It’s taken two and a half years for Berak to finally emerge, and what a delightful plop it has made. The Teater Ekamatra production was slated to open in March 2020 but fell prey to pandemic theatre closures across Singapore. It makes a wonderful addition to Esplanade’s Studios 2022 series, themed around the concept of collective care.
Based on Chong Tze Chien’s acclaimed 2009 play Poop, Berak reunites the winning team of playwright/transcreator Zulfadhli Rashid, and director Mohd Fared Jainal, who have worked together on plays such as Harap (2017) and A Clockwork Orange (2019). Transcreation is becoming something of an Ekamatra hallmark, going beyond simply translating the text of a play but imbuing it with additional nuances, and in this case, socio-cultural specificity by viewing it through the lens of the Malay/Muslim community. It maintains the tone and texture of the original but is a living, breathing creature entirely of its own.
The crassness of the title may prove misleading but don’t let that deceive you: this is a nuanced drama about a family splintered by grief. Its starting point is the suicide of a man (Fir Rahman) who jumps down from his block of flats. His playful five-year-old daughter Siti (Siti Khalijah Zainal) is unable to process that he has gone and continues to see her father, manifested in objects all around her. Elsewhere, his wife (Siti Hajar Abdul Ghani) nurses feelings of remorse and abandonment, while his mother (Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit) seeks solace in music and mundane chores.
Image credit: A. Syadiq.
Things take a turn for the worse when young Siti is unable to pass motion and is later diagnosed with cancer. Her inability to relieve herself is echoed by the two older women, who simply do not confront their feelings and are constantly at loggerheads with each other about how to deal with Siti. In a particularly lacerating moment, the mother tells the grandmother that after Siti dies, she will move back to Malaysia as there will no longer be any relationship left between them. The themes are certainly heavy, but the tone of the play is one that is wistful rather that maudlin, advocating the idea of healing and seeking strength in shared sorrow.
For the most part, we have a fairly faithful rendering of the original text with the occasional reference changed: “Chinese New Year” logically becomes “Hari Raya” and “bee hoon” becomes “nasi lemak”. Suicide, however, takes on a much deeper religious gloss in this incarnation due to its taboo in the Muslim community; there are many references to the father going to hell for taking his life and one can only understand his mother’s refusal to accept his actions. Yet, I would have liked to see the religious angle interrogated just a little further to anchor the play in its distinct milieu – perhaps exploring how the suicide impacted upon Islamic conceptions of akhirah (the afterlife) or the practice of iddah (the traditional waiting period a woman observes following the death of her husband).
The other notable departure is the decision not to follow the play’s original ending which involves Siti’s death and a final, tearful reconciliation between the mother and grandmother. Instead, we have a newly written monologue featuring the father gazing at the scene below, shortly before taking that final fatal jump. It gives Berak a harder edge by not tying up the story neatly (for instance, it’s not apparent that Siti does in fact pass on) but I welcomed this ambivalence, and the suggestion that life itself can be messy and unfinished.
Fared’s production is taut and compelling, unfolding in just seventy minutes and packing a punch. He extracts wonderful performances from the cast—all stage veterans—who light up the stage. Siti Khalijah is magnetic as a wide-eyed girl who turns the world into her personal playground in a manner reminiscent of her animated performance in the monodrama How Did the Cat Get So Fat?.
Siti Hajar delivers a performance of quiet emotional weight as a woman forced to bear the burdens of single parenthood, while Alin imbues the grandmother with a tough yet nourishing maternal presence. Lastly, Fir treads a fine line between comic and tragic in portraying the journey of a man who simply feels he has no way out.
Production values are stellar across the board. Wong Chee Wai’s set is a sprawling mass of orange tubes that snake around like intestines, ending in a circular, anus-like orifice. It’s a powerful visual metaphor that riffs on the idea of physical, emotional and spiritual constipation that confronts each character. Safuan Johari’s score almost emerges as a separate character – the elegiac Malay ballads acting as a perfect canvas to plot the undulating architecture of grief.
Image credit: A. Syadiq.
The original production of Poop by The Finger Players relied on black light theatre and puppetry, with invisible puppeteers manipulating various objects encountered by the characters to achieve the illusion of them floating across the darkened space. Berak achieves the same visual splendour through an inspired blend of multimedia and physical theatre. Filmed segments and striking visual designs by Eric Lee augment the text while the actors dance, run around and deftly handle props ranging from snails to sea creatures. This adds a colourful whimsy to lighten the tone. A scene featuring the father as a life-sized NTUC plastic bag who tells Siti that her mother and grandmother always fight because in a previous life one was from NTUC and the other from Sheng Siong, (two rival supermarket chains) earns the biggest laugh of the evening.
Berak is a production of quiet, haunting beauty about sadness, solitude and ultimately, steadfastness. It is a nourishing show that deserves a much bigger audience than its four (completely sold-out) runs. I am very excited to see where Ekamatra takes its transcreation practice next.