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Podcast 68: Critics Live! Wild Rice’s Merdeka

Theatre critics Corrie Tan, Nabilah Said, Carolyn Oei and Kathy Rowland discuss the recent production of WILD RICE’s Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம், in a critics-led post-show conversation held in front of an audience on 19 October 2019 at WILD RICE’s Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. The Critics Live session is organised by ArtsEquator. The transcript below omits the question-and-answer session held after the panel.

Duration: 22 min

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Podcast Transcript 

Kathy Rowland (KR): Thank you very much was staying back. So we’ve got quite a short time because Wild Rice will need to set up for the evening show, so you know, we’ll go straight into it. So on stage with me, we have Corrie, Nabilah, Carolyn. Their bios are in the little leaflet that you would have been given. I’m actually sitting in for Teo Xiao Ting who’s unwell today. But we’re all writers and critics and art writers. And we also have a small reading group where we meet regularly just to read about, you know, criticism and try to educate ourselves to write about the wonderful work that Singapore artists are doing, really from a kind of Southeast Asian perspective as a way to I think, in a way, decolonise criticism. We try, anyway. So we watched – just in terms of disclosure – we actually watched this play last week, we didn’t watch the one that you’ve just seen. But so we want to just give ourselves a bit of time to think through our responses to really what is a complex work. But it’s also a work that sits within quite a complex period in Singapore, both within the kind of the space of this year, but also in more recent weeks. Right. We’ll speak each of us will just give a few minutes, we’ll talk about some of the things that have struck us some of the things that we’ve enjoyed some of the things that we might have questions about, and then we’d really love to open the conversation up with all of you to agree with us, disagree with us, to ask questions, to give us your insights. All right, so maybe we’ll start with Corrie.

Corrie Tan (CT): Okay. Thank you so much. I mean, I’m quite like, wow, there’s so many of you. So thank you so much for staying back and chatting with us. And thank you so much to the – it’s quite nerve-wracking to come after the amazing cast, who graced the stage right before us. But I was really excited to encounter Merdeka and was really taken by it last week, also thinking about the broader trajectory in which I think a lot of Singaporean artists have been thinking about our histories, our identities, not just within the Bicentennial year, but beyond that, I think beginning with the notion of an SG50… I was thinking about how this kind of follows in a trajectory of, plays like Hotel that Alfian wrote with Marcia Vanderstraaten in 2015, and then Tiger of Malaya last year, dramaturged by Shawn Chua, presented by Teater Ekamatra that looks at these ideas of reenactment. How do we reenact moments in history to reclaim or reframe or bring to light certain stories or narratives that perhaps go unnoticed by by many of us. And I really enjoy this kind of strategy of reenacting, because often I think, when we first come into Merdeka, we see all these objects under glass in boxes. And you think of you know, how we look at things in the archive or in history as static material objects, how do we use these things? And you know, from the bone of the archive, interpret what the flesh is on them. And I think performance gives you a very embodied way to look at how these forms are fleshy and can mutate and evolve over time. And I find it so interesting that you know, we have six characters here in Merdeka, and I think of the play Six Characters Go in Search of an Author by Pirandello and really you have six characters here going in search of a country or a history. And you see how that becomes a very complicated thing that’s interwoven with other, what we think of other regions’ histories, but really, we are very, very enmeshed. So those were kind of I think some of my initial thoughts about where Merdeka sits in context.

KR: Carolyn?

Carolyn Oei (CO): Thanks, Kathy. Following on from what Corrie’s just said, I approach this from the standpoint of an educator. And the starting point is that it is a very important play. Merdeka is an important play because it discusses important issues. And the more people who are aware of these issues, the better. And so if I were to sort of like break this down for me in terms of the key concerns as an educator, first of all, I would ask the question, are my students, one of the target audience and the other is what would they take from this work? With regard to the first question, given the intellectualised feel of Merdeka, you know, the play does touch on issues that have already been explored over the last few years. Unfortunately, these issues, interest different people to varying degrees. And although there’s no denying that accurate and accessible information that is non-selective is extremely important, some students might feel a little bit removed from the deeper underlying issues. Now they will go away knowing a little bit more about history that wasn’t necessarily taught in schools. But they aren’t always aware of deeper underlying issues like CMIO, for example. So I mean, I appreciated the (references to) diversity right the beginning of the play, but I don’t know how many people would. With regard to the second point, which was what would my students take away from this work. I obviously hope that they are motivated to continue the conversation, that there is something that inspires them to continue to either do more research or to discuss it among their friends. But perhaps, a challenge that they might face, to do this, would be being able to attach themselves to a recognisable tension that ought to have been explored a little bit further in the play. So, that is something that they have seen before, experienced before, and therefore would be able to discuss a little bit more and of course, one hopes that they too are members of a reading group or book club which is what I appreciated about the play so because I am a member of a reading group, I am a member of a book club. And the fact that the actors sang in Chinese, wow, and learned how to play instruments and, from what we understand, within a very short period of time is very commendable.

KR: I’m so struck with the difference between what Corrie takes away from it, which is kind of a deep appreciation for how the world goes into history and places it on the stage through these embodied experiences. But then the question that Carolyn brings to it is how would a younger generation of Singaporeans, people that she interacts with all the time, actually what their interest in it would be, and if they were brought into the space, what they would take away with it. When I watched it, I think like all of us, I would say, I mean, I thought the performances were exceptional. I thought that, you know, they remained in control of their material, and they remain in control of the different characters that they had to play and it really helps to enliven the work. I also really appreciate these directorial moments, which I thought was the hallmark of Glen Goei, him of the enlarged giant penis from Hotel. For those of you who saw it, you’d know what I was talking about. But you know, I found in that example of the skeleton – Syed Yasin – which, to me was this moment of kind of levity and absurdity that I felt really allowed the audience to kind of have a bit of a break, because the world was very dense. Right? It was deeply historical, deeply researched, and as much as there were attempts and the whole work was about bringing these rebellious, uncooperative individuals, dissidents or activists, I guess you would call them, on stage and I think that was very exciting. But of course, you know, it is in the end, the breadth of history of the work was a lot for us to take. So I really admired the direction and I also admired the performances. For me personally, the conceit of the six friends, the six Facebook friends, who were kind of united by this anti-colonial fervour and who then express it through a very nerdy reading group and then an even nerdier kind of attempt to stage the works. I liked it. I thought it made for good theatre. But I did want to see more about the relationship of these contemporary Singaporeans to each other. Because as much as it’s a work about looking back and trying to put in characters that have maybe been sidelined by an overarching narrative about one man, you know, I want to see the effects of that history played out in the relationships between these characters. I think it was there. It was definitely there. But personally, how I felt was that it was subordinate to the bigger historical purpose that the playwrights had, which is absolutely their right. So I think that’s my one point. My biggest sense of disquiet, though, has to come from the fact that I think, to respond to one things that Corrie talks about, this work comes within a longer stretch of works where artists in Singapore have been responding to things like the Jubilee and then the Bicentennial. And so it’s not really about Merdeka itself. But I think it is about the fact that, for the past few years, artists in Singapore, have by force, as well as by interests, had to respond to colonialism, which personally, if I look at the region, for example, colonialism seems quite old to me, right? Postcolonial, post-post-postcolonialism and the interrogation of the colonial heritage seems like quite an old topic as much as it still has urgency in how we live and I acknowledge that so I’m just thinking of some of the works that have been kind of gaining a bit of attention regionally. A lot of it has had to do with the postcolonial 1960s nationalist governments, for example, and some of the ethnic conflicts that have happened – you think about some of the work that Indonesian artists and Malaysian artists have been making. So my question really is that you know, in some ways as much as we are constantly having to and we should be responding to the larger zeitgeist, I would really love to see work that doesn’t just respond to what the national celebrations are.

Nabilah Said (NS): All right. To kind of add on to Kathy’s point, first of all, I wanted to preface everything I’m going to say now by saying that I like the play and I think we all, you know, like the play, but we’ve had one week to think about the things that we wanted to talk about today and also to open up some entrypoints to get some of your responses. And we’re quite aware that some of you would have just watched the play. And I feel like there’s a difference between, like the fresh thoughts from watching the play and the exuberance of watching the play together, and the idea that it is communal, and it’s a new space for Wild Rice and having one week to think about it. So that’s a disclaimer. For me, I feel like the idea of what Corrie was saying about reenactment and the power of reenactment. I kind of have two thoughts about it, and they’re both sides of the coin. So one is whether reenactment is empowering, or are we just rehashing old stories but not quite pushing past the point of you know, what’s past, like what happens after that basically. And there is an advantage to doing that, right, which is kind of like the theory of reenactment in theatre, which is the idea of redoing past acts can provide a way for re-enactors to re-become what they once were, or to re-become what they were never were, but wished to have been, or our wish to become. And also this quote from Richard Schneider, which is “the past materialises as a corpse recalled and re-animated in mimetic bodies of the present, a lingering presence, not entirely, not alive”. So this idea of the ghosts of the past haunting us, is the strength of reenacting in theatre. But for me as like someone who’s had one week to think about it, as I’ve said, the question that I was more interested in was, “so what?” or “what now?”, which I felt came quite late in the play, where the character of Siew, you know, asked like, “okay, we have all this information, what now?” Right? And in the play, the answer was “we’re a reading group, so we read”, right. There was that answer. And then there’s the other answer which was “we’ll put on a play”, right, which is basically probably how Alfian and Hai Bin were trying to deal with this idea of how to decolonised through theatre. So that was one. So for me, I really wanted the “so what” question kind of like answered or at least stumbled through, but I didn’t get that personally. And touching on the ending of the play that they chose, which was to re-perform, or basically read, or revisit the Sukarno speech in the Bandung Conference of 1955, which for me was a very… I mean, I don’t know how everyone felt about it, but I was quite saddened by the ending, it made me feel really, really sad. But having thought through how I really felt about the play, after a while I actually – and this is gonna sound really strong – but actually felt almost emotionally manipulated to feel sad in the end, when actually, I’m angry. And I want to know what the solution can be or what we can do. And it’s almost like when you’re already sad, and you listen to a sad song. You know, like I’m already sad, but I don’t want to feel sadder, you know, I want to know what else we can do. And that’s how I felt at the end. And I went to, because I’m not I’m not a history student or anything like that, I’m not an academic at all. But I went to re-look at the Bandung Conference and what that was about, and obviously, it was about the African countries and the Asian countries coming together. And in 1955 one of the reasons why they had that conference was to actually talk about decolonisation. In 1955. And in 2019, we’re still talking about decolonisation. So has the conversation actually, you know, evolved – whether it’s yes or no – but that was quite an interesting point. And then the second was that it was Sukarno’s first major speech delivered in English. And it was actually written by a British an Australian citizen. And so that sat really weirdly for me as well. So, you know, like all these interesting things that– I mean, obviously there’s reasons why they didn’t delve into that, there is a lot of politics involved in, you know, making a speech on a kind of public platform. But yeah, so for me the ending, I… didn’t really sit super well with me. But I think it’s because like we were discussing before, like, decolonisation is a process, and yah, 1955 we were talking about it, 2019, we’re talking about it, because it’s hard, and especially in Singapore, I think, with English as our… you know. That’s how I feel. But I like the play.

KR: Corrie, do you want to respond to that?

CT: Yeah, I mean, I have very similar thoughts about… I think too often we desire a kind of “okay, I want this performance to give me an answer now to this kind of conundrum we find ourselves in”, and I think it’s okay for different states or regions or countries to come to this question as and when they meet it. And I think Singapore is a particularly unique place to be negotiating with this because we’ve been often fed kind of a very strong, singular narrative of how we came to be, what our kind of self-actualisation is. And it’s very difficult to unpick something that has been told to us since we were seven, right? I mean, I find myself struggling with a kind of embodied dispossession every day about trying to counter the narratives that we’ve been given from a very, very young age. And I really love what PJ Thum says in the programme, that history is an argument and I don’t think necessarily that one strand of revisionist history unmakes another strand, but that they co-exist and inform and converse with each other. And to me that kind of tapestry of stories that we’ve been getting over the past few years is part of that process of unmaking and remaking. I think one of the most poignant lines that I remember from Tiger of Malaya is that when we are faced with this double-bind, that we have to be, you know, politically pragmatic and kind of try and win at this structure we are in but also try and also find a way out of this, find a new kind of imagined path to follow. I think it’s a very difficult kind of cooptation that we face. And I find that we are all collectively, whether through art or performance or in other academic pursuits, trying to negotiate the cooptation that we face, and how to find a way out of it. And it’s not easy, which is why I don’t expect Merdeka to give me answers and I was thrilled with kind of the navigating that they are already doing. I mean, even though she says “what now”, it is already now they’ve already kind of gone through this process of reckoning with themselves. And perhaps, you know, before we encounter – I mean I have mixed thoughts about this. One of them is that, you know before… perhaps we need to absolve or resolve the anti-colonial… I mean a lot of the figures that we see here were anti-colonial, like Subhas Chandra Bose, who of course had very different views on liberation, on anti-colonial kind of movements as opposed to Gandhi, his other contemporary, but you know, maybe we have to look at these ghosts of anti-colonialism past, before we move to the kind of very difficult, thorny decolonial messiness that we encounter, because decolonisation is also not about like, “okay, everything the British do, do opposite”, that’s not quite it. And, I can’t, for example, give up English as a language I love and take pleasure in. And but at the same time, you know, I don’t think it’s also about nativism or essentialism or kind of glorifying certain kind of ethnic attributes or traits. So I think it’s an incredibly difficult process. And what we see here that Alfian has been struggling through is his kind of process of unmaking and remaking. And perhaps, you know, as someone who’s moved into academia, the way I argue these things is perhaps through writing, but I see that Alfian and his collaborators perhaps are working through argument-as-performance. And it’s really amazing to see that. It was like knowledge production through a completely different form, which I really, really appreciated.

KR: Do you think that you know, when the question is raised – “what next?”, is that a question for the audience? For those of us who watched it? Because I was just thinking, that there was that, but there’s also that moment where – not in this production actually not in this version today that you will have seen – but actually, for those of you saw it, in other nights, the audience was actually invited onto the stage to have to look at the works that were in these vitrines, right. And yeah, so maybe I maybe you know, this is a good point to actually ask those of you who have questions or have a response to it. Did you feel after watching it, did you feel that that question was directed at you?

This recording and transcript omits the question-and-answer session, due to privacy reasons. 

Merdeka. Photo: Rueyloon from Wild Rice


Merdeka. Photo: Rueyloon from Wild Rice


Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் was presented by Wild Rice from from 10 Oct to 3 November 2019 at Wild Rice’s Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre in Singapore. More info here.

About the author(s)

Corrie Tan 陳霖靈 is an arts practitioner and researcher from Singapore. She is interested in and works at the intersection of care ethics, collaborative performance practices, and new articulations of arts criticism and writing in Southeast Asia. Her roles shapeshift depending on the context, but she is often an archivist, facilitator and companion to the artists and projects she works with and on. Corrie is completing her Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies on the joint degree programme between King’s College London and the National University of Singapore on a President’s Graduate Fellowship. She is associate editor and resident critic with ArtsEquator, assistant editor with independent academic collective AcademiaSG, and is serving on the Future Advisory Board (FAB) of Performance Studies international (PSi). www.corrie-tan.com

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.

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.

Carolyn is a writer and educator. As a reader, she enjoys stories about strong women, amazing animals and one-pot wonders. As a writer, she focuses on non-fiction work. In 2015, she co-founded Mackerel, an online culture magazine, with Marc Nair. She writes and produces podcasts, op-eds and book reviews. Environmental issues are important to Carolyn and she tries her best to do her part through her own lifestyle habits and participation in education and discourse. As a scholar and educator, Carolyn's research and areas of applied practice include arts management, community art, language and literacy. More information on Carolyn and her work is available on www.creativevoice.sg and www.mackerel.life. Carolyn is currently based in Singapore.

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