In this latest podcast episode, Kathy Rowland, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss recent productions The Hawker by Second Breakfast Company, an immersive piece that pays homage to individuals in a hawker centre, and Rumah Dayak by new theatre collective Rupa co.lab, which puts the experiences of troubled Malay youths centrestage.
Duration: 30 minutes
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Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello hello and welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. Today you have me, Naeem Kapadia together with as usual, Matt Lyon–
Matthew Lyon (ML): Hello.
NK: And Kathy Rowland.
Kathy Rowland (KR): Hello.
NK: And today we are discussing two plays by emerging theatre companies. We have The Hawker by The Second Breakfast Company and Rumah Dayak, by a brand new theatre collective called Rupa co.lab. So The Hawker, Matt, tell us a little bit about that.
ML: Well, it was an interesting set-up, wasn’t it, because they’ve taken over the Black Box in Aliwal Art Centre and laid it out like a hawker centre with authentic hawker tables and they printed the programme so that it looks like a menu and everybody’s just gathered around. One of five tables arranged in a kind of X shape in the space with various hawker stalls and paraphernalia around the outside of it, fairy lights, posters stuck up everywhere. And the conceit is that it’s five short plays which take place simultaneously. So that the audience gathered around each of the individual five tables hears one play. And then there’s a little transition scene, and then they rotate. And same play. Same simultaneity, but you get a different play, and the table next to you gets a different play. And that’s the way it works. I’ve not seen that done exactly that way before. So it’s a really interesting idea. What did you think of that, Kathy? You’ve seen it twice, in fact.
KR: I’ve seen it twice. So I should just disclaimer that we could re– the subtitle to this edition is actually “The Crony” addition, because as it happens, Denise Dolendo, who is one of the co-founders of Second Breakfast Company that produced The Hawker, works for ArtsEquator. And of course Nabilah Said, who is one of the co-founders of Rupa co.lab that produced Rumah Dayak is ArtsEquator’s editor–
ML: And I had a former student, Rachel Yen, who played Rosie in The Hawker and a colleague, Mohd Fared Jainal who did the set design (for Rumah Dayak).
KR: So we’re putting it out there, that you know–
NK: Yeah yeah.
ML: So don’t believe a word we say!
KR: Entanglements and relationships along, but I think we can all set aside those things, and we talk about it. So I saw The Hawker when it was part of Buds Youth Theatre’s Asian Theatre Festival last year, 2018. And that was held at Republic Poly and was really kind of a workshop production really. It was, you know, we were– the same setup. So over time, you will have experienced five different little vignettes. And all the characters are drawn from people that you would typically find in hawker centres, right? I did like it, I have to say. I think that there was a kind of level of proximity and proximation to the work that I liked. It could be seen as, you know, it’s a gimmick, that it’s just a staging technique. What I liked about it was that it brought me very close to the performances. And some of the stories really benefit from that because one story in particular, for example, was a story of two girls, Li Ann and Cindy and they’re school girls, young teens played by Lynnie Cheong and Ong Yi Xuan, who have this conversation about the relationship problems they’re having with their family, the relationship problems they’re having with friends, but also one girl confesses that she is obviously having some kind of inappropriate relationship with one of the teachers.
KR: Right. And there’s a quality of that teenage kind of naivete–
ML: And obliviousness.
KR: Also that total self-centredness that you’re completely oblivious to everything around you that you would have such a personal conversation, sitting in a table shared by strangers. And so that worked for me.
ML: I agree that that did work quite well for exactly the reasons you say. But my problem was that those reasons did not carry through to the other four pieces. And so whereas I was fine to feel blanked by those two girls because they were so much in their own world, and it was if we really want that, for the others, it was this kind of uncomfortable playing style where they know we’re there, but they’re pretending we’re not. And it gestured towards a kind of interactivity which it did not follow through with. And the only one of the five plays that made that work for me was the one you mentioned. Maybe also the one about the foreign worker receiving a phone call. But on the other hand, he was quiet and I couldn’t really hear what he said a lot of the time. Naeem, your thoughts?
NK: Same thing. I just couldn’t feel I was drawn that strongly into some of the other stories. And that just me made somehow feel a little dissatisfied overall because I thought in terms of tone the piece as a whole didn’t really feel very even. So in particular, the one scene that just did not sit very well with me was a scene involving a divorcing couple who also owned this hawker space and they presumably sold it off to a developer who’s now going to build some department new building or something like that.
KR: A mall called the A-List Mall.
ML: Yes you’re right. Good memory there.
NK: And you know, she just sits calmly opposite her husband, these two adults and serves him divorce papers and he has absolutely no expression on his face just looks slightly forlorn. It’s a bit like wringing blood from a stone. I was sitting right next to the guy playing this husband character. And I kept looking at his face and I could get nothing from him. And she was equally kind of, you know, quite stern and–
NK: Didn’t really have like– quite a passive expression as well. So, you know, again, that was just not a very strong scene and I don’t think being close to her really helped as well.
ML: Yes, it didn’t because the unevenness of the entire event– because we had those wonderful performances. The script for the two girls’ scene – script is by Aslam Shah – was “I am so excited to watch what that playwright does next. I’ll be the first in line buying tickets.”
ML: But then the divorcing couple that you mentioned, “I never want to see that playwright again.” It’s like two playwrights.
NK: And the other thing actually, which I thought was quite interesting was in between each of the five substantive scenes, there are these little, I wouldn’t even call them vignettes but exchanges, largely wordless, that sort of go on between the characters that are supposed to be like a continuation of the story. So you have like the brother giving the sister some money.
KR: You didn’t like it, Naeem, right? You found them quite problematic.
NK: I just thought it was a bit too fiddly for me and also the blocking doesn’t help, because you’re sort of clustered around the table. You have to crane sometimes to see what’s happening. And you know, I get that it’s trying to give a certain layer to the character.
NK: I just wasn’t sure it necessarily helped. Like there’s a scene involving Daud who I think is doing his ablutions with dirty water or something. I couldn’t really understand what was the reason behind that? Was there suddenly a cut-off in the water supply or something, and he looks like he’s pained and he’s like, about to hold back tears or… yeah.
KR: I mean, I actually didn’t mind it, because I thought– to me, it reminded me of them being caught in a loop right, that they’re all–
KR: Because they’re replaying these scenes again and again. So that kind of moment of abstraction. I didn’t mind at all.
NK: Talking about a loop, and I think in a sense, that’s a nice way to see it as well, because it’s these stories just continue to go on and they just have a life of their own. And it’s quite interesting as an audience–
ML: But how much of them have the weight to merit that?
NK: True. True.
KR: Yah. Look, I think there were five stories, right.
KR: And we know that the ones with the two teen girls really worked. The migrant worker – which is the only scene that was a solo piece–
NK: A monologue.
KR: A monologue, because he ostensibly is having a conversation with his mother back in… was it Bangladesh?
NK: Somewhere in India, Bangladesh, about an arranged marriage.
KR: About an arranged marriage. And I thought that also worked because again, half of the dialogue is in Tamil. Often when you’re having a conversation on the phone, you feel in a way, a false sense of privacy, right?
KR: That you know, the people around you– so that scene really worked. But I think you’re absolutely right that the one with the divorce couple just didn’t seem to fit at all. It didn’t fit the setting.
KR: What was the other – there was another one, Nancy and Daud, you wanted to mention that, I think.
ML: Well they– I’m going to use that to segue into the direction because they stood opposite sides of the table and rubbed at the same nonexistent stain on the table with their cloths for however long it was – 15 minutes?– and that was the direction. That’s not worth repeating five times. There’s no kind of Beckettian world where that level of repetition works.
KR: And that’s the problem with a lot of the scenes. They are ostensibly immersive because you are seated at a table with two actors strategically on opposite ends. But at the same time, it feels a little forced. Would two girls talking about such a momentous topic really be sitting 180 degrees opposite each other and not come around. I mean, I think to be fair, the girls did come around a little bit–
ML: That was the best directed and there was some movement.
NK: There was a bit of movement, but some of the others? I mean, the divorcing couple basically sat still, having no expression. Nancy stood up and Daud stood where he was. It just felt very forced, like, you know, oh I have to be on this side of the table, you have to be on that side of the table. We just have to say these lines and wait for our allotted of time. And speaking of that, obviously, all the scenes don’t have the same length of time. So in particular, there was a scene involving, I believe the character called Arumugam who’s the Indian Bangladeshi migrant worker who’s having a conversation with his mother, and his scene is a little bit shorter than the others. And he would finish it and would sort of awkwardly sit and stare and–
ML: Long pauses.
KR: Oh right.
NK: Move around with his food, waiting for the other people to finish up their conversations.
ML: But I would actually go further and say that four out of five of them often appeared to be waiting for the others.
KR: Oh, that’s interesting, because he was my last scene, so I didn’t have that experience.
ML: Oh, well, he wouldn’t need to particularly wait. Yeah. Okay, right. He wasn’t– I think he was our–
NK: He was our second or third scene.
ML: Yeah, something like that yeah. But very often there were these pauses that didn’t seem to have any purpose to them. And I think for me, it’s that Tan Hui Er, it says she’s a filmmaker. She’s used, in the framing, to having a wide shot and over-the-shoulder shot and then she can choose what she gets. She’s used to having an editor, and she’s not used to theatre happening with fixed viewpoints in real-time. And her ability to control that was sadly just not there.
NK: Yeah, but the look, I mean, all that being said about the kind of weaknesses between the scenes, one thing I did like, which I think is probably worth mentioning is the kind of, the element of sight and smell. You know, there was real food there on the table, you have the Indian character having real biryani, which he kind of, you know, he’s eating, there’s that sense of truly being at a hawker center and that does try to help set that scene and anchor it a little bit. The fact that we are sitting around a table full of, you know, discarded food and drink and you can smell that food as well. And it’s interesting, because prior to the show, you know, you can go and buy things like kueh and packet drinks and all that. So you have certain audience members actually eating as well. I think it does help to create that sort of immersive… whether it’s truly immersive in the sense that, you know, you’re just being zoned out. I mean, that’s a question but I think they did make a good effort. There’s definitely not a lot of plays that have gone to this level of trying to include the audience and I have to give them credit for a new company–
ML: It’s a very worthwhile experiment.
KR: Yeah. And I think maybe the thing that, you know, I just had to remind myself was, look, this is immersive theatre, but it’s not participation theatre, my presence there doesn’t change the work at all. I don’t have you know, I have no role as an audience. I’m just that– my location, and where I am situated is just different. But we agree that the script – lots of potential.
ML: Mixed potential, amazing and awful.
NK: Look, I don’t regret having seen the show, it’s not the strongest thing I’ve seen by far. But I really enjoyed, you know, moments. There were moments in the play. I think that really did resonate, they are sort of elements that touch on you know, class and social differences and just the idea of people coping with change in their lives. So it’s something which you know, hopefully I’d like to see developed and taken in another direction and, you know, at its very best, there was some really good writing, very sharp observant notes about, you know, the tensions in modern Singaporean society and social commentary.
ML: Speaking of which, shall we move on to our second play, Rumah Dayak, certainly a lot of societal tensions in there. Who’s going to talk about this one?
KR: Okay. So Rumah Dayak is written by Nessa Anwar, and it is produced by as we’ve mentioned, a new collective and I want to say the members’ names. So it’s Nessa Anwar, Nabilah Said and Hazwan Norly who are the three co-founders of Rupa co.lab. Nessa was the playwright and also directed it and it’s not her first time, she’s staged two other works before, right, Naeem?
NK: Yeah. So Nessa, I first saw her, in fact we all saw her seven years ago in… when she was still at NUS doing a student production, which was by the NUS Stage and which also saw the involvement of Checkpoint Theatre called City Night Songs. And it was basically about a group of seven friends you know, and their kind of trials and tribulations of, you know, life and love, if you like. And Nessa played a Malay character called Aisha, who also enjoyed, you know, motorbikes. And each of those characters had a monologue where they just talk about their passions and interests and things. And she was obviously talking about her love for, you know, just biking in the darkness and just owning the highway. And it’s interesting because then she took that story and she expanded it into a full-length play, which was called Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain, which came in the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2015–
NK: –2016. So a few years later, and that was a full play about you know, this group of friends who are all bikers just again dealing with their own, you know, tensions in life, and this is now her second full-length play. And I really, really think that in that space of time, Nessa has shown tremendous growth as a writer. One of the issues I had when I saw that very first show of hers, City Night Songs, was that I felt it was somehow impossibly articulate. She just felt somewhat distanced from that particular–
ML: Little bit like a writing exercise.
NK: Yeah, it was a bit like “I’m going to be very abstract and poetic about something that’s actually a bit coarse and earthy.
KR: About a subculture that she obviously knows well, but then chooses to kind of yeah, as you say, write quite poetically about.
NK: Because of that I just couldn’t get under the skin of the characters she was trying to portray. And I felt a little bit like that in Riders as well. You know, there was a lot of nice conversation between the four characters, I believe, in that show, but then they would kind of–
ML: –step out into a monologue and the spotlight would hit them, and then you’re in a play.
NK: Yeah. And then again, you feel a little bit distanced. But here in this show Rumah Dayak, it’s very much a realist, you know, show about a safe house for these wayward Malay youths.
KR: And there are six youths in there.
NK: Six youths, run by a couple in their 30s. And it’s just offering these kids who’ve obviously made certain mistakes in their life, who’ve spent time in, you know, in Boys’ Homes, Girls’ Homes, jail, etc. A way to kind of re-integrate and go back into society. And the way they speak may not be the most polished or articulate, but it has a certain powerful poetry of its own. And a musicality, just in terms of the, almost the insults and the exchanges and the barbs as well that they throw.
KR: I think her ear for dialogue is absolutely finely tuned. So there’s a kind of rhythm that you talked about, and the vulgarity was pure pleasure to me. I mean – you understand Malay as well.
KR: I mean, it’s just pure – the number of times the “pukimaks” came out, was fantastic. You know, it’s unapologetically so, I think there was a kind of dark humour to the sexual jokes. Which, yeah, it’s kind of hard to think of any other play I’ve seen in recent times that have got this.
ML: I mean, obviously, you’re talking a lot about the language there, and I can’t access that. But so often, for me, that is the least important element of drama. I want to see the plot, I want to see the character development, as long as the language isn’t horribly stilted. I’ll just assume that someone speaks like that and get on with what is actually going to give me the emotional experience here. So for me, the surtitles were very serviceable. I didn’t worry about it. What I did like was that it was a rich theatrical experience with character development, with multi-threaded plots.
ML: I was impressed by this.
KR: Yeah, I think because the work also deals with a minority-within-a-minority. So you’ve got you know, and it’s not your model minority, right, this idea of the “model minority” who has dismantled and disproved all the negative stereotypes.
KR: This is a work that actually really stages some of these stereotypes right? The disenfranchised, slacker, make colossal mistakes in your life and having to kind of, you know, still make mistakes, right?
NK: Exactly. Well they call themselves “sampah masyarakat” which is the scum of society basically. That’s a term which they themselves, they embrace it almost.
KR: And when I was watching, I was thinking, oh, gosh, you know, I mean, are we reinforcing stereotypes in this work, that thought did cross my mind. But as the work developed, I really felt that staging it, was like an act of defiance on the part of Rupa collective as well as Nessa, because there’s a kind of desire and ability to really embrace all of the things that are derided about this minority-within-a-minority and because it was so fleshed out, as you say, right.
ML: It was human, you can’t be stereotyped if you’re human.
KR: Right, exactly. And so what you have then is this switch from something that is, you know, staging your dirty laundry into a celebration of the difference, one, a celebration of resilience.
KR: But also never ending in a Hallmark moment that everything is going to be okay.
ML: No, it almost certainly wasn’t.
ML: What I really appreciated in the characters because, I’ve seen you know, TNS’ Underclass, many plays here, that at least set a foot into that idea of an underclass and put it on stage. But what you don’t so often get, is the attempt to struggle from within the system. And of course, you don’t get that because artists are pretty much by definition outside the system, trying to make their hammer dents into it from the outside. But in the character of, can you help me with the character name, the woman who ran the shelter?
ML: Julia, thank you, Kak Julia.
KR: Played by Farah Lola.
ML: Thank you very much. You had somebody there who was trying to, as much as possible, do it by the book, or at least who understood the merits of doing that. And that that would give them the money, she was prepared to play by those rules. And she was prepared to make those compromises. And her husband in the play–
NK: Nahar. Well I think boyfriend.
NK: Who is played by Al-Matin Yatim.
ML: -was vehemently opposed to that. And that’s a conversation with a great deal of nuance, which I don’t remember seeing on the stage. And I thought it was captured beautifully, intelligently, honestly. I was really there for that.
NK: I really liked, sorry, I really, really did like that character of Julia. But at the same time, I just felt that there were times when it felt a little artificial. So the place starts with her, just speaking almost exclusively in English and a very kind of formal English as well, which I somehow feel would not be used in this type of group. And I’m not sure what was the reason for that. It just felt like, oh I’m trying to establish as much of a difference in terms of class and age as possible.
ML: Well, yeah, I mean, I could see that character doing that for precisely that purpose. And I agree.
KR: To play authority?
ML: Yeah, I agree that it read as artificial but I was very happy with that level of kind of self-enforced artificiality from a character who didn’t think she’d end up here – it was basically her boyfriend’s idea – but has ended up here and really needs to fill those shoes. But I also agree that when it came to the point where she was put under so much pressure that veneer should crack and the raw emotion should come out, maybe wasn’t quite there.
NK: She kept it together a bit too much, I mean–
KR: It’s very hard sometimes to tell because we can agree that the character is well-drawn, it’s very fleshed out, but you know, whether it’s a lack of experience on the part of the actor or a directing choice, right, but we feel that there was something missing at that point.
ML: I found the direction in this very strong. I mean, the cast had such a cohesive playing style, such amazing chemistry with each other. You would not be surprised to learn that they’d all live together for two years, would you. If I told you that as fact, you’d buy it.
KR: Yeah, you’d buy it completely.
NK: And it’s directed by Nessa herself. So she both wrote and directed the play. And I don’t think Nessa’s actually had a lot of directing experience and that does not show. I mean, it just came together so coherently and the fact that this was the inaugural production of a brand new theatre collective,
KR: Pretty spectacular.
NK: I think that it is every bit the equal of any professional production that we have out there.
KR: I mean, there are two things though. So one thing that I really liked about directing and one thing that I didn’t. So I liked, so there’s a kind of prelude, it opens with a little scene that is completely in Malay. I could understand most of it but because it’s slang right, and it’s generational – My God, what are these young people saying? – but then it’s a prelude, then it moves into the actual play and there are subtitles, surtitles, but actually, I liked that moment because it was like this moment of exclusion. It was the director being very purposeful and staging something that would purposely exclude some part of the audience.
ML: Saying “this is the community we’re dealing with right now”.
KR: And no, but this is also the kind of exclusion that someone who, let’s say doesn’t speak Mandarin, for example, experiences on a daily basis.
ML: I agree with you that that was the purpose and that it was achieved perfectly, but also without feeling inhospitable because they left the house lights up, so you knew it was a pre-show.
KR: But then also, then the moment comes when the subtitles in and there’s this moment of like, as an audience member, kind of relief and gratitude. Oh, you’re letting us in. Right?
KR: And so I really, I liked that moment.
NK: I was thinking of this very interesting image of, you know, when you go swimming and there’s that moment where you put your leg in the water and you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so cold, it’s so cold. Can I go in? Can I go in? and then fine I’m going in” and you just like–
ML: I usually don’t go in.
NK: -take that plunge. It’s a bit like that, they plunge you into the cold water. And in a way, once you’re in, you’re like, actually, this is not bad. It’s not that cold and it’s really beautiful. So I mean, the play was like that for me. It took a while for me to warm up. And I think because initially I wasn’t sure where it was going. And you know, the Malay I know is very proper Malay, so I also was–
KR: Because you’re pro-pah!
NK: Yeah, I had to rely a lot on the surtitles, especially with the vulgarities.
ML: Oh please.
KR: I was clutching my pearls. I was clutching my pearls!
NK: Yeah, yeah. So you know. But once you get in, I just got really, really drawn into the whole show. And that’s just again a credit to Nessa for kind of combining that, you know, that slapstick, with that real emotional heft, you know. There’s this sense that you know, the kids are sticking up for each other. You have some of them who’ve been in this safe house for a long time and they just can’t sort of integrate themselves back. So apart from you know, we talked about Julia as the chaperone, but I thought there were some other really decent performances. I really liked them the two actors playing the younger character, so I think they’re called Boy and another one’s called Slim.
KR: So Boy is played by Wan Ahmad and Ali Mazrin as Slim.
NK: Ali Mazrin. And, you know, again, it’s just these two kids who presumably don’t come from great backgrounds, but they want to genuinely improve themselves. And there’s this lovely scene where they’re having an English tuition class trying to write an essay about migration.
ML: I recognise that essay. I’ve taught General Paper in neighbourhood schools. I mean, it was a remarkable scene because we laugh at the fact that they are bad at doing it. But then we also think, why are they even required? We’ve seen these characters be incredibly eloquent, have really strong feelings, want to improve their lives, be part of a community, and then what matters – this absolutely pointless essay that they just do not and will not probably ever have the skills for.
ML: And it’s a really subtle comment on the sad shape of society.
KR: Can we talk about Ella, the character and the performer?
ML: I was going to go there as well. I was going to jump into the same thing.
KR: Rusydina Afiqah? As Ella.
ML: I’m not going to try and pronounce that, but you go for it.
KR: Apologies if I said that wrongly, she played the role of Ella, who is, I mean, it’s already a house of people who are rebellious and–
ML: She’s the one who’s known to have the attitude. So she’s got to step it up, and she brought it.
NK: Minah Unplugged!
KR: Oh my God. Yeah, she was kind of this moment of anger. And she just comes in as a gale force, right?
NK: Radiating disdain and–
KR: And anger and all the failures of society kind of, you know, reside emotionally in her, right?
ML: And it’s not so hard as an actor to get into that mode. But what is so hard is to show that vulnerability underneath to the audience, but not to the other characters. And she did that so well. You immediately know why she is so aggressive because she is so broken. And you see that as an audience member. And you see that the characters don’t see it.
NK: Honestly. There’s a scene where she goes into another room, which is I think with Julia, and that guard sort of goes down and she reveals that actually I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to spend time with my real family.
KR: She was fantastic.
ML: The moment for me was, she’s gone through the entire play bossing people around, screaming at them, do this, do this, do that, comes to the point where she needs to ask for the most important thing. And she says, “please”. And as an actor, she throws it away. She doesn’t like try and say that “this is the big Oscar moment”.
KR: She doesn’t overemote.
ML: She doesn’t overemote it. But with all the work she’s done on that character, that “please”, just hit me.
KR: Yeah. And the sense of loyalty that she has, right? There’s a code, right, of not snitching. So I mean, that was, again, very finely drawn, very nice touches in the way the character is drawn.
NK: I wasn’t a fan of the scene transitions, I have to say. And there are quite a lot of them.
ML: Too many.
KR: The entrances and exits were awkward.
NK: Because all that happens is that it just goes black and it’s silent for about 15 seconds and you hear shuffling.
ML: 15? That’s a bit unfair….
NK: 10-ish basically, but there was just this big long pause. I just felt that could have been either quickened maybe, use music?
ML: Fewer of them with a bit of a redraft. I don’t know if I would want to put music in because then you’re in soap opera territory maybe.
NK: Yeah, sure.
ML: But if in a bigger venue, you’d have wings, you’d be able to speed them up a little bit. You know, I think it’s just another draft to reduce the number and then more money in a bigger venue.
NK: Still, all that said and done, it is still a very, very solid script. I think everyone in Rupa co.lab can be very proud–
NK: Of staging this as their very first production and if they ever do stage, a new version of it, I think I’d be very keen to see and tell people all about it.
ML: Yep. So last time, we had a bit of a problem with the shows we saw. We promised we would go and see good theatre, and we did go and see good theatre.
KR: And it’s a great way to end the year, really, right?
NK: And it kind of makes you quite optimistic for, you know what–
KR: Two young companies?
NK: Two young companies really putting out some very thought-provoking, powerful stories about, you know, the Singaporean life here.
ML: Here’s hoping for more next time.
KR: Thank you for joining us, everyone.
NK: Thank you.
ML: Bye bye.