[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

Advertisements

[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] The Joy of Playing Dress-up

The_Emperor_39_s_New_Clothes_by_W_LD_RICE_pic_3

Photo: Albert Lim KS / Courtesy of W!ld Rice

The Emperor’s New Clothes

W!ld Rice

21 November 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

10 November–12 December 2015

There is a difficulty in adapting the popular tale by Hans Christian Andersen as a pantomime. It needs to have wonderful costumes, it has to be fun, and—most importantly—it must not be pretentious as the main point of the story is to mock the pretentions of society.

W!ld Rice excels on all counts.

Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng) and Khairul No Surname (Sezairi) are orphans who become tailors. They are commissioned by the  ministers in the hopes of getting them to create a wonderful outfit for the vainglorious Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) for free. Khairul eventually convinces Nathan that they should take it as it is a good exposure for their business. They later find out that the Emperor arrests all who take the attention away from his outfit during the National Dress Parade (NDP) and decide to teach the Emperor a lesson with his “new outfit” for the 50th NDP.

Nothing is safe from satire as Joel Tan’s witty script references Lee Kuan Yew, lawsuits against foreign media, incompetency of the ministers, ISA, banning  musical instruments during Thaipusam, mediocrity of Mediacorp dramas, SG 50, and absurdity of national day parades.

With Tan’s clever employment of puns, acronyms, and Singlish, the audience experiences a bellyache of laughs throughout the two hours. The greatest merit of this sparkling script is that it does not belabour the various criticisms that it puts across. This makes the play snappy while packing in quite a lot at the same time.

Additionally, its injection of self-deprecating jokes such as mentioning Ivana Heng, the crazy theatre director who designed a rainbow outfit for the Emperor, or the Emperor asking his Minister of Retribution (Andrew Lua) to keep tabs on Sam Willows (a band that Kheng is part of) makes it all the more delicious.

Director Pam Oei pulls out all the stops and makes her cast showcase whatever talent they have or even acquiring new ones just for the show. Most of them sing, dance, and play instruments live on stage.

Benjamin Kheng’s anxious Nathan is a nice contrast to Sezairi’s laidback Khairul. Aside from their singing which they are known for, their dancing is tight and there is a wonderful synergy between them as we can easily believe that they are “brothers from another mother.”

Lim Kay Siu (Emperor Henry Lim) brings out his youthful and vain side as he preens and poses throughout the show. Audrey Luo (Empress Jeanette How) plays the melodramatic caricature of local actress Jeanette Aw to the hilt. This could not come at a worse time as Aw is currently facing criticisms about her inability to sing in Beauty World.

Other notable performances include Siti Khalijah Zainal (Nafisa bte Jasmani, Minister of Finance), Andrew Lua’s  (Wong Bok Siu, Minister of Retribution), Benjamin Wong and his counter-tenor vocal range as the aptly named Aplhonsus Kan Sing Low, Andrew Marko as the Thai fashion reviewer, and Candice de Rozario as Arppeggio Chong.

Julian Wong keeps our toes tapping with his catchy tunes that range from joget music to the moving, ballad-like “Open Up” when the tailors and the Empress confront the Emperor. Set designer Eucien Chia adopts the comic book aesthetic by having skyscrapers pointing inwards. The monochromatic set allows costume designers Phisit and Saxit from Tube Gallery to unleash a largely neon palette onto the stage.

All these elements make for a fun, energetic, zany, and hilarious musical that calls on the powers that be to reflect on their style of governance and perhaps renew their commitment to serving the people.

With Singapore celebrating her Jubilee and witnessing a heated election, I could not think of a more befitting production to end the year. If only we could nudge our ministers into the theatre.

Other Reviews

“The Emperor’s New Clothes pantomime has audience in stitches” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisiting SG50 Through the Wittiest Musical” by Sheryl Teo, Popspoken

[Listing] The Emperor’s New Clothes by W!ld Rice

Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so far away, ruled a vain and pompous Emperor, who was crazy about his clothes, himself and little else. So obsessed with fashion was he that he decreed that the 50th anniversary of his reign be celebrated with the most extravagant National Dress Parade of all time. But, as he primped and preened, he neglected his citizens, who could only get his attention by complimenting him on his appearance.

One day, two cheeky tailors decide to teach him a lesson. Presenting the Emperor with an eye-popping ensemble literally woven out of thin air, they convince him that only the smartest and most competent people in the land can see it.

What can be done to stop the nation’s biggest wardrobe malfunction? Why won’t the Emperor’s courtiers and the aristocracy speak up? Is there anyone who’s brave enough to tell the naked truth?

This holiday season, W!ld Rice puts a Singaporean spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale about the ultimate fashion victim. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a brand new musical with a razor-sharp script by Joel Tan and a sparkling score by Julian Wong. Its stellar cast includes Lim Kay Siu as the Emperor, Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows, Singapore Idol’s Sezairi Sazali and Siti Khalijah Zainal—all playing musical instruments live on stage!

Fun and laughter never go out of fashion. Don’t miss the most hilarious, heartwarming musical of the holiday season!

Catch The Emperor’s New Clothes from 20 November – 12 December at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.

[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.