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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 86: M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021

After a short hiatus, the ArtsEquator theatre podcast is back. In the latest episode, Kathy Rowland, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss three productions at the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival – a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be by Koh Wan Ching and Andrew Sutherland; i am not here by The Lost Post Initiative; and Pandan by Rupa co.lab.

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Podcast Transcript 

Matthew Lyon (ML): Hello everyone, welcome back to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. Nabilah has recused herself for she is involved in one of the productions that we’re talking about today. And we have the wonderful, the ever-fragrant Kathy Rowland back.

Kathy Rowland (KR): Hello everyone.

ML: And of course we have Naeem Kapadia.

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hi everyone.

ML: As I said, three plays today, we’re going to start with a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be by Koh Wan Ching and Andrew Sutherland. We will then move on to i am not here by The Lost Post Initiative, finishing off with Pandan by Rupa co.lab. All of these plays, obviously being staged for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021. Naeem, as ever, is the organised one who brought the programmes. So tell us Naeem about our first play a line could be crossed– and I think we all need to look at the title for this every time we say it, a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be.

NK: Yes, I’m just going to call it a line because it’s quite a mouthful. So this is a production that was originally performed by graduating students at the Intercultural Theatre Institute in 2019. And this is the second iteration of the show. It was written by Andrew Sutherland, who is performer-writer between Singapore and Australia. And it was directed by Koh Wan Ching, a line is a sort of, I would say slightly more abstract play. It’s ostensibly about climate change. And it kind of involves two storylines about human relationships. There is a gay couple who kind of navigates a relationship. One of them is HIV positive, and the other one tries to deal with that. And then there’s also another relationship between a young woman and a man who meet at a cafe, and how their relationship goes on. And interspersed with these two relationships, we have a story about the survival of species.

ML: “Story” is maybe a bit of a push, but sure.

NK: Kind of like little vignettes. You have a scene of a baby turtle learning how to swim and literally trying to cross a line to ensure its survival. You have these monologues by otters, and a merlion about their environment. And I guess that idea of change is coming because of these external forces. So it’s about – I’m going to try reaching for something a bit more overarching and say – the ephemeral nature of human relationships, and how, in a way, we are no different from species who can just be eradicated at a moment, if the balance is not right.

ML: And with that, you have passed your literature test. Congratulations. Did it feel that way though, Kathy?

KR: I thought that it was actually trying to aim for really big themes. I don’t know if it succeeded or not. I did think that there were parts of the script that I did enjoy it, that I liked. So for me, it was really a play about Singapore, as much as it was about the environment and about climate change. I think that there were certain kind of commentary that he was making about Singapore and where it situates itself in the world, and in the way that Singaporeans react and have a relationship with nature, that I wanted to see more of, I don’t think it was very clearly put. And I’m not sure if that was because sometimes when you want to say difficult things, you have to be quite oblique. But I think, you know, a couple of things – and the reason I say that is that one of the characters is an architect, played by Irfan (Kasban). And there’s much that’s made about him being the architect of what appears to be like a Jewel-like mall where trees–

ML: I think it was literally Jewel –

KR: Was it literally Jewel?

ML: I don’t even think it was Jewel-like. Anyway you would definitely read it as that wouldn’t you?

KR: Yes. And it was, you know, a lot of it had to do with the ocean and this obsession with otters. Singapore is really one of the only places in the world where this is this beautiful – I love it – this really zany obsession with otters, and the merlion. So they were all these markers I think that, for me, redeemed I think what otherwise would have been not a great work.

ML: Yeah, I mean, I think between you, you’ve made it sound relatively coherent. But it did not come across that way to me. It felt like it was trying to be Cloud Atlas, and have the magic realism, of whether we’re just normal people going about our lives but if you think about the way we intertwine, it creates something numinous and fascinating with gem-like intricacy which is the true meaning of life. But… (I made that sound quite pretentious deliberately because the play came across as very pretentious.) I get the idea that you might want to reach for big ideas by detailing the minutiae of relationships. But those relationships were cold and implausible. Nobody speaks like that. Nobody acts like that. And nobody has those conversations. Each of the couples seemed to dislike each other quite strongly.

KR: Yeah, the relationships were, I think, one of the weakest points, and so much hinged on them, because we spent so much time watching these relationships, right? So the young girl who is an artist, and the architect, we watched them from meeting each other right through this idyllic relationship, and then to this ugly breakdown. And the other couple, the gay couple, the Singapore character is HIV positive, and the Filipino – did they specifically say Filipino?

ML: I think we eventually got to Filipino, didn’t we? Yeah.

KR: – character is here… and he’s a foundling, he’s in search of his mother. So that brings in another theme – he’s been separated from his mother, and it plays with the imagery of the baby turtle, perhaps, you know, looking for some kind of… looking for home–

ML: Return.

KR: For return, for home. The ideas were there, but for me, in performance, you never felt the chemistry between, for example, the two male characters at all, and their story needs to be central because we need to care about them.

NK: I agree. I think the ideas were there. As I mentioned earlier, it’s about these various creatures are being threatened by external forces beyond their control. And likewise, a human relationship can kind of veer off course so easily. I mean, I liked that symmetry that the show was reaching for. But you need to back that up with plausible performances.

ML: As you said, a human relationship can veer off course so easily, sure, but it has to veer on course, first. And they never did. The closest they ever got to the people involved in the relationships having anything they liked about each other was when he tried to chat her up because he fancied her. After that she belittles him, tries to intellectually dominate him, and you’re like, “Well, why are you together still?”.

NK: And then it just seems like she becomes a mouthpiece for sort of National Geographic-like articles where she goes on eloquently about the temperature, and which turtles are hatched, and how that would affect their gender and things like that. I’m like, okay, yes, this is all interesting. But do people really speak like that?

ML: Well, it was aiming for a kind of poetry, wasn’t it? And there were the –

KR: Or parody. Wasn’t she kind of the parody of the very earnest–

NK: The earnest millennial.

KR: Or young person who cares so much, and has got all of the language and the idealism, but then when faced with actually having to execute something, understands that it is enormous.

ML: Yes. But if we’re talking about the tone of voice – although her character was probably the most like that – they were all like that. And that would make them all parodies. And then you’ve kind of got the question, what is the point? But these slightly more realistic (and I use that word very loosely) scenes were interspersed with things that were deliberately symbolic or expressionistic with animal masks and wailing and intense sound design. And yet the quality of speech, the tone in each of them was very much the same. So then why does this have the wailing sound effects under it and all the costumes and masks and things? And yet the other stuff, which sounds pretty much the same, is presented as naturalism, and neither of them achieved the poetry that they were so desperately striving for?

NK: So I think that there was some sort of ideas simmering below the surface, but it just did not come together and feel coherent at all. As you mentioned, these other surreal sequences – there are these dramatic monologues featuring people in almost panto-like costumes dressed like animals.

ML: That was mainly Grace–

NK: Grace Kalaiselvi. Who’s, you know, quite sadly kind of underutilised, I think, in this production. She’s a great actress. But you know, I think there were all these scenes, which for me, just were jarring more than anything else. Because you have these kind of ideas like, “Aw, you know, there is a much bigger world out there, look at the animals perspective’ and all of that. And then you come back to these really colourless relationships – and I’m sorry I used the word colourless, because I don’t think the actors were doing anything to make us invest in these characters. And you have to. I think it doesn’t help that, I found in particular the gay couple just extremely weak in terms of trying to engage the audience. I was not drawn into their story at all. And then you have probably one of the most infuriating lines in the play where one of the characters goes “I want to have HIV. I want to be infected with HIV so I can be with you and truly kind of be part of you”. Like, where does that even come from?

ML: I mean, bugchasing is a thing in the gay community. But from all I’ve read, and everyone I’ve spoken to, that did not ring true at all. And Kathy, you were in the theatre with me (although I didn’t see you, because you’re very small and far away, but I have a shiny head, so you saw me right?) And what did I look like at that moment?

KR: There was this moment where you just– your head fell into your hands. And it was a dramatic moment of pain. Physical pain.

ML: It was excruciatingly painful. There was no investment in their relationship that might require that kind of self-negating sacrifice. It felt opportunistic and false. And it made me angry. It made me angry to the extent that I momentarily questioned why I even like theatre in the first place. Because the experience of being in a theatre now when it’s got a capacity of about 200, and there’s only 20 people in there, it’s very distancing. You’re not going to go to the bar afterwards. You feel like you’re almost being beamed up to an alien spaceship, like you’re the weirdly Chosen One that they’re going to probe. And then when you see something that bad, I just kept thinking, why me? Why do I subject myself to this execrable nonsense. So it was a bit of a soul-searching night for me, unfortunately.

NK: I think a lot of things came together just to make this a fairly challenging production to really enjoy. And for me, the other thing was direction, I–

ML: You better stick some sound in there later as well.

NK: I’ll get to the sound as well. But I mean the direction honestly, like I was fortunate to be sitting, I think, on one of the corners where I actually had an unobstructed view. But I think the blocking was not done to really cater to audiences on three-sides–

ML: Heavy thrusts. So three sides, and pretty much all of it was aimed at the central portion. And if you were unlucky enough to be seated, fairly deep upstage, on either of the sides, you would have been mainly looking at people’s backs.

KR: Yah. So anytime the work sent its energy to you, if you’re sitting on the side, (which is where I was) it was incidental. It just happened, you know, by the by. It didn’t feel it was intentional. I didn’t mind, in fact, the times when the surrealism came in, and the characters had those rubber mask on.

NK: Yes.

KR: There was a kind of incantation quality to it. And I think that I liked those pieces, because I wasn’t so conscious of the lack of charisma between the characters–

ML: Because they’re speaking to the entire world–

KR: Right.

ML: –of which you are part. Whereas the characters are usually speaking to each other. And only one side of the audience is allowed to really engage.

KR: Yeah. Okay, so if I had to pick out some standout performers, I think that Liz Sergeant Tan was– I mean, I think that there were moments when I think she really did pull it out really well. The chemistry between Irfan’s character and her just was not there. So when they were apart, they performed better. So Irfan, I think at the end when his memory then starts to fade, I felt his confusion, I felt his anger, I felt that this was something that was not just the character that was not able to see or not to remember, but this again was something writ much larger, because he was able to project out. For that, that redeemed a bit for me.

NK: No, I think I completely agree. The gay couple– unfortunately, for me, none of the performers really did a good job in really making me invest in that relationship at all. But I agree for the other couple–

ML: I put that more on Jeramy Lim, who was, frankly, wooden. I could at least see what Shahid Nasheer was attempting, but he was just basically running up against a tree.

NK: And yeah, the thing is, there just wasn’t anything for me to invest in, when the two of them came together. And I think that’s why throwaway big gestures like, you know, “infect me”, etc, just came across as just so out-of-nowhere, that I just didn’t know what I was expected to feel. Whereas the other couple at least had their moments.

ML: Hang on. I’m going to ask you to restart that sentence. And I’m just going to make some sound effects underneath. So we can just get a sense of what it was like at the time. Restart that please and just ignore me.

NK: (with background sound effects from Matt) Whereas for the gay couple, basically, it was just, you know, you have these statements that I just don’t know what I’m expected to feel.

ML: Yeah, so the sound design was like that, wasn’t it?

NK: And that’s a good point, Matt. So the other thing that I found hugely distracting was the sound. So you have two characters talking. And suddenly you have just–

ML: Everything I was doing just there.

NK: Basically things drowning out dialogue – and the sound design was done by Vivian Wang. Look, I appreciated it at points. You’re trying to kind of strive for this discordant atmosphere, and you know, the world on the brink of change and collapse and everything, but for goodness sake, if you have these really weighty, really wordy scenes, (and they were very wordy) between two characters, and you have to listen to them – and I think it’s even more challenging if you’re watching this online as a lot of audience members did.

ML: They were not miked up as far as I can tell. It would have been awful to listen to on a recording.

NK: And then you have to deal with a layer of sound. It’s just really, really challenging.

KR: I wonder if the sound was meant to evoke kind of the sense of being submerged. Because that idea– every time I think about it, I have this idea of water and being kind of slowly sinking, right. But I think that if the sound design, rather than giving the audience that desired sense of being crowded, is distracting, then you know, you haven’t achieved what you’re trying to do lah.

ML: I guess if Vivian Wang wants to make that much sound design, sure, she’s welcomed to. And there were plenty of times in the play where the big soundscapes that she created– oceanic, as you point out, were entirely valid. But then it’s the director’s job to say not for this bit. There was an editing issue.

KR: So maybe in conclusion: I did feel that the script had a lot of potential. For me, maybe it was just the directing and some of the performances and maybe casting.

ML: Script as well for me, sorry.

NK: So yeah, that was a line. But, moving on, to i am not here. Now this was a sort of a dance theatre production. It’s by an Indian group called The Lost Post Initiative, a group that focuses on explorations of gender and a lot of focus on the performativity of the female body. It’s been described as an eight-step guide on how to censor women’s writing, and it plays out in a boxing ring. And you have these two women effectively navigating a whole series of situations in which they are somehow challenged. And each of the chapters in this production is about them trying to assert themselves in some way. Kathy, what did you really feel about this production?

KR: So it’s a dance work with dialogue, really, it’s perhaps the best way to describe it, right? And it’s driven very much by this tag team of two performers – one who is a movement performer, and one who seems to be an actor. And I think that the issues that they raised, you know, it’s very much from a feminist perspective, it’s a work about raising women’s voices. But also, I think, setting it within that boxing ring, clearly, is this idea that to even be heard, it’s always constantly a fight, right?

NK: Yes.

KR: So there’s a lot of the work, which I think has very specific Indian context, but then the challenges that these characters enact on stage are universal – every woman can relate to it and has experienced it. Because they play very recognisable situations, whether it’s, for example, Shakespeare’s family and the sister who is sidelined in favour of the brother, and therefore her talent remains presumably, overshadowed. Or whether it’s about a husband who is benevolent and avuncular, but ultimately suppresses his wife. So all of these felt very familiar. And I appreciated the work very much. But I don’t know if the script itself was so fresh and new. That’s from my perspective, and I really would be interested to hear what let’s say, an Indian critic might have to say about it, for example.

Photo: Aparna Nori

 

ML: Yeah.

NK: I agree with a lot of what you said. I think I approached this – because I don’t watch a lot of dance – so I just really enjoyed the physicality of it. And Ronita Mookerji, who was the sort of dancer, really had a tremendous physicality to her in the show, which I really enjoyed watching. And there were a couple of these scenes, as I said, it was divided into these various vignettes. And there was a little chime, just like you have in a boxing match, which marked each scene coming to an end. And I particularly liked the one where you have a yogic guru of sorts, basically making a devotee perform exactly as he dictates, including doing some very, very ridiculous gestures. And it’s kind of like, obviously a comment on women dancing to the tunes of men, which I think has a much greater weight, I think in Indian culture. So that was quite interesting to watch. But then there were other scenes that maybe were a little bit more heavy-handed. I think the one in particular, which was a bit painful to watch was an older man walking a dog who starts ferociously barking and he resorts to physical violence to just shut that dog up–

ML: Even though he’s very proud of it, and it’s a good dog.

NK: Yeah. Obviously, domestic violence is a huge issue in that culture, and indeed, in many other parts of the world. So I guess that’s important to bring up. But you know, again, I think to go back to the point you made, Kathy, I completely appreciate the themes here. But is this necessarily something new?

ML: Yeah I mean, there was certainly nothing there that I hadn’t seen before, in some cases many times. And that’s not necessarily a problem. It’s so hard to make something new, and because it was episodic, the combination of things may have resulted in a greater gestalt. (Wow. My God, that’s a pretentious word. I will own it! I will own it.) May have may have resulted in a greater gestalt. I don’t think it did for me in this case, but the problem was more that, let’s say if we take the dog scene: point was made a minute and a half into that scene, right? Not even then, like 50 seconds into that scene your point is made. And then it continued. And I found the same with every scene there. Even as you rightly point out, the amazing movement from Ronita Mookerji, was too much of it. At one point, it just started treading water, she kept doing the same thing over and over. And it’s like, they were contractually obliged to fill out a certain time, that they didn’t have the breadth of creative ideas to to meet.

KR: I liked the dog scene, you know. A lot. It’s so interesting that both of you didn’t like it. And I think I was just looking at my notes and just thinking that what I liked about it was talking about not just a case of domestic violence, definitely, but I think the power relationships within the patriarchy – the idea that, you know, you’ve got this dog, which makes me immediately think about this idea of calling women “bitch”, you know, it’s there. But the kind of pride and love that this man enacts to us, you know, “good boy”, you know, and the ownership of it. So it’s strong. I think it can also come across as perhaps a little bit too easy. But for me, I liked the way that it cleaves this relationship between men and women. And it finds a way to kind of place it in a relationship that is animalistic, and is about owner and owned. And that is performed, right? Because they’re out in the open. So I did like that. I liked the way that the dog character then completely breaks down into this ferocious rebellion. But ultimately, she remains back to being docile. So I liked that part.

ML: No, I didn’t mind it at all, but it just took far too long. All those points were made far quicker than the stage time and it didn’t earn it. And I too appreciated the pungency of it. And I thought it came at an interesting point where that pungency was required by the structure. But if you sit in a room with a pungent smell for long enough, you stop noticing it, but then you go outside and you’re like, “mm, my clothes smell a bit off”. And it just gave me that idea that it sacrificed its initial impact for a kind of festering. And I think that applied to pretty much every scene for me.

NK: So I think there was another scene which I also quite liked the idea behind it. And this was basically an upper-class female writer who is at her book launch, basically for a poetry book, and she receives a piece of criticism. And so she excitedly starts reading and it is absolutely scathing. Not like this podcast at all.

ML: What, am I getting edited out?

NK: It is absolutely scathing. And she sort of takes it but you can see that her self-worth and her dignities are slowly being tattered and torn down. And then interestingly enough, she hands over that page to a male audience member and makes him read the rest of it out. And it’s almost like he is now the voice of all men casting aspersions on her. And I really like that interactivity. And I just kind of wish they had done it a little bit more, rather than the two of them, you know, just having a go at each other. It does feel a bit same-y. I know, it’s the same point – you know, the woman is subjugated in some way, be it in the domestic setting, or cast in the role of a dog. It’s the same idea. Yes, I get it. You don’t get to use your words, you are censored, you have to play your part. But you know, once you get to the fourth or fifth iteration, you’re like, “okay, I think you’ve pretty much made your point.

ML: Yeah you didn’t necessarily needed eight steps. Five might have done it.

NK: You need to go a bit broader.

KR: So what I did like about that particular spoken word piece is that the female character is really unpleasant. I mean, straight off the bat, you know, she’s–

NK: The poetry was really bad. Really bad.

KR: You know, her kind of almost offensive self confidence in how good she was, that she speaks to the audience. I mean, look, the act of reading a piece of criticism of your writing sight unseen to an audience, it presupposes that it’s going to be positive, right. So I like that kind of nuance that it wasn’t all about, you know, perfect women with bad men. I liked that. I really love– the guru piece was great because the comedy in which, you know, more and more, she would give instructions to the dancer, “and now look sexual, but dainty, feel grounded to the earth, but float”. I mean, I’m just paraphrasing, right? But it’s this idea of putting a woman and putting a woman’s body and her beauty and her essence and her ethereal quality right at the centre of culture and art and religion, but at the same time, making the woman completely disappear. So I think that it didn’t feel like a long work, because I think the quality of the performance was good, the way they use props– there was this one scene where they use a pan, which was beautiful. It became a gong, it became a chalkboard, it became so many things. But I do agree that I did not feel that some of the things that they were saying were radical enough actually, for me. It was just that it felt that, maybe it’s the context that we’re coming from, I don’t know, whether in a middle-class Indian setting, this would have been pushing the envelope in terms of where women are and where their voices are. I would have liked a much more radical take to it.

ML: Yeah. For me the dramaturgy wasn’t quite there. I’m scrolling down now trying to find the dramaturg. It was – I don’t think she’s listed in SISTIC, but she was a German dramaturg. And there needed to be a bit more depth in it, because you say that the pan became this and that and this and that. And it did. But also a lot of the time, it was just a woman holding a pan. And so the idea for me is that the structuring – a lot of it was too long, but some of it was also for me not fully thought through and nor did I have the confidence that the research was necessarily properly done. In the Shakespeare’s sister scene, for example, there’s a throwaway line where they say, ‘and of course, it’s much easier if you have a straight white penis’, and in the context of Shakespeare, sure, he was white, but neither he nor his theatre were straight. And another part near the start, where Sharanya Ramprakash who is the actor of the pair, she’s got amazing presence, she’s got great charisma, and she deliberately uses it to perform in an unsatisfactory way for the audience, expect an amazing rapturous reaction and then judge them for not giving it. And in terms of tone setting for the play, that’s remarkably similar to not performing well enough, getting a legitimately poor reaction from your audience, and then judging them. And so I found it a little structurally off, maybe you could have got away with that later, by the time that we’re already with you. But with that, and some of the failures of creativity, which meant that scenes trod water, some of the offhand comments, which didn’t strike me quite right, it was not altogether a satisfactory piece for me. And I think the recording quality also had a lot to do with this.

NK: I agree. And I think that’s another point. So this production was presumably a filmed version of an actual live show that was done, I guess, in India, sometime pre-COVID. And that was the version that was available for us as an online audience, because I think the overseas participants in this festival were not able to come to Singapore. And so that was the only way we could see the show. But I think for this kind of show, also, a lot of it really helps to be seen on stage, I think this was–

ML: Especially when they made the audience complicit. If you’re not physically present in that audience, you’re not going to feel that tension.

NK: Exactly. It was performed in the round, you know, being there as if you were watching a boxing match. I think just watching it online, makes you one step removed from the entire thing. And then also, the quality of that recording itself was not great. The sound was not great, the lighting was washed out. I struggled with the dialogue, even with subtitles having to be put on and–

ML: You can’t blame the company for this, because they wouldn’t have been producing that with the aim of selling the video. That was an archival thing for them, I’m sure. And as an archival recording, it was perfectly sufficient. But then, as a commissioning body? Hmm. It’s not a product that works well over video, especially the dance. Making dance look good on screen needs your camera angles, needs very constant attention to the dynamic range of how your camera interacts with the light. And it was not there.

KR: Yeah, I mean, I think 10 months into the shutdown of theatre. For those of us who have been watching a lot of online theatre, you really have to persevere to watch something like this at this point. Because already a lot of words are adapting. And I’m sure there are issues of resources and abilities and so on, but nonetheless, for an audience member, definitely that marred our enjoyment of the work, I think.

ML: Contrasting that though, with Pandan by Rupa co.lab. Which of us saw that one at home? Me. Was it just me?

KR: I saw it online as well.

ML: You saw online as well? Very good recording quality, absolutely perfect sound. Well-chosen camera angles. Some of the scenes were a little bit dark, they might have a–

KR: Singapore money.

ML: Singapore money, yeah. And also the fact that it was done recently, under the knowledge of COVID conditions. All the lessons learned. So it was really good to see that coming together. Also, maybe some of the dark scenes could have been a little bit more light for video. But that’s jumping ahead. Tell us about Pandan, somebody who knows such things.

NK: And moving on to the third and final show we’re discussing today: Pandan by Rupa co.lab which is a collective of several Malay theatremakers, one of whom is our ArtsEquator editor Nabilah Said, who also is the dramaturg of this production. It is written by Hazwan Norly, and it is directed by Rizman Putra. Now Pandan is a play that quite overtly interrogates the lived experience of Malay-Muslim homosexuals in Singapore and it’s about this young man called Jihad who basically is in a relationship with an older man who’s also a religious leader at his mosque. And that older man happens to be married to a woman who is a livestream baker, and who somehow is apparently unaware of the relationship that is taking place under her nose and treats this young man as almost a surrogate son. And separately, the son has a best friend who’s a slightly feisty young girl who has her own tussle with identity, if you like, when she goes out with a more religious man. So that’s the play in a nutshell, and then the relationship gets uncovered and everyone gets in hot soup.

Photo: Back Alley Media

 

ML: And finally, something I liked. This was a play with a lot of two-hander scenes. And in contrast to what we saw in the other plays, which also had a lot of two-hander scenes, this time, I felt that most of those scenes unfolded in a plausible way, at roughly the right pace, and often contributed towards the forward motion. Now, this is kind of Playwriting 101. But on the other hand, Playwriting 101 is really difficult, you know, it’s an incredibly hard thing to master. And a lot of it was enjoyable and meaningful, and it came together at the end very nicely for me. Kathy, your responses?

KR: I also enjoyed this work. You’ve got these four central characters, right? Ramlan, the husband who is having this relationship; Ramlah, his wife, who is a baker; Jihad, the gay man; and Zana, his best friend. And these four characters, I think, portray really different facets of, first of all, people, identity, but definitely, it’s inescapable that it is about Muslim identity in a space where society imposes a lot of expectations, and there are a lot of boundary-making for people who are Muslim within the context of Singapore, within the context of Southeast Asia and elsewhere. So what I really appreciated about this work was that each time you think that you know what these characters are about, there are very subtle, not about-faces, but you know, a shift of the head almost, that makes you see them in a different light. And that takes a lot of skill on the part of playwright, and beautifully executed by the performers.

NK: Yeah, I agree. I think that was what really, really drew me into the script. It was by no means one-dimensional, the characters were just so nuanced. And there was just so much that constantly was uncovered. And as you said, not only in the writing, but even in the way they were portrayed. So you know, it’s quite easy to dismiss Ramlah, who is this older Malay, Makcik-like character–

ML: But insists on being called “Kak”.

NK: Yeah, you know, who wants to be called “Kak”, who wants to style her tudung in a fashionable way, and just kind of be liked on Instagram and things like that. But she shows herself to be quite empathetic. And actually, you know, is the woman who arguably gives the play its optimistic ending – at least that’s the way I see it. And then you have like the younger Malay girl, Zana, who, again, you know, she almost gives off this – is she lesbian? You know, you’re not quite sure, but then she herself has a bit of a tussle with her own identity. And surprisingly, she is harder on Jihad than actually, Ramlah is–

ML: Yeah she doesn’t like the idea that he’s broken up a marriage. Right?

NK: And that’s the other beautiful thing about it, because as much as you want to root for this gay relationship, because this is 2021, and why shouldn’t people own up to being who they are? At the same time, why would you want to break up a perfectly happy marriage? So you know, you are torn. Do you root for this character, or not? Even as an audience member, you’re pulled in different directions, and you empathise–

ML: And it also raises the question of maybe this specific instance of infidelity will not break up the marriage. Maybe it will become incorporated into it.

KR: Yeah. All four of the characters have to deal with some kind of ethical or moral dilemma, right? They all are faced with certain choices. So it is about where do you place your sense of what is right and wrong? Where do you place your sense of right and wrong for the people around you? And that’s why Zana’s character comes in. So when you first meet her, she’s very much coded as a lesbian woman, right? So the short hair, the way she carries herself. Then it’s implied that she’s loose morally, right. I mean, she owns it herself, right, you know, I’m a slut, whatever.

ML: You did the inverted commas with your hands there, didn’t you.

KR: But then, of course, you know, she goes on Muzmatch, which is a dating service, and gets paired with a very attractive, pious Muslim men that she wants to impress, and immediately then she starts to consider changing her appearance and changing her behaviour, right. So where is the right and wrong with that? And then she pushes, as you say, the boundaries of her friendship with Jihad, who she’s been very supportive of his homosexuality, but for her, the moral line is not about his sexuality, but it’s about his part in infidelity in a marriage with his, as it turns out, mosque youth leader, which again brings up another issue, right? Because you’ve got–

ML: Power imbalance.

KR: Power imbalance. Someone in a position of authority who is then having a relationship with a younger man under his protection. So even just speaking about it, I think that it’s such a rich work and it doesn’t resolve everything. But everyone has their moment to– we see their rich inner lives, and we see the dilemma playing out with the people that surround them, their friends and family.

ML: I think, mainly. We see that with the main triangle of the younger gay man, the uncle-type gay man who is married to the livestream baker Ramlah. But Zana, we hear her recounting her date, and her meeting with him would have been so much better to see it. As a character, she mainly functions as a sounding board and is reactionary to the main love triangle. So her scenes where she was talking about her own issues to me felt non-integrated. Could’ve read a blog post that would have done the same thing. And I’d like to see a redraft of the play that let her be one of the main characters rather than a fourth wheel.

KR: That’s an interesting point. I I’m wondering, though, if having that fifth character will make it too crowded–

NK: Throw off the balance.

KR: Yeah, I don’t know.

ML: The other answer might be making it a one-act play and cutting out her story. But it was unsatisfying to me because it was not played out.

NK: I don’t know.

KR: I liked her– her position, I think was quite important.

NK: I think the beauty of her character (at least the way I saw it) was that, yes, she has a little story of her own. But it’s also the way she responds, that she deals with those dilemmas. She deals with the dilemma of her best friend and him crossing some sort of moral boundary by going out with a married man, because she’s like, “oh, yeah, where’s your Abang, I want to meet your boyfriend”. But then the moment she finds out that he’s with a married man, then she changes her tune. But then she also kind of forms quite a nice little friendship with the older lady.

ML: I found that a little bit forced.

NK: So I think, you know, she has her own way. Because if you think about the older lady, she could just as well be thought of as a somewhat accessory-type character, because she just exists for a bit of comic relief, right?

ML: Until she doesn’t.

NK: Until she doesn’t. And then she kind of has quite a nuanced role later on.

KR: She almost becomes like the moral centre of the work.

NK: I mean, look, for symmetry, I quite liked that four. Yes, I agree that a little bit of editing would have helped, but I think there was a lot in there. And I think the other thing is, I mean, this is a theme throughout all the shows in this festival at least, there was a blend between the more naturalistic scenes and the slightly more surreal scenes and you know, that segment of the show has Rizman Putra written all over it. Anyone familiar with his work would know he enjoys that kind of very avant garde funky style, and he actually is surprisingly restrained in this show.

ML: Almost too restrained.

NK: This is Rizman Putra-light, if you like.

KR: Disciplined. I would use the word quite disciplined.

ML: I wouldn’t. I think it lost some of its flavour. Ah really? Like if you’re gonna go crazy, why not go crazy? I don’t like the idea that you go crazy, and then it’s restrained. Because structurally, all these surrealist bits, most of them are dream-like flashbacks of the husband when he was young and dealing with his first gay urges. But structurally, they don’t really contribute much. And I didn’t find that they unfolded with any forward motion. So then what do they have? They might as well go crazy operatic Rizman wearing tighty whities, gurning, dancing around. They might as well do that, at that point, if they’re going to exist. I would have preferred however – I think that at its heart, this is a realistic play. And I’d probably like to cut most of them out but then re-expand it with more stories, more interactions.

KR: For me if I just take those surreal scenes– so a lot of it’s set in a swimming complex. And so they take us back in time right into Ramlan, the uncle character’s first awakenings to his homosexuality and the way that he tries to suppress it because of course he doesn’t want to face the disapproval of his mother. And this idea of this mermaid – was it mermaid? Yes. This mermaid is–

NK: And the conch.

KR: Yes, the conch. And so for me–

ML: ‘It all got a bit weird’ is the short version of that.

KR: Yes, but I think that if I took them – just those scenes, you see the progression of him as this boy that’s a little bit odd, who then finds almost his sea legs, right, a little bit, but is struggling. So I thought that if there was a way to do a flashback that made it very clear that we were going back into the past and that was kind of psychodrama, I didn’t mind it, I actually liked it. And then it contrasts for me with the very realistic conversations, watching this relationship take place, and then slowly start to reveal itself and unravel. So yeah, I didn’t mind that.

ML: I can see it go either way. But I did not find the current combination fully satisfying. And the last of the – I think it was the last of the surreal scenes where Ramlan is surrounded by like two bird-like creatures, I literally did not understand what was going on. But overall, satisfying. And this is a Fringe Festival, so one can hopefully expect another draft.

NK: I mean, look, this is just the second production from this group, Rupa co.lab. And we all watched Rumah Dayak in late 2019. We did a podcast on that. And I think we had generally very positive things to say. And I just also wanted to say that I’m just really happy with this entire- this is part of a whole stream of really progressive, powerful plays that deal with the Malay identity. So we had Jonny Jon Jon’s Hawa a couple of years ago about a non-Muslim, lesbian woman dealing with the burial of her partner, a major taboo that was explored on stage in quite a powerful and empathetic way. And then we had Potong by the same writer, Jon Jon, which was about circumcision and dealt with transvestism.

And now you have a play like this, which, you know, overtly places homosexuality, and in particular homosexuality and faith – because the actual scene set in a mosque, which you, I think, would never have seen a few years ago on stage, I think it’s just so powerful to actually have this out there. And you really kudos to the company for putting this up. And it’s not been without its challenges. I think we should acknowledge the fact that this was slapped with an R-21 rating. And because of that, a lot of people actually were not able to watch the play in its online format. But I think it has tremendous potential. I would love to see some other iteration of this. And I hope it does get restaged because it’s something that more people should see. And it is a powerful story at its core. And I think, even if you divorce the Muslim aspect of it, I’m sure there would be a lot that you can take away even from another perspective.

KR: Yeah. I mean, I was saying to you guys before we started, that, as much as this is completely located and centred on Muslim identity, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home when I was growing up. And this play could completely be set within a very fundamentalist Christian home, within a fundamentalist Christian church with a fundamentalist Christian youth leader, who, you know, is a closet homosexual. I mean, everything about it could have been translated into any kind of coercive religious belief that tries to contain sexuality. So this work spoke to me on many different levels, but on also a very personal level. And I think also, just one other thing is this idea of marriage and infidelity. And that kind of dignity that Ramlah has at the end. And we’ve talked about how it ends on quite an ambiguous – to me quite an ambiguous note, right? Matt, how–

ML: A productive ambiguity.

KR: And what did you think when you watched the ending?

ML: Well, at the end, she certainly knows by that point, that the young man Jihad is gay, she’s obviously aware that he is “friends” with her husband. She accepts him and his homosexuality by giving him a rainbow kuih lapis, which is just beautiful. It’s a really, really moving moment. But it doesn’t seem to be clear whether she knows or has admitted to herself, whether it is her husband that the young man is involved with, like a question hanging in the air that can’t be fully articulated. I think you had a different reading.

KR: I think for me, it was a signal that, yes, she was aware that he was gay, and that she was aware that he was in a relationship with her husband. The ambiguity for me was whether she accepted it. And that was just, you know, what she accepted in her marriage to this man who she clearly loves. But clearly, there must be some awareness that he is not straight. But I actually– because there was this stillness on both their faces, and it was inscrutable. I felt that it could have easily been her jab almost to say, I know about my husband and you, and that it wasn’t a moment of warm acceptance. But it was a moment of saying, I am not blind to what’s going on. And I know.

ML: I mean, either way, you have to investigate that moment as a viewer, and it is–

KR: But it stays with you!

NK: It’s so powerful.

ML: That’s what makes it powerful.

NK: It was beautiful. I think I mentioned to you the rainbow kuih lapis thing for me was such a perfect metaphor of this play, because it’s colourful, it’s tasty, it’s layered. There is so much to unpack. And yeah, does the wife know? And does she want to admit it to herself, because the moment she says it, it makes it real? And I loved that. That ambiguity. I watched this live actually in the theatre. And I have to say that I was really quite riveted, and I did not feel that length of time as acutely as I did in some of the other shows. So it was done well, and I think your experience of watching it online as well, it was filmed well, from what I understand.

ML: Very well.

KR: It was filmed well. Sound was good. And we can’t not mention Rizman Putra’s cameo appearance, right? Ramlah she Facebook Lives her baking, and you have these little– they enact the likes and the little gossipy comments, right, that the women are having on the chat. And all of the profile–

NK: The avatars.

KR: The avatars! Some version of Rizman Putra. You know, Rina Hangat, or Mami Jahat, I think it is.

NK: Yeah, and that’s, again, a lot funnier if you know Malay. But like, you know, it was cute. And I think watching that scene in particular online would have been really funny, because that’s exactly what the livestream experience is online. You’re flooded with this mountain of like hearts that goes up when they were trying to kind of recreate it. So there must have been some awareness that you know, this is going to be consumed by both a live and an online audience. And the fact that they managed to make the play equally accessible on both mediums, that is something which goes far beyond the other things I’ve seen.

KR: But you know, even the comments were meaningful and purposeful, because you have all these women talking about how they have to learn to bake, even though they’re working or whatever, because they’ve got to keep their husbands. And there’s this line of infidelity and betrayal and love and betrayal that I think runs very lightly through it.

ML: Yep. And that pretty much brings us to an end, I think. Thank you very much. I don’t know when we’ll be back. Theatre is obviously a slightly confusing enterprise at the moment. But we will return and hopefully it’ll be this kind of play which manages to do the online as well as the in-person very effectively. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. Thank you very much.

NK/KR: Thank you.


a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be by Koh Wan Ching and Andrew Sutherland took place at Esplanade Theatre Studio from 20-23 January and online from 23—29 January 2021 . i am not here by The Lost Post Initiative ran online from 20-26 January. Pandan by Rupa co.lab took place from  29-30 January at Esplanade Theatre Studio. These three shows were part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021.

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