perlu memberi penghayatan pada skrip. Ia sukar pada saya yang amatlah noob dengan teknologi. Saya seorang diri yang mengawalnya. Jadi ia memang menakutkan. Perasaan berdebar yang berpanjangan tidak baik untuk saya. Ia akan buat saya rasa sesal dan sedih tidak dapat beri yang terbaik. Saya faham jika ada sedikit saja kesalahan, ia akan beri kesan pada semua.

(I am an actor who cannot lose focus. It will make me stressed and nervous. I am also less knowledgeable in terms of technology. I am always panicking whenever I need to change and switch apps. I have to appreciate and focus on the written work, all at the same time. It is difficult for me because I’m a greenhorn when it comes to technology. I am the only one who controls it. So it’s really scary. Feeling anxious is not good for me. It will make me feel sorry and sad because I was not able to give my best. I understand that if there are a few mistakes, it will affect everyone.)

Arjun Thanaraju: Theatre has always been about human connection for me. Especially with an ensemble piece like this, building rapport with my fellow actors is something I deem very important. It was definitely a challenge to do that through a screen but I think we managed to overcome that obstacle quite early on in the rehearsal process because everyone was so warm and welcoming towards each other!

Darynn Wee: We don’t really know what is going on to our other cast mates or crew if something happened, and if you’re facing it, it’s like you’re alone, and the rest will be wondering what is going on. I had some internet connection problem at the first read, and I missed out some chunk of the rehearsal.

Another thing is to be on the same page with each other, I may be thinking that you are seeing what I am seeing on screen but we are actually not seeing the same thing. So what we did was we shared screen or shared our screenshots in WhatsApp.

Gloria Tan: Sometimes the room (online) can be rather cold. You come online and saying hello to give a little burst of energy, but no one replies you because everyone’s mics are all muted, and everyone is intently looking at their screens because the internet connection is not stable. Lines with repartee are definitely tricky especially with varying internet speeds (Dear internet Gods, please generously bless us with smooth and stable internet speeds on the 28th of August. Thank you.) which sometimes can be funny when the video frame freezes up when someone is mid-sentence.

That being said, major kudos to the production team for tirelessly working to get everyone up to speed and working to make sure everyone is on the same page while working in isolation.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin: I feel that this form of staging lets you view the stories deeper as you could really see what the characters are going through. You literally get a close-up of what is going on. But there’re also parts where you have to leave it to imagination. For a play that was written 20 years ago, it’s funny how some of the stories and criticism still resonates today. As for whether this is new normal theatre? I think this is  just another form of theatre performance in its infancy stage. A lot more to explore. I just like the potential of it getting a bigger reach globally. You can be in Antartica and still watch a live performance!

Hafidz Rahman: I have read “Causeway” when I was in college and the same themes still resonate with me. It’s just that in this process, with COVID and the inability to actually experience Malaysia, it gives a certain sense of longing. I miss Malaysia.

Umi Kalthum Ismail: This process has made me looked at all scripts differently. It makes me question how much of my upper body and voice can help tell the story better!

Fazleena Hishamuddin: Namun begitu, inilah cabaran yang perlu saya hadapi. Perlahan-lahan saya belajar beradaptasi dengan teknologi. Ia bagus untuk membentuk sikap dan pemikiran saya. Belajar benda baru, bertemu dengan orang baru dan meraikan cabaran bersama. Kalau inilah norma baharu seni persembahan, saya perlu berusaha mengatasi ketakutan saya.

(However, this is the challenge I have to face. Slowly I learnt to adapt to technology. It was great way to shape my attitude and thinking. Learn new things, meet new people and celebrate challenges together. If this is the new norm of performing arts, I will continue to work on overcoming my fears.)

Arjun Thanaraju: I tend to favour narrative-driven pieces because I find the stories more compelling. However, this process has definitely showed me that you can still tell a compelling story through whacky and playful means! This has opened my eyes to a different way of storytelling, one that I intend to pursue further in the future.

Darynn Wee: This script is an interesting piece and we got the chance to just play around and explore a few new things together. Although Alfian wrote this piece several years ago,  some of the issues being talked about are still relatable. We don’t really talk about it as much anymore now, but we still have those thoughts and memories at the back of our mind. I believe we all have our identities tied to the country where we are from and have some sense of pride and memory to it.

We had the liberty to give our input at the last part in introducing ourselves and that brought in some form of our own identity to the piece. So to me, this version of the piece is now ours, in a way.

Gloria Tan: I think the one that stands out the most right now above everything else is how much we all miss theatre and being in a space with the whole team. We also miss the bonding aspect of theatre when everyone works together and feels each other’s energy to  create collectively. We are all very much done with the pandemic.

I would like to thank Teater Ekamatra for creating this Baca Skrip: #___ platform for performers to continue practising and (in the aspect of Causeway) reach out to our fellow performers in Malaysia to remind us all that we in this together and that we are not alone.

Singapore needs Malaysia as much as Malaysia needs Singapore.


Baca Skrip: #Causeway will be presented via Zoom on 28 August 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

AMBOI! Teater Ekamatra Launches a Fundraising Challenge

Despite several cancelled performances, Teater Ekamatra has rolled with the punches and continued to put up performances to champion minority voices. In its efforts to safeguard the future of the arts and to ensure that minority voices have a place within it, Teater Ekamatra has launched a fundraising challenge with a goal to raise $10,000. 

Titled AMBOI!, a colloquial Malay word that expresses wonderment, the fundraising challenge will run from 24 July till 31 August 2020.

It has the unique effect in which every dollar donated will be multiplied four-fold. This is made possible by a private donor who has generously committed to match dollar-for-dollar up to $10,000. The total amount will then be doubled through the Cultural Matching Fund. This will translate into the company being able to receive $40,000 should they be able to achieve the fundraising target.

Furthermore, reaching this fundraising milestone of $10,000 will “unlock” a special reward in the form of a free mini festival of performances via Zoom on 25 September 2020. The two-hour session will feature performances by surprise guests and collaborators of Teater Ekamatra as a way to thank all donors who contributed to the AMBOI! fundraising challenge

The funds raised will help to support Teater Ekamatra’s future programmes, including upcoming digital projects such as a reimagining of recently cancelled production Berak; children’s programme Mat Champion; its long-runnning Playwright Mentorship Programme; and Baca Skrip, a new Zoom play reading series. It will also cover overhead expenses such as rental and staff salaries. 

“As a word with multiple meanings, AMBOI! is an apt rallying cry to galvanise the community with the same spirit of playfulness, thrilling delight and creative expression that is associated with the work of Teater Ekamatra. We hope this fundraising challenge, with its 1:4 feature, will inspire more giving. It’s equally a challenge to ourselves to keep finding ways to carve out space for the ethnic minority voice in Singapore in the years to come.”

Shaza Ishak, Teater Ekamatra’s Company Director

If you would like to support Teater Ekamatra’s artistic endeavours, please donate generously via their giving.sg campaign page. This challenge runs from 24 July till 31 August 2020. 

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu

In the second instalment of Baca Skrip, a monthly series of online readings of Singaporean Malay plays, Fezhah Maznan and Teater Ekamatra presents Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Anak Melayu

I interviewed some of the actors involved in this read (Izzul Irfan, Rusydina Afiqah, Farah Lola, and Ali Mazrin) to find out about their experiences with performing via a digital medium. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Izzul Irfan: The rehearsal process has been very interesting for me as an actor because I sort of have to come up with a new vocabulary as a performer. You are playing the dual roles of both performer and technical team in a sense, because if you freeze or get cut off or your connection’s down, it’s on you to bring yourself back online and working well. So, there’s that headspace that I have had to get used to. Other than that, I think learning to connect over Zoom has been interesting—I have always seen this mode as purely a communication platform and not so much a ‘connecting’ platform. But the process has really been about re-learning how to reach out to the audience (when you can’t see them) and it’s been challenging but rewarding.

Rusydina Afiqah: To start off, there was a read to understand the flow of the story and the characters. Then we went straight in to cover the play bit by bit, a little more in depth each time. Questions were raised as we understood this world a little better.

Farah Lola: All of the rehearsals were held over Zoom calls. Other than it being tricky tehnically, the reading and blocking was easy enough to do.

Ali Mazrin: Basically, we have been going through rehearsals online via Zoom. Which includes all the cast, director and also the crew. Having to pick a spot in my own house and making sure everyone at home do not interrupt the rehearsals is quite hard but fun at the same time.

What were some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Izzul Irfan: Honestly, it drives me crazy that I cannot ‘feel’ everyone’s energy properly because we are not physically present together (which is something I really miss). So I think doing an ensemble piece where there is contant ping-ponging of energy on a virtual space has been difficult. With Anak Melayu, getting the tempo right is important and we’re really working hard towards that.

Rusydina Afiqah: For me, understanding the story took a while longer. There were a lot more things to juggle than just imagining the world. There were five more tiny screens during rehearsals that I had to be aware of, all at the same time.

Farah Lola: Perhaps physical and eye contact. Our eyelines were a little different because we were looking at different points of the screen, and you really needed to refine vocal inflections to know who the character is addressing but we’ve managed to work it out. We also had to bounce off energy more vocally as there was no physical space with other actors to feel out.

Ali Mazrin: Because it is an online rehearsal, we face quite a number of technical challenges such as the connection of the internet and also capturing of the cast’s voice. Being in a different space then the rest of the cast makes it more challenging in having the same energy as everyone during rehearsal.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Izzul Irfan: Effendy’s plays are always very physical, and as he told us about the past iterations of Anak Melayu, you can clearly see there is a physical vocabulary that he builds and it’s beautiful. He always says he’s not much of a ‘text’ person. But as I was working on this play on a virtual platform, his words really come to life – all the subtexts in all its glory, and three-word lines from one character hold entire worlds in them. While it has been close to 20 years since he created them, his characters are still very much alive and kicking.

Farah Lola: It is my first time familiarising myself with this piece, and my first time doing a play on camera in my own home! I think everything has been whittled down to the subtleties due to it being closer to the audience, therefore it would feel more intimate.

Ali Mazrin: It’s amazing how we still manage to do rehearsals and shows live, online. But I definitely still wish that this was a staged show where everyone is together, so as to also feel the audience’s energy when we are performing.


Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu will be presented via Zoom on 26 June 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #_____

In an unexpected turn of events, rather than worrying about creating new works through a digital medium, Teater Ekamatra decides to team up with veteran theatre producer Fezhah Maznan to look back at key works in Malay theatre through a series called Baca Skrip: #______.

Baca Skrip is a monthly online script read of Malay plays by prolific Malay playwrights from Singapore. The scripts are selected based on their impact on Singapore Malay theatre history and / or are representative of the chosen playwright’s oeuvre.

Each session will be accompanied with an introduction which provides a sense of the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the work. After the reading, a critical response will be given by an invited guest. This is meant to provide audience several ways of looking at the work.

This series serves to rekindle the work with today’s Malay theatre audience and create a sense of continued history for Singapore Malay theatre in general.

First Session (29 May, 8 p.m.)

Baca Skrip: #HantaranBuatMangsaLupa

Genap 40 (read by Shida Mahadi and Izzul Irfan)

Hawa, who is pregnant, receives a premonition that she will meet Malaikat (angel) on the 39th day, where she hopes to enquire about the fate of her child and her self; revealing her true desire to challenge predestination.  

W.C. (read by Mish’aal Syed Nasar and KayKay Nizam) 

Two mean in a toilet cubicle. 

They talk, but not a lot. 

They touch but not too much. 

Only the four walls bear witness to their dispositions. 

W.C. was created to examine the complexities between men—abandonment, trust, and maybe even love. It speaks of comfort and sacrifice, or lack thereof. 

94:05 (read by Fir Rahman) 

94:05 invites the audience to the life and memories of Ahmad bin Abdullah. As he tidies his studio apartment, Ahmad finds it hard not to reminisce. He shares with us every important juncture he has passed through, slowly revealing his struggles with fate. Every now and then he contemplates mortality, especially in moments when hope becomes fleeting. 


Performed in Malay with accompanying Malay text and English surtitles.

Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

[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.

[Theatre Review] Cycles of 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] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy