By Kathy Rowland
(728 words, 8 minute read)
Teater Ekamatra’s Harap opens with its five characters frozen in the shadows, standing on low plinths. Taking centre-stage is a series of monochromatic, indeterminate images, projected on the backdrop and over their bodies. When the characters break free, the stage crackles with the easy energy of Hadi (Hirzi Zulkiflie), there visiting his best friend, Azman (Fir Rahman) who is comatose in a wheelchair. Sharing the stage are Izzati (Siti Hajar Abd Gani) and her husband Hairul (Sani Hussin), with their young child, Ninin (Nur Zakiah Bte Mohd Fared), who is about to celebrate her sixth birthday. Hairul has plunged the family into debt and exposed his wife and child to violent moneylenders. Hadi, we soon learn, is responsible for Azman’s state. As these two sets of relationships intersect and play out, a woman’s voice, with increasing frequency, announces the discovery of dead bodies turning up in the Singapore River.
Harap is the revival of Haresh Sharma’s 1994 play Hope, translated into Malay by Zulfadli Rashid. The transposing of the script into a Malay-Muslim milieu marked it with a visible seam that tripped me up. The taboo against suicide in the Malay-Muslim community is so ingrained (with a lower suicide rate statistically) that I found it hard to accept that Izzati and Hairul would so quickly decide to gas themselves, and their daughter Ninin, over mounting debts. The uniformly strong performances, and some of the directorial choices by Mohd Fared Jainal, helped overcome some of my reservations.
Each character is touched by their own private tragedies. Siti Hajar, just by the tone of her voice, communicated Izzati’s utter exasperation and hopelessness at her husband’s inability to change. Hairul’s weakness leads the entire family down the path of penury, towards a devastating choice. Hadi, beset by guilt, finds the easiest way out under the guise of freeing Azman from a living hell. Azman, played with verve by Fir Rahman, starts off hopeless but shows the most emotional strength and hope. Ironically, he is incapable of saving himself. Like Azman, Ninin too is a victim without agency. (A shout out to little Nur Zakiah, who hugged that pillow with such sadness that writing this, a week later, I’m a bit misty eyed.)
Hairul’s lament that he is a product of his past, as his child will be of hers, moves the play from the realm of private follies to a more monumental tragedy. It is one that is not so easily overcome by individual effort such as repaying a loan shark. Sound designer Bani Haykal’s percussive cues – a ticking clock, a beeping heart monitor, a radar – mark time, space and lives, heightening our sense of life running out. The erratic playback of fragmentary dialogue in surround-sound disorientate us, mirroring the intrusions upon the smooth surface of realism that Sharma’s script makes.
As Hadi and Hairul meet at the site where the bodies keep turning up, Azman and Izzati too encounter each other in a cosmic realm. Izzati reminds Azman that humans are composed of mud and faith after which Azman begins to erect small sculptures across the stage. Made of mud, the figures allude to the Singapore River as the site of historical violence. The mysterious decomposed bodies may be victims of the Occupation, preserved by mud. The river is also the event-space of a different kind of erasure, brought by the human cost of development. Those figures may look like pre-historic artefacts at first, but they are featureless people and contemporary skyscrapers. As bodies float up, business along Boat Quay continues; as the lives of our protagonists unravel, the world around them does not miss a beat.
Under Mohd Fared Jainal’s direction, Harap, while Singapore-specific in its detail, stages the universal sense of desolation faced by the individual. It was a brave and ambitious vision that took the work beyond the politics of the personal into an exploration of the wider systems of power and oppression that frustrate hope. The play ends, as it began: the characters are again immobilised on stage. The multimedia design, by Eric Lee, quickens into a vertical view of being in a HDB elevator and the plinths are turned into a vista of high-rise buildings. These are iconic images of the Singapore heartland but they are also the relentless sameness of the urban landscape the world over.
“Review: Hope (Harap) by Teater Ekamatra” (bakchormeeboy)
“Hope” by Naeem Kapadia (Crystalwords Blog)
“Paparkan Tema Harapah Atau Ketiadaan Harapan” by Nurmaya Alias (Berita Harian via subscription only)
Hope (Harap) is a Malay language version of Haresh Sharma’s 1994 play originally performed in English. It was translated by Zulfadli Rashid, directed by Mohd Fared Jainal and co-presented by Teater Ekamatra and The Esplanade Studios 2017. It ran from 6 – 9 April 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.