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: #IkanCantik

The third instalment of Baca Skrip features Aidli Mosbit’s Ikan Cantik which meditates on issues such as the historical (mis)representation of women; gender roles and sexuality; women in popular culture and the biases; and privileges of female power dynamics. 

To find out more about the processes that go into present an online reading via Zoom, I interviewed some of the actors involved (Farah Ong, Suhaili Safari, Rafeyah Abdul Rahman, Elnie S. Mashari) in the presentation. 

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

Farah Ong: Reading. Just listening to the voices and tapping into those memories from a long time ago, and re-creating some experiences. There are a lot of technical details involved: checking of sound, angling of camera, and testing the intensity and colour of the lighting.

Suhaili Safari: The rehearsal process has been very technical when it comes to setting up our space every night. Having it being consistent especially with lighting and sound makes it easier for us to make a good show.

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: What goes on behind the scenes is amusing. My rehearsal space is filled with costume and makeup on the right and IT peripherals, wastepaper basket (and snacks ssshhhh) on the left. The blinding ring light is in front of my laptop. Being older, presbyopia is a bane. Otherwise, getting on board and switching into character is easier than connecting through zoom on a weak wireless connection.

Elnie S. Mashari: Rehearsals started a month ago, with five or six sessions lasting two hours each. It was pretty refreshing to get into a “rehearsal” mode after months of not being actively involved in a production. It took a couple of sessions to get into the flow of the rehearsal process. It  would take 30–45 minutes to set up the technical elements  before the actual read. The session would end with a round of notes. While we plan for our rehearsals to last for two hours, it would usually stretch to three, which is fine as we had nowhere to go except to sleep after that. 

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

Farah Ong: The technical part is really challenging. The internet connection determines how you’re gonna sound, whether it’s going to lag. So, it takes a lot more energy and focus and listen. It’s listening plus something else.

The satisfaction is completely different, of course. Rehearsing on Zoom takes away the joy of human connection. So, your brains got to work double and triple hard to process.

Suhaili Safari: While needing a consistency in the quality of lighting and sound, sometimes we have to deal with unannounced noise bleeding from our environments because we are playing in our own homes . We also have to work with the latency of visual and sound when our network gets wonky and our Bluetooth earphones run out of power. Basically, we got to get our technology right at its peak at all times which is the main challenge of making online live shows. Besides that, having it directed in a tinier space made me feel claustrophobic, but that’s only because I had to think outside the conventions of stage playing and more of working within the idea of probably what film/TV would entail like eye line in film acting.

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: Synergy. But fortunately, it’s a read. Nevertheless, the lag in connection requires a lot of waiting and patience from cast and crew. What’s interesting is that we get to use digital apps to get things up and make things work when otherwise it’ll purely be us on stage.

Elnie S. Mashari: I guess getting into a robust or an active discussion is hard because rehearsals were done over Zoom, and we we would not be able to hear each other at all if we accidentally talk over each other. It is like being in class, where we need to raise our hands before we share our opinion. 

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

Farah Ong: It’s interesting that all these issues are probably still happening now. Just in a different language and vocabulary. The root of the problem and the issues are still the same. I guess humanity hasn’t evolved that much, you know…This whole Zoom process makes me miss the actual rehearsal and creation process of making theatre in general.

Suhaili Safari: Well, this is my first time working with #ikancantik as opposed to the rest who are revisiting it. Finding relationships with characters of actors I’ve not worked with before from behind my laptop screen made me imagine myself in a fishbowl and talking to fishes from other fish bowls. 

If this is rehearsed as a show rather than a script read, I wonder what dynamics will need to be in place to highlight relationships of characters without having them meet in the same space?

Rafeyah Abdul Rahman: It gets cast and crew to think of solutions that befit a zoom read. We have to lift the words off the script and how to do that without ‘acting’? Mastering the text and improve on eloquence—thus providing depth for each word, phrase, and sentence. The script still feels light-hearted but belies the weight of so much research, careful representation and deliberation.

Elnie S. Mashari: It definitely opens up a new perspective into performing for Zoom  or acting for a live-stream. The stage version allowed us to express ourselves more with body language and gestures. For Zoom, we need to capture our emotions and intention within that single frame. Using only our voice, facial expressions and upper body reactions. This gives me the tool to access insights to the character’s psyche and the sensitivity required in the delivering of the lines. I think that’s the main new change I experienced.

In addition, 22 years have passed. Our collective years of experiences have provided new insights to the issues raised in the 1998 production. We have now a bigger pool of information and experiences to support our choices for the characters.


Baca Skrip: #ikancantik will be presented via Zoom on 24 July 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.

Reconsidering Singapore Malay Theatre with Fezhah Maznan

After successful runs of the first two instalments of Baca Skrip, a monthly reading of plays in the Singapore Malay theatre canon presented by Teater Ekamatra and Fezhah Maznan, I interviewed Fezhah to find out more about the project.

 What drew you to this project?

The pandemic got me in a paralysis. Not only based on what was happening in Singapore but also what I had experienced internationally having flown in and out of Singapore in March due to a death in the family. The time that I took to retreat and recalibrate gave me the opportunity to look at what was happening in Singapore theatre and to consider how I would like to respond.

One of the biggest absence I observed then was the lack of Malay theatre programmes. It’s not surprising as there are not that many active Malay theatre companies and the main headliner, Teater Ekamatra had been decimated by two cancelled productions. At the same time, I was and still am very concerned by how my theatre colleagues suddenly found themselves without jobs for the unforeseeable future. Having been a freelancer at the start of my journey in the arts, I know how hard it is to put food on the table. It’s even harder in a pandemic.

It was also then that Centre 42 went onto Zoom to celebrate their 6th anniversary and presented a reading of WRITES by Robin Loon. I was very blown away by how simple and affective the reading was, and I must credit Centre 42 for being the trigger to this project.

What made the production team decide to revisit some seminal works instead of creating a new piece?

We are always caught up in the newer, fresher and the never-been-done-before. If nothing else, this pandemic has really taught me to sit still and appreciate what we already have. So this project started with a simple idea—to sit and (re)consider works from Singaporean Malay playwrights, works that you cannot not mention when you recount the history of contemporary Malay theatre in Singapore. When else could you sit again with these texts? Additionally, there is very little effort in documenting the work done in Singapore Malay theatre. So revisiting these works also help to record a slice of history from the perspective of the playwrights.

I actually imagined this to be a simple reading but Irfan Kasban and Noor Effendy Ibrahim have pushed the bar further by reworking on their scripts and directions for their 2020 audience and also for the digital platform. I am fuelled by their enthusiasm and I admire how patient they are to play around with the digital plane in delivering a ‘live’ reading.

Coming out from our first presentation with Irfan’s Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa, our audience did appreciate how the reading was directed and the earnestness that came through the screen.

What were some of the difficulties in creating this work given that everyone cannot be in the same room?

At the start of the rehearsal, under normal circumstances, there is always time to breathe and be together. There are hugs, jokes, greetings and commiserating. Unfortunately, this doesn’t automatically translate when we rehearse digitally. We came in and immediately started to work. However, this was something that didn’t work out very well for us. So after the first rehearsal with the first cast, we decided to begin our rehearsals with ample time to be together before going into notes or reading.

There is of course the unpredictability of technology. We are not sure if the WIFI connectivity is going to drop or if the platform is going to fail us. There is a HUGE amount of uncertainty. Every rehearsal we find ourselves faced with new issues to deal with from lighting to echoes to mysterious issues that blacked out our surtitles.

All of these sound scary but I am sure it’s only happening because we are just getting to know the virtual platform. I am confident (foolishly or not) that this will only get better with time and lots of practice!

Has this process made you look at some of the scripts in a new way? How so?

One of the things that we didn’t want to do is to over direct the work. It’s a very conscious effort to put the text in the foreground. Hence, each read is accompanied with the original text and English surtitles. Audience members do also have the option to focus on the actors or the text or, if they choose to, to look away and listen to the reading like an audiobook. These options give greater autonomy to the audience to appreciate the text based on their preferred mode.


The next instalment will be a presentation of Aidli Mosbit’s Ikan Cantik on 24 July 2020. Tickets from Peatix. Stay tuned for more information.

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.

Lockdown Arts Tally

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore went into lockdown—or what the government calls a “Circuit Breaker” period—from 7 April 2020. On 3 June 2020, we went into the first phase of easing of the restrictions. However, it was so minor that it was no different from a lockdown. On 19 June, we transitioned to Phase Two which meant that most activities can resume with minor conditions attached to them.

As such, I thought it would be interesting just to do an arts tally to highlight how the arts played a part to get us through the lockdown. The tally details the arts that I have consumed from 7 April to 18 June 2020.

Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) by National Theatre

An Enemy of the People <人民公敌> (2014) by Nine Years Theatre

Jane Eyre (2015) by National Theatre & Bristol Old Vic

Treasure Island (2015) by National Theatre

Emily of Emerald Hill (2019) by W!ld Rice

Rosnah (2016) by The Necessary Stage

Supervision (2019) by W!ld Rice

To Whom It May Concern (2011) by The Finger Players

Coronalogues: Silver Linings (2020) by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Harap (Hope) (2017) by Teater Ekamatra

Television

Titoudao (2020) by Oak3 Films & Goh Boon Teck

Books

The Field of Drama (2000) by Martin Esslin

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010) by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro

Song of the Outcast: An Introduction to Flamenco (2003) by Robin Totton

Arts Reviewing: A Practical Guide (2017) by Andy Plaice

Films

Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg


In total, I have watched ten screenings of past theatre productions, one television series, one film, and read four books. 

This is a rather modest tally, but it would not surprise me if over a thousand people had a significant part to play for these works to  come to fruition. It would have been a very different experience had these things and people not exist. 

They are there not merely as a means to kill boredom, but I have derived instruction, conversation, and provocation from these works. 

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] Easy, Tiger!

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

[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

[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 major 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, and the Chinese being the minority, 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 (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