Podcast 72: ArtsEquator End-of-Year Theatre Podcast 2019

Matt Lyon, Naeem Kapadia, Kathy Rowland and Nabilah Said discuss their top picks for theatre in 2019.

Content warning: Mentions of sexual assault/violence, self-harm and suicide.

Duration: 38 minutes

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Podcast Transcript 

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello everyone, welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. I’m Matt Lyon, and I have with me as always Naeem Kapadia. 

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone. 

ML: Nabilah Said.

Nabilah Said (NS): Hi. 

ML: And Kathy Rowland. 

Kathy Rowland (KR): Hello. 

ML: Today, we’re going to go through our lists of the favourite shows that we saw in 2019, and we’re going to give our lists and talk about them individually, and then we’re going to chime in on some shows that we had in common. I won’t give away what those are. Instead, let’s start with Naeem’s list. 

NK: Hi. So my list this year, I’m just going to do this chronologically in terms of what I watched. It starts with Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore, which was a performance by Ng Yi-Sheng, Sharon Frese and Irfan Kasban as part of the Fringe Festival. It was a lecture performance about the African diaspora in Singapore. I really enjoyed getting to know a community which has unfortunately been effaced from the national narrative. And I think that’s very much a theme of a lot of shows this year: going against what was the traditional established story in our history books, the way in which propaganda in this country is established. And it was very interesting just getting that sense of a community, which has really been there for a long time, and learning a little bit more about that.

Secondly, Late Company by Jordan Tannahill, a Canadian playwright. This was by Pangdemonium, and it was about a couple who have invited a boy to dinner who had bullied their child into suicide, and they’re trying to find answers about how this event took place.

ML: Yeah. Reminiscent of a Yasmina Reza play—everybody sitting down and talking it through.

NK: And a very, very painful dinner table confrontation ensues. Late Company, for me, was just a really, really powerful, strong play that tackled important topics like cyber bullying, teen suicide, modern parenting—something that was very relevant to Singapore as a country, which prioritises hardware over heartware, and it was just delicately, sensitively directed, and animated by strong performances.

Third on my list is Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner by Huzir Sulaiman, which was staged by Checkpoint Theatre as part of a SIFA commission—

ML: —And which I think we all saw. 

NK: Yes. And it’s set in the world of humanitarian aid. It’s about a fictitious aid agency in a certain overseas refugee camp, dealing with various problems that crop up and the different personalities involved in running this organisation. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner was a show about a world which we perhaps don’t hear very much about – the world of humanitarian aid.

ML: Yeah.

NK: But what I really liked was how that story can be transplanted to so many other organisations, so many other institutions which are so flawed. And what was really interesting was how the selfless desires of the individuals get conflated with their selfish interests, and how that was played out in the different characters explored.

ML: Yeah.

NK: Then next on my list is Acting Mad. This was by The Necessary Stage as part of this new platform called The Orange Production, and it was a verbatim piece of theatre that explored mental health issues within the acting community. And it was really interesting getting a perspective from the actors, people who kind of lay bare their souls on stage, but yet have all these internal issues that they almost have to hide. And also another interesting perspective was the sort of gap between the older and the younger generation of theatre makers, which we got a sense of. So it was really interesting just getting that idea. And again, for me, it was a play that was really meant to open a conversation about a topic which is just not spoken about very much and which absolutely should be. 

And last but not least was a show which we just discussed in the podcast last month, Rumah Dayak, by the brand new collective Rupa co.lab. It was a written and directed by Nessa Anwar, and it’s about a safe house for troubled Malay youths. It was just really interesting and a very rich and authentic style of writing, which obviously is full credit to Nessa as the writer—wonderful ear for dialogue, catching the earthy exchanges between this group of youngsters who are really just trying to find acceptance in society. And it was a wonderful and powerful story that, you know, took a bit of time at least for me to get into it, but once I did, I was really hooked. 

ML: Yes, and that’s the play that we’ll move on to talk about. We’ve all got that in common in some way: three of us because we saw it and one of us because we…

NS: Produced it. I won’t say much about it.

ML: So I will mute Nabilah’s mic, I guess. For me, I think that was the strongest show I saw this year as well. And it’s interesting because usually the strongest show that I see—I am a bit of a whore for production values, I will admit… but it’s so nice to see a production that overcomes that. Clearly made with $2.50 but that $2.50—

NS: Bit more than that…

KR: Seven dollars and fifty cents, c’mon!

ML: Yeah, $2.50 was the change from $10… And it was really nice to see that money spent so well, and everything gelling together. Complex playwriting, well-drawn characters, good performances.

KR: Yeah, Rumah Dayak was actually something that I really enjoyed, and it’s number two on my list—but really number one is Displaced Persons’ by Huzir Sulaiman, fantastically directed by Claire Wong, who is the co-artistic director with Huzir of Checkpoint Theatre. The work, I think, was quite a brave work because it could have been so easy to address a subject that was closer to the Bicentennial. I think that this point that it was about corporate culture is crucial because I know that people have said, “Well, why not address some other issues about the refugee crisis?” and so on. But I think that when you think about Singapore, Singapore is the regional head of multiple multinationals. And it sets itself up – together with Hong Kong, for example – as this place of corporations, right? And the work is about the human cost of a corporation upon the individual. If you take away the fact that it deals with the humanitarian crisis, it is still what it is: it is about a woman who, in the workplace, experiences a rape, and how the corporation closes ranks around her to protect itself, right? And that’s barebones what it’s about. So I thought that when you look at that work, it also addressed a space that is very privileged, right? But this is how you do it: if you’re going to write about an upper-middle-class or a middle-class community, if you’re going to write about the one percenters, let’s say (although this is not about one percenters)—

ML: —Sure, but the globally privileged…

KR: Right. You can look at the crevices of society and give representation to groups and communities that are overlooked, and that’s one way of doing it. But if you’re going to address those that are powerful, then hold their feet to the fire. And I think that Huzir did this in this work; and we, the audience then end up displaced because we go in expecting one thing and we come out displaced in our expectations. 

ML: That’s a very interesting argument, which I can agree with for the most part, with the caveat that I couldn’t accept that it wasn’t about the refugee crisis. Because, yes, it was about corporate culture (and I think your reading of it in those terms is absolutely spot on)—but for me, it also tried to be about a fairly realistic refugee centre, and then it fell between two stools, because it had a #MeToo thread (as you said, an employee’s boss essentially raped her, and that goes through the corporate system in a very upsetting way), but for me, it played that thread off against the refugee thread, so that the reason they ended up not firing him was because if they fired the rapist, people would die. And for me, that implies that you’ve used the refugee thread as the foil for the far more important #MeToo thread, and those issues each deserve their own plays. And so I really admired the ambition of this play, but I found it problematic ultimately.

KR: But I think that that’s a reality, right? Over the past two years, the humanitarian aid industry has actually been in the spotlight, there have been cases of people committing suicide because of abuse. So the spotlight has turned on the community itself. And I take your point that it appears as if the playwright is playing two issues against each other in order to boost up the complexity of the #MeToo movement. But I think that there is a reality that the play is talking about that may not be something that the local Singapore audience – or even just the general theatre-going audience – might be attuned to. But I do think that it is a reality: those kinds of trade-offs happen.

NK: I definitely agree with Kathy here. For me, it didn’t really matter that the humanitarian aid story was a bit of a foil to get to the heart of the story about corporate culture and dealing with the #MeToo issue, because essentially it’s about how institutions fail individuals.

As someone who comes from the banking industry, I saw a lot of parallels in terms of the characters who were portrayed, regardless of the fact that I know very little about humanitarian aid. And I think that was part of what Huzir was trying to do: to just use one particular type of industry, and show how universal that experience can be, how that can be transplanted to any country. And it’s really quite deliberate within the play that we’re not told of the country. Everyone’s very global: it could be Singaporean, it could be somewhere within the region… but there’s a certain universality about the experience of people trying to do good, but then at the same time, to what extent does it really benefit the individual? So it was interesting to get that gloss of the humanitarian industry, but I would not really describe it as a play that is ultimately about refugees. 

KR: Right. 

ML: Okay. Third on your list, Kathy?

KR: Third on my list is Ayer Hitam, and I saw it twice; it was a real pleasure.

I have to say that I did not watch many shows this year, so the ones that have made my list are really shows that touched me very personally. So Ayer Hitam, for the things that you said as well… I loved the amount of research that went into it. I also thought that how it ends on this note of saying that in Singapore, the amount of racism against people of African heritage is not acute, and it’s not obvious, but that is a consequence of a racist policy of not opening our immigration policies to the African continent, for example—as opposed to Afro-Caribbean British people or African Americans or French Africans, right? I thought that was such a finely delivered point. It filled me with so much pathos (and I speak about this from quite a personal connection to the issue) and it was beautifully done.

I thought also the directing, the way that that little bits and images were used with very little resources… Really, you’ve got one woman who’s just talking all the time, but why was I not bored by this? 

NK: Absolutely. And I think that for me, it was just the simplicity of the performance. The direction was by Irfan Kasban, making use of really simple things. There was an OHP which reflected a bowl of water, you know, things like that. The writer-researcher Ng Yi-Sheng would occasionally come on stage and do a few movements and things like that. It was very, very simple staging which did not detract from that powerful story.

And even though it was a lecture performance (that’s obviously a theme of theatre this year) and one might question whether it is a true-blue theatre production, I was thoroughly engrossed because it was a story that I did not know about, which I wanted to find out more about, and which I could not help drawing parallels to about so many other aspects of society that slip underneath the narrative, underneath the established order. So for me, that really stood out

KR: And fourth on my list is more of an honourable mention because it’s actually Air from Tanah•Air (土) by Drama Box. It was written by Zulfadli Rashid. It ties back to Ayer Hitam because these are works that surprise me; they’re works that inform me; they’re works that give me something that I did not know about Singapore in a way that was not didactic, in a way that moves me emotionally, because both the works are about the Orang Seletar.

The reason it doesn’t make my top five is because I did not think that the first part of the work, Tanah, really worked at all. I did not enjoy that at all. But Air was the second play, and it surfaces histories, and it surfaces people, and it surfaces stories. And the night that we watched it, the community from Johor had come up, and we were sitting next to one of the headmen there, and there were kids in the audience, and you know, whole families had come. It was just such a beautiful moment to see them included in the performance because they were not only the raw material, but there was space given for them to be there. And I liked that.

And my final work is actually not a Singapore work. I got a chance to watch Gold Rain and Hailstones by Jit Murad, directed by Gavin Yap, and produced by Instant Café Theatre in KL. And this is a play that is over 20 years old. You know, it’s very hard to find work that ages well.

ML: Yes.

KR: And especially within Southeast Asia, a lot of the older works, sometimes they are of their time and they’re of that historical moment. So they’re great, and they were important when they were staged, but they don’t age well at all. Right? Some of the things that Second Breakfast Company has staged have not aged well because the scripts are just not very great now. But I was surprised at how beautifully the dialogue translated, and how sensitively the issues of agency and race relations in Malaysia – but also of the role of the woman in a relationship – how well these aged. So that was a moment of joy. 

ML: Great! 

KR: That’s it.

ML: So moving onto my list: I’ve only got four this year, I think for three reasons. Reason one, because I’m a hateful, hateful person. Reason two, I didn’t see as much as I usually do this year because I was finishing up my MA. And reason three, even with the amount I saw this year – probably over 20 shows – I would actually usually expect to be able to make a top five. (Maybe we’ll talk about at the end, what kind of year for theatre this was.)

Anyway, Rumah Dayak, which we’ve already discussed, is at the top for me.

After that, Late Company, which Naeem mentioned. For me, production values—Pangdemonium are absolutely reliable for those, even when they do plays that I wouldn’t stage. Now Naeem, you said that you found this a very strong and powerful play. Powerful I’ll give you. Play? It felt a little bit more like a collection of arguments put in script form, but they were very good arguments, and the actors inhabited them. And the set design was about as good as it could be, really.

NK: I completely agree. For me, it was a classic case of how text and performance come together to create compelling theatre—

ML: —And how the one can elevate the other. 

NK: They really do. And I think we should talk a little bit about the performances. Janice Koh, who plays the grieving mother of this child who committed suicide, for me gave probably the standout performance of the year. And I was just really, really, really bowled over. You could see people sniffling. I mean, that real sense of wanting to understand how could you be unaware of your own child being so unhappy, and really wanting to get to the root of that problem. And the way she inhabited that character: at the start, everything is bottled up, but she slowly brings her guard down, and that transition, and the way she did it—and obviously the way in which Tracie Pang, the director allowed that story to unfold so sensitively. I think for me, it just came together to really create compelling theatre, and yeah, for me, it was a definite standout.

ML: When you’ve got two people sitting down talking to each other, essentially you want Tracie Pang to direct that.

NK: Exactly. She truly excels. 

ML: She’s really got that going on. 

Next up for me was Acting Mad, which (disclaimer) many, many former students of mine are involved in, so I guess I would feel warm towards it… But no: you said, Naeem, that it feels like an important work, and it does, but in a very strange and small way, because I don’t think it’s pretending that it’s making the great statement on mental illness. And what I loved about this play was that it was so very aware of, and focused on, precisely what it was doing, and it made no claims to anything else. So it’s going to discuss specific people and their specific feelings, and if it can draw some conclusions or ask some questions from that, then sure, let’s leave that hanging in the air and let’s really try and include the audience in that discussion. But I guess for me, that’s kind of the contrast with Displaced Persons’, which for me was a little bit more answer-based, and I didn’t necessarily feel like it owned those answers. Whereas this was about the questions and very real lived experience, and seeing that come on the stage. 

After that – I think I’m the only one who saw this – comes The wee Question Mark and the Mountain Movers by The Theatre Practice.

KR: Is this is an actual play…?

ML: I know, it’s a crazy title—

KR: —Or is this something you imagined while you were smoking something?

ML: It’s not only a play – a real play! – it’s in a whole wee Question Mark series. So there! Is it the third or the fourth or…?

NS: Something like that, yah…

ML: I’ve seen at least two… But rather than speaking about the individual piece, I think that what The Theatre Practice is doing with this series of children’s shows is really admirable because… I Theatre is no more, but a lot of their shows were proscenium, painted backdrop—the child sits there and they might as well be watching TV. And what you get with The Theatre Practice is in-the-round staging, you get some call-and-response, you get the actors having little ad libs where they call out the fact that the kids in the audience are really enjoying it, and they point that out. And it just feels homemade in the best possible way, like a homemade gift—like you know who you’re making it for, you put love into it, you tie the ribbon on just right. And yeah, if you buy something from a store, it’s going to be shinier and more expensive, but I don’t think that’s why you go to the theatre.

Which takes us onto Nabilah.

NS: Oh, that’s quick.

My list is kind of fun because no one seems to have watched any of the shows that I’ve watched this year. No, that’s not true. Firstly, it’s Eat Duck by Checkpoint Theatre, written by Zenda Tan.

ML: Which actually I think a couple of us did watch, didn’t we? So we will end up talking about that shortly.

NS: Yeah. So that’s a multigenerational play about a Chinese Singaporean family who basically all have reasons to hate each other, but all come together because the matriarch of the family dies, and they come together for her funeral—a very traditional Taoist funeral. And it kind of rubs against how modern some of the family members are. I really enjoyed it. Despite it being a first work of a young playwright, I thought it was quite assured writing. The ending scene that I really liked was wordless, funnily enough, but it’s when they finally do the funeral rights for Ah Ma. It was really moving, and I remember crying, and it only worked because of the work that had been done preceding it, right, where all these family members are squabbling or having their own internal rifts. And the one time that they all come together was just so moving. And it’s so relatable as someone who… anyone who has a family, who has some issues with their family—sometimes you just put aside your disagreements and you come together for that one person.

I really enjoyed that work. And I felt that the company really put their might and their guidance behind Zenda. For a work that was by a young writer, I felt that it was quite big, actually, in how it was presented.

ML: It was a confident staging, wasn’t it? 

NS: It was.

ML: Naeem, you saw that as well…

NK: I did. And look, I agree with a lot of what Nabilah said: it’s a very assured debut work by Zenda Tan. For me, I just felt that it was a show which really could have done it with some editing. It was a bit overlong and there were possibly too many characters. There were – if I recall correctly – there were five grandchildren and five adults, and I didn’t quite see the need to introduce that many characters because some obviously get more stage time than others—and then you get the sense that some characters are just there for sort of a window-dressing purpose. So I just felt that it could have been tighter as a whole, and that was maybe what left me just a little bit dissatisfied at the end.

NS: I can kind of see what you mean about having too many characters—I think there were like ten members of the cast or something.

ML: At least.

NS: But I felt that I could identify with each one at different levels, you know, the adult, the young person. The only character that maybe was not the strongest, was weirdly enough, I think the character that Zenda was…

ML: Oh, the girlfriend…

NS: …that represented Zenda herself—

ML: The girlfriend from outside the family.

NS: Yeah, the girlfriend who was the outsider in the family who really… I wonder why she was there.

ML: That was a very expository scene, wasn’t it?

NS:  Yeah, that one scene was very weak for me. But besides that, I thought it was great, I liked it a lot. 

ML: I’m kind of with Naeem on this one. I wanted it to be edited—and after the show, I asked myself, “Which of these scenes is actually necessary in kind of an Aristotelian plot sense?” And it literally was that last scene. 

NS: Yeah. 

ML: Nothing else contributed. I guess you felt that it contributed tonally and in terms of mood and emotion… I didn’t get that. 

NK: In fact, I thought the opening scene was superfluous. I would have liked to be launched straight into the funeral. I thought that preamble was perhaps unnecessary. That wordless scene, I agree, was beautiful—and it was just because of everything that happened before that it became all the more poignant. But there were a lot of other little scenes, and I think that’s part of the whole exercise of plotting it, right? They wanted to give each of these characters a moment, so two people could interact with each other… I didn’t need to see each and every one of those scenes. 

ML: I felt like a succession of flies on walls. And it seemed to be wanting or pretending that it had a plot: there were the setups of various plot lines, but they never paid off. And that sense of squandering really took me away from it.

NK: And just one other point I had, now that I recall this a little bit more: there was only one actor who played two different characters – both an older and a younger one – and that really threw me because I was trying to work out what the point of that casting decision was. He plays both an older uncle as well as one of the younger…

NS: …Cousins…

NK: …one of the younger cousins who’s a bit of an estranged wild child or something like that. And I was initially thinking, “Oh, are you trying to draw parallels between the generations?” And if that was indeed the intent, why not have a few more of the actors double up and you can economise on the casting as well? But for whatever reason, that was the only actor who did that—

ML: Hang Qian Chou, I think.

NS: Correct.

NK: Yes. So again, that decision in terms of the casting itself threw me and left me a little bit—

ML: Yeah, in many plays it would work, but in a naturalistic play where everybody’s playing one character, it seemed a bit odd—

NK: —It just seemed weird, yeah.

ML: Having said that, he did it very well. 

NK: Yes. 

NS: Yeah. Can I just say that, in terms of this superfluous scenes thing, right, I’m in two minds about it, because as someone who is also kind of an emerging playwright, and has been there, I feel that there’s a sense of generosity that comes with a company that lets you write a play in the way you want it without imposing an aesthetic or a vision that the company has. And I feel like Checkpoint does that quite a lot. And Zenda’s not the first playwright that they’ve guided and who’s been part of a mentorship programme. And I feel like there’s something to be said about that.

ML: I think for me, there’s generosity to the playwright and there’s generosity to the audience. And those need to be balanced.

NS: Mm. That’s fair.

NK: Yep. And, and I can say that as someone who’s actually watched a lot of Checkpoint’s recent plays, and also reviewed a lot of them, because I’ve seen Lucas Ho’s FRAGO, and then there was obviously Pooja Nansi’s…

NS: Thick Beats for Good Girls.

NK: And obviously one of the company’s initiatives is to basically give a voice to these emerging writers who are all associate artists—

KR: —There’s also Dana Lam’s Still Life

NK: —Dana Lam’s Still Life, and also the other one I wanted to mention was Shiv Tandan’s The Good, the Bad and the Sholay, also a very strong play in its year.

But you know, I feel that one thing Checkpoint has done with a lot of these shows is that perhaps it shows a little bit too much indulgence, because almost every single one of those shows I felt could have been trimmed. It is a common sentiment I feel when I step out of any of these shows: “Great, wonderful, I’m happy I caught that… Could have been reduced by about 20% in terms of the material.”

ML: Nabilah, as you say, it comes from a generous impulse. Let’s go back to your list.

NS: Yes, let’s go back. So next on my list is Merdeka by W!ld Rice. And that’s what I call a chase through Singapore history, but kind of the “lesser-known alternative histories” of Singapore that people might not know—definitely students would not know from reading a Singaporean history textbook about some of these episodes.

I really enjoyed the different stories that came through. But what I especially enjoyed about it were the performances by the actors. So there was kind of a two-level framing, right? One was a reading group that comes together and discusses different episodes from Singapore’s history. And then there are the historical characters themselves from these stories. And I felt that the actors really worked hard to bring life to the characters that they were playing, and I really enjoyed that. I also really enjoyed the use of music, the songs that were sung. The evocative use of music in that play is really something that isn’t written about a lot in the reviews that I’ve seen, and I felt that Alfian [Sa’at] and Neo Hai Bin both used that quite well. 

Yeah, so I really enjoyed Merdeka. I would have to say that it’s like, low on my list of top five, so that’s why I’m talking about it now… But I know you guys are looking at me with frowny faces, so what do you have to say?

NK: Well… So Merdeka… I don’t deny that it is an important play in terms of drawing our attention to forgotten histories. My question is that is theatre necessarily the best medium for that? Because when I look at Merdeka, I feel that the entire text could have achieved its goal through a PowerPoint presentation delivered for students, and it would have been very informative—

ML: —I would have said a library reading list. We wouldn’t even need to turn up. Just give us the library reading list.

NS: But you know what? 8,000 people went to watch it. 

ML: Yep. 

NS: Yeah. And I don’t think 8,000 people would have read these books.

KR: I also have a lot of reservations about this work; I was disappointed with this work. I found that it was quite utilitarian: that it was the Bicentennial year, and there were definitely gaps in our knowledge of history, and so this work set out to just fill in those gaps, right, with these stories. I found that there was a rigidity to the structure that I didn’t really enjoy. But having said that, one of our colleagues who’s much younger than—well, younger than me, for sure; not that much younger than Nabilah, was saying that the work surprised her because there were things that she didn’t know. They were deep stories.

ML: But it was about knowing, not about anything else that belongs to the realm of theatre. For example, there’s one scene where all the actors are in a horizontal line miming typing and saying lines which are scrolling behind them onscreen—

KR: —That was during the Bandung…?

NS: No, the Fajar…

ML: I don’t remember which scene it was… In a newspaper-y font. Anytime that happens to you on stage, you need to turn around and go the other way, because that is not theatre.

KR: Hm, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d say that that’s not theatre…

ML: It’s just text, it’s reading text! They’re standing there miming typing!

NK: Listen, I really think Merdeka was a wonderfully researched piece of writing. I just felt that a lot of it was very, very expository. And that’s why full credit to that cast who really brought the stories to life. 

KR: They were fantastic. 

NK: If not for that cast, I think a lot of people would be walking away with mixed feelings. And it was probably due to that cast just animating all of those personalities by playing with song and accents and languages, that what would otherwise have been relatively dry facts and figures and text really came to life. So I think that’s what ultimately made it memorable for me.

KR:  Yeah, I think that this is a work that had a lot of build-up already, because it was going to be Alfian’s new play, it was going to be one of the important works for the Bicentennial, and it was going to be one of the banner events from W!ld Rice. It was then pushed out of the arts-insider kind of environment into the public stratosphere through what was happening politically with Alfian’s name being mentioned in Parliament. So to me, it created so much of expectation for this work that I don’t know if the work… I think it benefited from the publicity because more people went to see it; I think it was a wonderful outpouring of support for Alfian and for the arts; and I think that was an important moment for the country to see. But I don’t know if all of that attention also benefited the work—I think it must have been quite a high-pressure production to be involved in, right? And it felt also like – talk about editing new playwrights’ works – this is a work that could have done with a lot more editing, perhaps.

ML: Finish us off, Nabilah.

NS:  Yes. Next on my list is A Clockwork Orange by Teater Ekamatra—I wish you guys had seen it. It’s actually a Malay contemporary version of the 1962 cult classic A Clockwork Orange of course by Anthony Burgess. And in this version Rizman Putra plays Al. Of course, in the original it was Alex and here he’s Al—kind of a more Malay version, I suppose. The script is transcreated by Zulfadli Rashid, who’s become kind of a go-to for translation, adaptation works.

KR: He did Air as well.  

NS: He did Air as well, yeah. So he was really, really good. There’s this phrase “Abih amacam” that still rings in my head, like the way he used it was–

KR: What does it mean? 

NS: It means like, “so what now?”, but the way it’s delivered takes on various tones in the play, and I think it’s maybe the last line. And if you’ve watched or read A Clockwork Orange a lot of things happen to Al, really terrible things. And at the end, he cycles back to zero and he ends with the same line that’s like “so what now”. And it’s like just so blasé but because of what’s happened, it’s really disturbing. And what I really liked about it was the pairing of director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, who is no stranger to making disturbing, poetic, beautiful work, with the set design of Mohd Fared Jainal and Akbar Syadiq, which created this really gorgeous, seductive, very pink/purplish seductive world, and it really seduced you into the actually very emotionally decrepit mindspace of the youth in the play. And it was just done really well and despite it being transposed into like a Malay depiction, or Malay version—it actually really weirdly worked. And it’s also because, I don’t know whether you guys know this, but in A Clockwork Orange the word “orange” is actually a pun on the word “orang” because Anthony Burgess had lived in Singapore and Malaysia.

ML: I did not know that.

NS: Yeah, so it worked so well in a way that I was really surprised by. And because it’s about Malay youths and the fact that they go around raping people, it’s actually really violent, but you never ever see any violence—but because of that, it made it even more violent, because the violence happens in your mind. I thought it was just a very, very powerful work by Teater Ekamatra, I’m glad they did it. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy to get the rights and all those things. I just thought it was ambitious and it paid off.

Next on my list is Flowers by Drama Box. That was conceptualised by Han Xuemei, resident artist of Drama Box. That was almost like you go on a tour of a two-storey house which they’ve outfitted to make it into… basically a Chinese Singaporean family lived here. And you know that a family has lived here, but now there’s only one person left, so everyone else has moved out. So all the rooms are in states of abandonment, things are wrapped up in plastic. And you listen to an audio recording, which I think is written by Jean Tay, it’s narrated by a protagonist – basically the daughter of the house – and she at first gives you very, like poetic, almost harmless stories about what’s happened in the different rooms, and you go from room to room as and when you like… but then you realise that there’s some sort of low-level violence that’s happened in these rooms. I mean, I say “violence”, but it’s really things like verbal abuse; maybe physical abuse, but it’s kind of just hinted at. And the whole piece is about patriarchal violence in society, so you know that the father has done maybe something to the mother, and the mother passes it down to the children, and because of that, the children basically leave the house because they can’t stand these kinds of things. But nothing is explicit, everything is really kind of low-lying. And then there’s an actual male actor who’s the father. And he potters around the house: he’s cooking, he’s eating, and he’s doing nothing much. But the fact is he’s kind of the villain in the story—but when you see him, he’s so harmless. So there is this like idea of… you just feel very mixed, and I really liked that. It’s kind of subtle, but I enjoyed it.

And first on my list is Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er. That was a one-woman presentation, where she talks to us about her past life as a competitive ice skater. But it was really muddled because basically, she’s also telling us about her relationship with her adult instructor at the time, and she was underaged. So, you know, this is a very illicit relationship. And what I enjoyed about it is the audience members, you feel… there’s a generous, open sharing on the part of Kai Er, but at the same time it’s undercut, because as an audience member, you’re kind of complicit in this relationship that she’s telling you about, and you don’t know where you’re supposed to judge her or you’re supposed to ask her if she is okay. Or you almost feel like she is confronting you with this story, but not wanting you to judge her at the same time. So it’s this weird, fraught relationship between audience member and performer, which I really enjoyed, and for me, it was the most memorable theatrical moment of the year. 

ML: Fantastic. Well, talking about the of-the-year kind of idea: in a tiny number of words, my friends, 2019 theatre? Naeem?

NK: Well, okay, look, I think it’s important—

ML: —Too many words already! 

NK: Mixed. 

ML: Thank you!

NS: The smaller works were the mightiest works.

ML: Nice. For me: hoping for better in 2020. And Kathy will finish us off… 

KR: Erm… God…

ML: …with these profound words which are about to land on us…

KR: Learning things that I didn’t know. And being emotionally moved.

ML: And that will do us. Thank you very much everybody, and bye-bye. 

All: Thank you.

For the 2019 end-of-year dance podcast, click here.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

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.

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