In this latest ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast, Nabilah Said, Dia Hakim and Corrie Tan discuss SIFA 2022. In particular, the productions titled ubin, Devil’s Cherry and Bangsawan Gemala Malam.
Listen now on Spotify or stream here.
Nabilah Said (NS): Hello and welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. I have with me some special guests who will introduce themselves soon. But first, I am Nabilah, I am a playwright, editor and writer, and the former editor of ArtsEquator.
dia hakim (dh): I’m dia hakim, I go by they/them pronouns, and I am a NAFA graduate, a performer and a playwright.
Corrie Tan (CT): Hi everybody, I’m Corrie, I use she/her pronouns. I am the intermittent resident critic at ArtsEquator [laughs], I’m also a dramaturg, researcher and educator.
NS: I’m very glad to have dia and Corrie on this episode, and we’re going to be covering SIFA, Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2022. And we are covering three shows today. So they are Bangsawan Gemala Malam by Teater Ekamatra, ubin by Drama Box, Devil’s Cherry by Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan. So we’re just going to go straight into it and start with Bangsawan Gemala Malam.
So, I guess if you know Midsummer Night’s Dream, then hopefully I don’t have to rehash the plot for you, but essentially this is a contemporary Malay take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I feel like it’s a very, very– it’s performed so frequently, it’s a very loveable tale of lovers, fairies, humans and gods, and yeah, I think that’s why it’s so popular and always remade. Teater Ekamatra gives their own spin on it, and what is interesting about it in particular is that they are actually drawing on bangsawan– the practice of bangsawan, even the tropes of bangsawan, but really kind of re-, what’s the word? Remixing it, I guess? With just many, many references to Malay culture, contemporary culture as well, modern culture I suppose, and making it their own. So, yeah, let’s stick with that and just go into how we all feel about it.
But maybe before I say anything else, or before we go into it, it was actually written by Ridhwan Saidi who’s a playwright from Kuala Lumpur, and directed by Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit. But the cast was all from Singapore, comprising both theatre actors and performers, I suppose, would be the best way to put it, from different genres like music, dance, drag.
So let’s get into it!
dh: I liked that…– I feel like anybody could go into that show and completely understand what people are doing and saying. I feel that Shakespeare feels a bit confined to drama school and, I mean for me at least, as a performer who studied Shakespeare for a semester, the only way I could really properly understand Shakespeare was through intense hyper-analysing of a monologue, or reading a play over and over and just like trying to understand what each scene is telling me and everything. I think it was a good change to finally be an audience member and sit through a Shakespeare play and just enjoy it? You know? I think that’s what makes it so charming, I feel, about Bangsawan. It was a night I felt that captured the feeling of what that play is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be, like you [Nabilah] said, it’s completely familiar, but very enjoyable tale of lovers and gods and things like that.
CT: I think I was really infected by the enthusiasm of the audience members! It was so wonderful to hear the raucous screaming and cheering, especially in-between scenes they kept that notion of the ‘extra turn’, where various performers who are so multi-talented from all kinds of genres of the performing arts would do a short [solo] moment as they were changing scenes. It reminds of me of how particularly malleable A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to these kinds of Southeast Asian contexts, where deities and the supernatural really inhabit so much of our natural world, I guess the alam, the environment we live in – and not just specific to the Malay archipelago, like I’ve seen a Burmese production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where all the deities, the orang bunian in this show [Bangsawan Gemala Malam], the fairies of the night, in the Burmese context they are the nats or guardian spirits. So I think it lends itself particularly well to this kind of environment that takes the supernatural world seriously.
I really enjoyed that, to see this precolonial imagination of Southeast Asia as a power in their own right. We see the king and queen, and the kind of authority they command. Which made me curious about, made me think about other kinds of genres that reimagine this precolonial past. Like afrofuturism – what if colonialism had never arrived, and what kinds of innovations and creativities could be possible. I was thinking a lot about that, especially with the fantastic costumes and the lavish environment that the cast was moving through. That was most exciting for me personally.
NS: Thanks so much for sharing, because it helps to crystallise some of the things I was thinking about but I didn’t, I couldn’t process. Like what dia was saying about the, maybe the stuffiness of how we learnt Shakespeare a little bit? Right? Because when I was in secondary school, the footnotes take up as much space as the actual text right, and Shakespeare’s language can be inaccessible, or is inaccessible to a lot of people who are not studying it. And I almost felt like it wasn’t Shakespeare, right?
dh: Yeah! I think that’s what lent most of the charm. Because it felt like it was just theatre at its core, like I didn’t have to think, ‘oh, it’s a Shakespeare play, I must kind of like think about all the factors that go into making Shakespeare and understanding Shakespeare’. I think it was nice for a change to just watch a show and enjoy how infectious the environment was. And I think it was probably one of the first few shows where I saw so many Malay people around me. Like me and my friend were talking about it, because – we joked that “everybody and their kampung is here” [laughter] and it is true! I feel like, I just don’t see much of my own community in certain art spaces, and I’m not saying they have to be there, but it was nice that we have a show that can bring a community together and to have that community enjoy themselves, especially, was a really – it really solidified the whole, ‘oh, theatre is a social activity’, and it’s a communal activity. I felt like I haven’t really felt that way in a while.
CT: Although I do feel that kind of sociality of these kinds of very broad public performances felt really confined in a theatrical space, right, this kind of conventional proscenium. Because when I imagine the kind of durational bangsawan performances outdoors, perhaps, then there’s the casual or informal nature of people saying ‘oh, I’m going to leave and get dinner, and when I come back, the show will still be going on, I’ll catch all the celebrities I want to catch who are singing at this point,’ – and here we’re kind of trapped in the theatre, not in a bad way, I enjoyed the long span of the three hours, but also thinking about, yeah, what more porous spaces can we have, where we can have that kind of informality. Like, yes, ok, my group of friends and I will linger for this section, let’s grab a bite, the show will still be going on, we can enjoy it and insert ourselves back into the narrative. So maybe I craved a bit of that in the run of the piece. And I also appreciated that I could feel certain groups of people were there for certain performers, when they would scream out their names or cheer for them at particular segments, which I really, really enjoyed.
NS: It reminds me of dikir barat competitions [laughter] Like “kau! Baik ah! Go Aisyah!”.
I think the – maybe ‘unruliness’ is not the word – but there was a bit of the feeling that people were free to express themselves however.
dh: I guess that was what made the work so effective. It lent itself from just being on that Victoria Theatre stage to, like, yeah we’ll bring you in as well. And bring everybody in. And everybody gets to be in on this really unique experience. I think I’m still buzzing from it! [laughter]
CT: I do think there were times I maybe struggled a bit with the pacing. I was aware I was going into a long work, that they were going to take their time with it, and go down these scene changes and segues, yeah, but I don’t know if it’s just my socialisation into a certain tightness around performance, where here I think the pacing was a bit looser, they really took their time with conversations –
NS: I also felt it. And for me it wasn’t in the in-betweens, it wasn’t about the transitions for me, like how you were saying, but for me it was more like the scenes, certain ones felt long because they were trying to keep, be loyal to the script – that’s how I felt – to the story. And I don’t know whether it’s transposing it into Malay, suddenly when you make a scene long, you kind of already know what it’s about, and you’re just waiting for it to end sometimes.
dh: Yeah, yeah.
NS: Or maybe it’s familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream a little bit, so then you know, perhaps, I feel certain scenes could have been tightened in that sense. Actually another thing I was thinking about was like, for a bangsawan right, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like music is meant to be a big part of it, or the singing and stuff. But I actually don’t recall much of the singing or the songs. Maybe it felt a bit like what you were saying, like the transitions were just knitting things together? But not particularly being pivotal to the plot. But maybe it’s fine and maybe that’s how they meant it to be lah.
dh: Yeah, I think I was, I guess, very mentally prepared that I might be in for a musical, and I think because I haven’t been to a musical for so long, I was quite anticipating like, “oh, I get to see Aisyah Aziz sing”. And she did! And was amazing at it.
NS: Is the Aisyah Aziz army here, by the way?
dh: You gotta keep the propagation going on! But yeah, I was kind of hoping that there would be more musical numbers, especially since – I was just anticipating more of it. But when I left I realised that actually the show could have worked just as well without the music. You know? It could have just been –
NS: And you’re talking about musical numbers, right?
dh: Yeah, yeah, I’m talking about musical numbers. Because I thought some of the musical numbers were quite charming, I thought there was that one scene between Lysander and what’s her name, Hermia? Yeah, Lysander and Hermia, and they had that little cute couple musical number, that was really nice.
NS: That was the first one.
dh: Yeah! I was anticipating more of that between characters but I don’t think we got that much of it. Which I’m not saying is a huge letdown. But I was anticipating more.
NS: Maybe it felt in-between, it felt like oh, there’s a few, but it doesn’t feel like there was enough to be like, oh, it’s a musical. Because now actually I’m like, “was it a musical?” “Did it feel like a musical?” Maybe not? But maybe that’s okay.
dh: Maybe it’s ok, because at least for me, I’m not the most well-acquainted person with the art of bangsawan.
NS: Yeah, maybe we can talk a bit about that. Just now I was saying, oh, it had a lot of ‘modern’ tropes or cultural references as well. Maybe starting with the language, what I liked about Ridhwan Saidi’s writing was– there was an obvious way in which he was using the Malay language. So the more royal registers for the royals, and then the (human) men and women they would talk very colloquially. I can’t remember how informal or what examples they were using, but there was “I/you”, but also “mat/minah” kind of speak?
dh: Yeah! I loved that, I loved that.
NS: That was awesome. So definitely you could see it there. But I liked how it wasn’t conscious. It didn’t feel forced–
dh: Yeah, it just felt appropriate for the social situation.
NS: Yeah, exactly. So I think that was quite nice, what Ridhwan managed to do, with everyone as well. And then I guess in terms of the dancing, I’m not the best person to talk about dancing, but you could see the modern references to Fortnite, or Naruto running [laughter] which was very cute lah.
CT: Yeah, I do appreciate the kind of homage to popular culture that I suppose Shakespeare or bangsawan would have incorporated for their particular audiences. Shakespeare was very aware that he was a popular writer, and he would write towards those crowds with the slapstick energy, and I suppose similarly for bangsawan as well. And I mean, I always love the Mechanicals, and here they’re named after days of the week right, with Rabu of course, – all our favourite – Rizman Putra, who becomes Bottom at the end, with a donkey’s head. And I think the Mechanicals really steal the show quite literally at the end, with the kind of recreation of Pyramus and Thisbe speaking to each other through a wall – a fantastic Irsyad Dawood as dinding. But I also like all these kinds of ‘shipping’ references throughout the pla
NS: Oh, were there?
CT: –like people were really excited and cheering for the right couples to end up with each other.
NS: Oh, SHIPPING.
CT: Yes, shipping, relation-shipping!
CT: It really felt like this is kind of a – yes, it pays homage to those kinds of histories of Southeast Asia, but we also get the TikTok generation update with the citations of the dance moves and things like that, which I found really fun.
NS & CT, overlapping: And the casting of Vanda Miss Joaquim / as Sang Kelembai, which was the best / the best and / most genius act of casting ever??
NS: I was actually a bit sceptical, well not sceptical, but ready to ‘give discount’, to be like, how are they gonna do this. But I think Vanda Miss Joaquim did such a great job, or that the character being kind of mischievous just really works well with the Kelembai character being the naughty bunian. And then, this is very random because it’s more about costume, but she was wearing like, Nike gear?? Which I was very amused by! Because everyone else’s costumes were so…still kind of Shakespearean in cutting and very grand, and then here she is like, I don’t know, like the Nike thing really took me out in a good way. Ok, this show is not taking itself seriously, and so we can not take ourselves seriously and we can have fun.
Bangsawan Gemala Malam. Image credit: SIFA.
CT: And I also really appreciated the magical queer character in a very cishet – two very straight, cishet romances going on, right? [sounds of assent] And I appreciated that I think in so many Southeast Asian traditions, the queer body is a conduit or a medium for higher powers that can communicate deep spiritual meaning to your life. And you see Sang Kelembai being that mischievous, playful, wonderful conduit for those energies, which I also really appreciated.
dh: I thought it was a wonderful homage for the show being in Pride Month. I thought it was so apt to have this show in June. It was so nice, to have that space, to be able to be queer and Malay.
NS & CT: Yeah!
NS: I think it’s the idea of like – sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you – but the idea of like the ungovernable character who delights – I remember the way she laughed, it was just so enjoyable. And also because SIFA, maybe it’s not fair to say this is a ‘theatre’ show, because the performers were multi-genre, not everyone was theatre-trained. So I just like the idea that in this “theatre” show, someone who’s not ‘in’ theatre can make the role work so well. And be given that space to make that role what it was in this piece.
Some things that maybe I felt didn’t work as well or maybe I was expecting something different, is that I feel like the set, I don’t know how you all felt about it – either the set itself or the use of the set was more static than I was hoping for? Something about the grandness didn’t translate through the stage pictures, predominantly the set lah, for me. So I kind of wanted more. Certain things felt very flat despite the height of the set. I don’t know whether you all felt that?
CT: Hmm, maybe a little, but I also appreciate at the end, right, when all the performers slowly strip themselves of their costumes – which were really dramatic, by Max Tan – and in the end we see they have been going through this effort and labour of putting up a show for us. I’m not sure about the budgetary preoccupations that the show would have had, investing more in certain areas than others. And for me that is the desire to have it in a more informal space where I’d be more forgiving of the more DIY nature of a stage or props.
NS: That’s true.
CT: Whereas with this proscenium stage, the expectation is set for a kind of lavish scene? Where I’m actually quite forgiving of, oh, you pick up a random thing and it can become a prop. So in the end they do try to reveal this labour to us, they’ve really gone through the wringer for us for three hours, singing, dancing and acting, and all that is stripped away and you see the whole troupe of performers at the end. And maybe that’s the itch that I still haven’t satisfied for myself, to have bangsawan take place in that more accessible public space. But yeah… I didn’t really answer your question. [laughs] But that’s maybe where my thought went.
NS: Thanks for that, because that makes so much sense. I think it was more of my expectations of “this show in Victoria Theatre”.
dh: Yeah, because it brings into question accessibility and who did Shakespeare write his works for, and why his work has to be in a certain place, and how we can translate these works into a more general audience, other than just people who understand theatre.
NS: Totally, totally.
CT: I do feel that Bangsawan Gemala Malam and the next piece, Devil’s Cherry, they do situate us in something beyond a “Singapore”. We think of Bangsawan Gemala Malam set within a Nusantara environment in the Malay archipelago, the maritime world that we’ve always been a part of as an island. And the next piece co-locates us with something further afield that we don’t quite expect, which is Australia.
So Devil’s Cherry is by Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae, who of course were the co-founders of spell#7, a really beloved Singapore performance company. And then when they relocated to Australia a couple years ago, they semi-dissolved spell#7, even though they’ve returned and maintained their relationship with Singapore in many different ways. So it was really exciting to see them both come back for this work at the Pasir Panjang Power Station. It’s a really lyrical meditation centred around the lives of this couple, Debbie and Mo, played extraordinarily by Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin. And they’re out in the Australian bush, a very different environment from Singapore, trying to make sense of this natural world – to varying degrees of success. And beneath that is an undercurrent of loss that we don’t quite figure out until later on.
And it’s infused with a bit of magic too – to bring that over from Bangsawan Gemala Malam – of what happens in this really flat, endless environment. And how we get lost not just in space, but in time. And so… I know this sounds quite abstract, but they kind of encounter different beings who might be the devil, might be a spirit, might be a memory, might be a story from centuries past? Spirits or figures or personalities –
NS: – because of the contestations of land.
CT: Yes. So that’s kind of where we begin with Devil’s Cherry, with this Singaporean couple in a very unfamiliar terrain. And to me it was quite interesting personally, because of my own experience with spell#7’s work, or at least Kaylene and Paul’s work separately. Their work tends to be really intimate, it happens on very deliberate micro scales, on a familial scale. They’re very interested in excavating their own family stories and finding what kind of resonances those can have with audience members. So almost all of my experience with their work has been related to their family in some way, and that of course coloured my own interpretation of this piece. I think about a couple relocating to Australia – the interpretation is quite immediate.
And also this is the first time you see them in this really cavernous space of the old Pasir Panjang Power Station, where usually I’d see them in like smaller studios, smaller environments, maybe the NUS Baba House, for example. So that was an interesting contrast to me. It was interesting to see them working at this scale, and also a different kind of intercultural environment, working with a lot of these Australian touchstones and questions around the – I’m using air quotes – the “terra nullius” of Australian land that was taken from indigenous people. And then Singapore’s relationship to that, which is a bit more tenuous or complicated. I’m curious what both of you felt about experiencing this work, maybe having encountered Paul and Kaylene’s work before, or maybe not? And what this experience was like for you as we open this conversation.
NS: I think two words that I resonated with as you were sharing – and thanks so much for sharing, because I think both me and dia haven’t had any, or very little real experience watching spell#7 shows, or scripts written by Kaylene Tan who’s a fantastic writer and very illustrious. And ‘intimacy’ is something people always say, with their work? And ‘transportive’. And I feel for me the script had that intimacy, and it was very lush and tricksy as well, which I really, really enjoyed. I can see that intimacy at play in the writing.
But then for me where I felt where certain things didn’t work as well – and perhaps Bangsawan Gemala Malam is like the direct opposite – was like, the exchange of energies with the audience, or reaching the audience. For me, because of the cavernous Pasir Panjang Power Station, which I feel is – I’m not sure, but it’s a SIFA venue this year, right, and it’s a venue that’s very much connected with Cake Theatre and Natalie Hennedige of Cake – who is the festival director as well. So I kind of felt like, um, placing or locating the intimate story in that space where we were kind of far away from the performers –
dh: – yeah, I was all the way in the back!
NS: And we were made to wear the headphones, right? Which, you know, worked really great and you could hear everything really clearly and things like that. But for me, it distanced myself from – I felt very distant and sometimes alienated from the performers, and consequently the story, in a way, and the show. And you know when I was thinking about the show, I felt like, oh, oh no, I feel so sad because I can see what – I can see the intimacy, but I can’t reach it, in a way, or they’re not reaching me.
But I wonder now whether this discomfort was actually the point. I’m not sure, because you know, when I was listening to the dialogues, something about it felt very lonely and isolating – even my experience of it. To me, the characters were lonely characters. I felt like when they were talking to each other, they were not really communicating, and it was very frustrating. And I could really empathise with that. But then I also feel isolated, as an audience member, from the person next to me. And I don’t know whether you all felt this, but since the pandemic and social distancing, so that day when I went, I was like “oh my god, I’m so close to the person next to me, I’m like almost touching them!!! I’m so close!” And you’re so close, but then later on you’re meant to ignore everyone and just focus. And for me somehow it was all at odds, and in the end I felt very removed from the story or the experience.
dh: I think having the headphones on disrupted the experience a little bit for me because it started to hurt at certain points. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t adjust the headphones properly or something.
NS: No, a lot of people did say it was a bit uncomfortable.
dh: Yeah, which I thought was a bit of a shame for me, because I wanted to keep listening, and I wanted to keep experiencing all these sounds that you don’t usually get when you go to a live performance. Because I felt like the headphones meant, oh, I could hear certain sighs that were being [inaudible], and certain sounds that were in the background that you usually don’t get when you see everything, heard on a speaker. But because it hurt I had to take off the headphones for a while and I realised, oh, when I take it off I can’t hear anything from the outside. And I was like, oh well, do I sacrifice the performance for a few seconds while my ears recover from how much the headphones hurt?
And also, like you mentioned, the feeling of isolation. Because at least on the day that I went, I had a small exchange with a person who sat next to me. At first he was like, “oh, is anybody sitting here?” and I was like, “oh, no, go ahead.” And he was like – and we just had a small conversation because we were at the show together and he was saying, “I’m sorry if I – you seem a bit far away.” and I said yeah, I was just zoning out before the show. And that sort of communal feeling that I mentioned in Bangsawan, it was there for me, for a brief moment I was talking to a stranger and being comfortable in his presence, and then suddenly you have the SIFA ushers going around saying, “please put on your headphones”, and we were in the middle of a conversation, I was a little bit, aw, that’s kind of sad. Because there was a chance I could have experienced this show with a new friend. But we had to put the headphones on and stop talking to each other and experience it separately, and only after the show I was like, “how’d you find it?” You know? That sort of separation and isolation. Maybe it’s deliberate.
CT: I actually felt quite differently. I did feel the isolation felt important. Because here we have a couple kind of stranded in the middle of the outback, which is a very unfamiliar environment, I would say, to most Singaporeans. And you know, the desert and the bush and the wilderness is something we are not confronted with. So actually having the earphones clamped around my head and also wearing a mask was a very interesting sensory deprivation experience! [laughter] So I felt like this lone planet orbiting this piece, which almost feels alien – the set by [Wong] Chee Wai feels like terraces emerging– like an island in the middle of this power station.
And of course Kaylene and Paul often use binaural headphones and earphones in their work, I think partially to allow you to go on that very solo journey. You will pay attention or be attentive to very specific things, or you might zone out. I know some people have a very different relationship to audio, as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts [laughs] I’m very comfortable with listening to a work. But I think, I feel like in a lot of spell#7 works, it’s okay if you drift and ruminate and go on a tangent away from that narrative and then find yourself circling back, or caught by a sound, by a moment. So it was a very hypnotic experience for me, floating in this space-non-space and watching these enormous projections on the screen.
And also I did what you (dia) did, which I was very curious what the performers would sound like if I did not have the headphones on, and realising they were not speaking at more than the volume of a whisper, which was really interesting to me, that they could speak so softly in this enormous space and yet find their way to our ears. I appreciated the ambition of the work because I found it – I really could feel Paul and Kaylene – maybe this is my own interpretation layering over the work, but I could feel them rediscovering the place they’ve uprooted to. They spent decades in Singapore making their home here. What does it mean to be encountered with the history of another place that is so foreign to you, and the Australian outback is dangerous, everything can kill you in Australia, and also very different relationships to land and settler colonialism –
dh: Yeah, that was one of my first thoughts when I left the place and I was thinking, generally what do Singaporeans feel about their relationship to the land that they live on. Because it keeps changing. We live in such a – it’s cliched to say, but Singapore is so fast-paced, everything gets renovated so quickly, everything gets demolished so quickly. So I felt like the show gave space to – what if you could just be on this space of land knowing that it’s not yours. But at the same time having to experience the rules of that land, having to like – I think towards the end, when Mo is suddenly confronted with all the elements of nature that he once used to be so happy with, but suddenly, oh it’s too hot, he feels like he’s going to die, there’s no water, suddenly there’s all these animals around him that he used to be so friendly with, but then he’s afraid because he’s alone! I thought that was such a really – that experience was, for me, I really felt for Mo. Because everytime – and I think it was quite nice for me to experience Devil’s Cherry because I had spent a few days in Sembawang –
dh: Yeah! Because there’s Sembawang Beach, and the greenery that’s in Sembawang. I also felt like Mo in that I felt so out of place, I was there with a bucket hat, smearing all this sunscreen on my face. [laughter] I was like “oh no it’s so hot today”! And just letting myself experience what life could be like without having to see so many cars and everything.
CT: I think it reminds me of how severed we are from the natural world, and to see such classic Singaporean tourist traits [in the show], “I’ve got to put sunscreen on my head”, right, to encounter the elements. I think they really get that fish-out-of-water thing – of these Singaporeans bred on Singaporean exceptionalism encountering a place that just does not want them there. And also showing how divorced we are from our own realities, sometimes? Mo is obviously going through a great grief to do with his daughter. And just wilfully ignoring it. The couple, their marriage is splintering. They are only held together by the rituals of their relationship. Ahhh I brought this back to “Ritual” yay [laughs] –
NS/dh: [overlapping with CT] Very good! / “Ritual: The Anatomy of Performance” [the theme of this year’s festival]
CT: Yeah, the little rituals that they – making breakfast for each other, the way in which a long-married couple – which I sometimes recognise in myself and my husband – the little things you do even without thinking, and that is the only thing holding them together. Everything else is conspiring, whether it’s Rain – embodied by this amazing queer Australian dancer Raina Peterson, who’s trained in mohiniyattam – every little thing could needle apart this relationship and set them on completely different paths.
And it all orbits around the figure of this lost daughter. We don’t really know what’s happened to this young woman who’s played by Liz Sergeant Tan, who’s really an extraordinary physical performer. And there are a lot of these mysteries that surround their relationships to “daughter”, and you can read “daughter” in many different ways, if you embody it as a physical or geographical relationship.
There felt like there were so many ideas in this rich text that I wanted to reach out to and play with. And I wonder if they will continue to revisit this work. Because I know in past works for example, they had a Duets series that began before the birth of their daughters, Summer and Lola, and Duets grew as their family grew. And I also watched Family Duet (2013) at the Esplanade which also involved Kaylene’s mother, Eleanor. And so you see these themes of family, of intimacy, of relating to each other, get refracted through the points of their lives at which they’re at. So I’m just wondering also, oh, would the same happen to this piece? What kinds of new ambitions are they bringing to this exploration in a very different space than we expect them to be in? So I guess that’s my open curiosity about the work and their creative trajectory, if that makes sense.
NS: This discussion is really helping me appreciate a lot of the show that I felt I lost because of the venue. For me I think my main dissatisfaction is actually the venue. There’s something about making – or maybe it’s very Singaporean, something about making this inhospitable venue “liveable” for a time, or for our use, a very specific use. But it wasn’t designed for that or meant for that, and we’re making it into something it’s not to some extent. Or I think this performance has been talked about in terms of site-specificity, and I wonder whether that’s really accurate. Because for me it was more like what you said, Corrie, that Australian outback, the idea of foreignness and alienation, and things like that. Which, which – I don’t know, it has resonances with this Pasir Panjang Power Station, and how Singapore always makes these kinds of places into “cool” event spaces? But at the same time, that’s where it lost me in terms of the intimacy I really, really wanted. I really craved walking with them, walking with these characters, I wanted to be closer. So that’s, yeah, how I felt.
Devil’s Cherry. Image credit: SIFA.
dh: I think maybe I don’t know if it’s just also like a “Singaporean” thing, but when I go to shows at least, the commute plays a big part in how I experience it. Like if I don’t enjoy the commute, I will feel like, “yeah, I guess I’m here” [laughter] like, “yeah, I’m in Pasir Panjang Power Station, how nice – I live in Woodlands”, so. I think honestly that kind of destroyed my experience a little bit. But like I said, it could just be my Singaporean speaking, in how I want things to be easy.
But in reference to Devil’s Cherry, I think it probably wasn’t easy for the couple to even get to the Australian outback. They spent their life savings I think, as mentioned in the play, like, I get mad when I have to spend, what like, S$1.90, on an MRT trip just to go to Labrador Park. But they spent their entire life savings just to be there, and to hopefully salvage something out of their relationship. Maybe they get it, maybe they don’t.
NS: So how did you find the journey to Pulau Ubin then?
dh: So this is the segue into ubin, right. So I guess a rough rundown of ubin is that it’s an immersive theatrical experience where participants are led through the island with facilitators. They’re given a pair of headphones and a receiver to listen to all the interviews that are recorded for the work specifically, all that relate to different persons’ experiences with Ubin, whether it’s because they work there or they’ve been there as a kid – there are so many different unique experiences that come with that tiny island. And I guess to answer your question first, was that I honestly – I was very begrudging to go to ubin. [laughter] On the morning of the show I was like, “today I have to go to Ubin”.
NS: This episode is where we find out dia doesn’t like to travel far out for a show.
dh: I really don’t! I really hope nobody takes that personally because I think I’m just a young Singaporean who values convenience over everything. But I did think that the trip to Ubin was worth it because, like I said, I don’t think I spend that much time in greenery. And having to kind of walk around for two hours and – it was like being led by my parents, where you know, we have to be in this greenery to fully experience it. And to fully understand why this place means so much to certain people, because we all have different associations with different places. And I think it affects the way we view people and view certain places.
CT: I guess ubin begins with that journey through the island. And after that, after this walk – and it’s dusk, we start the journey at 6pm and it’s getting progressively darker, while listening to these stories we’re also seeing little excerpts of movement pieces that activate certain parts of the island, featuring three dancers: Sonia, Sufri and Shou Yi. After this kind of meander, almost a procession, because we’re walking at a really slow pace through Ubin – the second part of the work is a facilitated discussion, where we’re broken into smaller groups to have a deeper conversation, fundamentally about the various futures that we imagine for this offshore island. Which is quite interesting because we are ourselves an island, but we’re considered a “mainland” to others.
To me, it’s interesting to think about how all these three works kind of relocate and dislocate us from ideas of land. We think of the broader Nusantara sweep and the Malay archipelago in Bangsawan Gemala Malam, and other cultural histories we’re connected to and that we’ve inherited from these performance histories and tropes, like bangsawan. In Devil’s Cherry we think about different relationships to land, Singapore and Australia, what contentions do we have over how we relate to the ground we set our feet on and who we pay respect to.
And finally here in ubin, we have an island that many mainland Singaporeans, as dia has described, treat as a kind of “tourist” space. People go there for their outdoor activities, for kayaking, for fishing, for hiking. It’s kind of seen as a “leisure” island to a lot of Singaporeans, and as with a lot of Drama Box’s participatory work, they often try to get us to pay attention to the residents of these spaces. They’ve done this, for example, in IgnorLAND of its Loss, where they looked at the now-demolished Dakota Crescent that used to be right next to the Goodman Arts Centre and now has been completely flattened. And then they also did this with Bukit Brown in The Cemetery: Dawn and Dusk back in 2015. Even as the kind of very heated debates around the future of Bukit Brown were unfolding. So ubin is a bit different in that I suppose there’s no immediate threat to the land use on Ubin, although of course I’m sure there’s land development planned.
dh: I think one of the facilitators mentioned that actually, they said that the government can claim back the land at any time that they want.
CT: Although I do feel that this is an existential threat that most spaces in Singapore do face? So, absolutely, you’re totally right about that, but more existential than immediate, at this point in time – to me, at least, my reading of the work.
NS: So for me, I’ve been to Ubin a number of times, and I feel like for a lot of people who were there, especially the ones I feel are not usually theatregoers, I felt that they – and actually me – were there also because Ubin at night is so interesting. Even if you go there all the time, unless you stay overnight, very rarely do people get to experience Ubin at night. So I enjoyed the meditative walk at the start. It felt like two parts, right? And then the second part with the socially-conscious participatory discussion, for me the – I almost felt like there needed to be a second act, or something where we could segue into, “ok, what is our stake in this future of Ubin?” Because in a weird way, the first part even though it’s very invitational and you feel the pull, and you really– the stories were so beautiful, and the anecdotes – we heard the actual voices, right, of these various communities around Ubin. But I didn’t feel like I was, what’s the word, that I can even speak for Ubin, I guess. And maybe it speaks to what it means to be a Singaporean but yet feeling like you can’t speak for Ubin? It’s so weird, right, even Corrie when you said we are the “mainland”, I was like oh my gosh, suddenly we are the dominant force and that’s so alien.
CT: The semenanjung [peninsula].
dh: [overlapping with NS] It’s a very funny reconciliation that you think about, when you go to Ubin.
NS: / Exactly. And I think it’s, it makes sense to bring it up, but for me it’s like, how. How do you get people really feeling invested in, firstly they may just be there because maybe they just love the idea of going to Ubin at night, and they’re taking a lot of photos, and people were taking TikToks and things like that during the first part, right? So how do you segue from that into, “let’s have a serious discussion about the future of Ubin”. It wasn’t fully serious, in a sense, there was still an element of play and exploration.
I remember like my group, one of the futures of Ubin was, oh, discovering a magical durian plantation that has healing powers, you know? But then we also had to think of Ubin in a very real, like the real threats facing it. And we couldn’t really reconcile it in a weird way, in the same way that maybe certain other groups did? So it could be how the groups are facilitated, or the discussions. And not everyone in my group, for example, was really even interested in having the discussion. So I had some frustrations around maybe more of like, group dynamics and things like that. For me it was, how do you scaffold it so, maybe like what Corrie said, we feel an immediate investment and stake in the future of Ubin. Just because in the first part, I’m almost lulled into feeling – I’m almost allowed to still stay in “touristy” mode if I wanted to, if I really didn’t feel super generous about it.
dh: I felt differently, actually. Because you said you felt this immediate need to address what our stake in Ubin is. I feel like I didn’t need to have that discussion immediately. Because there’s something very surreal, I guess, in having to exist within nature and in somebody else’s land, and completely experience their words through your ears for two hours. I thought that was, for me, a very effective way of trying to communicate how different we really are in terms of the experience. Yes, the country we live in may be the same, but there’s this really huge gap between we “mainlanders” feel and the way the Ubin residents feel.
And I think the act of being, just having, just having to be, and be in a space and just listen – I think we don’t have enough of that in the mainland. I thought that the discussion kind of disrupted the way I could just be. Because that’s, I mean, like you said we can’t speak for the Ubin residents. But isn’t that what most people want? To be able to just be, to just be able to exist? It’s like, you know, the basis of why people fight for certain rights. I’m just relating this to myself as a queer person, especially with the whole discussion of 377A and Pink Dot happening today, the whole discussion of being allowed to exist in a place that does not want us. You know?
NS: And not everything needs to be suddenly politicised, or like, let’s decide now on this thing.
dh: Yeah, because was that not the point? To understand our relationship with this land that we see for leisure? You know? Just trying to construct the way we feel about our own land as well. That was just how I felt lah.
CT: I think maybe… in other pieces I’ve really appreciated this about Drama Box’s work, the way they orient us to paying attention to things that we often overlook. I think I could feel some of it here, I mostly enjoyed observing how people were relating to Ubin in the large groups we were in. People judiciously spraying mosquito spray, or being so unused to having no light pollution at all, as we were walking through the darkness, a lot of people had to lean on the crutch on handphone torchlights, which would immediately disrupt everyone else’s adjustment to the darkness.
And it did feel, as someone who has visited Ubin a fair amount, that we stuck quite safely to the main paths. I understand the risks that performance companies take when they bring audience members to an outdoor space, and how to wrangle audience members and scaffold their engagement with the place such that no one gets hurt or injured. But it felt almost too careful, the way we’re ushered down these paths. I think so much about the wildness of the space Ubin has to offer.
And I was just alighting on these small attentions, seeing hornbills or white-bellied sea eagles go by in the distance, these were the things I was paying attention to, sometimes more than the performance activations itself, because Ubin is so rich as a site, with images and beings that we don’t normally encounter on the mainland. But then it felt for me, a kind of disconnect between these movements and scenes articulating what text and speech cannot, and then our desire to immediately give that language and vocabulary in the second half of the facilitation. Which almost felt like two different pieces entirely. And I think they can form a certain coherence. I’ve seen Drama Box do that incredibly effectively with other work about space and contestation. But here I’m not sure why it didn’t quite fall into place for me.
NS: I feel like with – I feel like we know our relationship is to endangered sites on the mainland. And it’s not easily transferable to this space on Pulau Ubin because it has its own–
dh: It has its own identity.
NS: It has its own “a lot of things” that we barely scratched the surface when we walked for that two hours, you know?
dh: Yeah, and there’s only so much that anecdotes can really say. There’s so much – there’s so much to know about beyond just the way that people live and people experience things.
NS: So, I don’t know, that participatory bit really felt jarring and I really wanted to enter into it, because I love Drama Box’s participatory works, always. But I almost felt like the initial question was already very ambitious. And at least in my group, people didn’t understand the initial question. What was the question–
CT: Thinking about your vision for Ubin? It could be a very, completely wildly imaginative vision for Ubin. Like, “monkeys cycling to produce kinetic energy to power the island”. That kind of scale, of absurdity, which can be quite fun. But also it didn’t allow us to make sense of our immediate relationship with this space. And in my group there were certain participants who kept asking, “But what are the parameters? Because we’re on a real island. It’s difficult for me to imagine these absurd situations when thinking about a very tangible place.” There was someone in my group who kept asking, “But what are the parameters for these speculations?”
dh: Yeah, because to some degree we want to respect the space that already exists. And I think no matter who you are and where you come from, you can acknowledge that this is such a real and whole space that people live in, people make their livelihoods here whether tourists go there or not. This is their home. It feels very… I guess, alien. To speculate on somebody else’s place of stay.
NS: I think the thing about the fun, exploratory part – the tone of it, I could never, as in, I kept making jokes in my group. Partially to break the ice, but also I thought it was all exploratory. It could be crazy and not have logic. But I realise the facilitator would sometimes, maybe the way they brought in, “but then, reality is this” or “reality is like, they can’t get water actually”. Then I would be like oh shit, are we actually talking about an actual future? Then I got a bit – are we just play-acting or are we actually being a bit serious? Are these suggestions going somewhere? And I felt there was never a clear charting of, like what you said Corrie, the parameters. Where is this going? What are we talking about? And some people are still in the “touristy” mode, or very just “give me things to listen, I don’t want to give you anything”. And then the closing (of the show), maybe we can talk about the closing. I felt the closing was very… “tie a ribbon on this thing with this act of offering to Ubin!” And I felt, oh, that’s a bit convenient, because we haven’t really done anything. We’ve not done anything. It was very twee as well.
NS: Twee. Like, oh, clean this boat and release offerings to Ubin! And I really wanted to be part of that, but I felt that I didn’t deserve it.
CT & dh: Mmmmmmm!!
CT: I really appreciate all the work that Drama Box does when it comes to allowing us to question our relationship to land that we take for granted. They’ve done this with previous sites, like I mentioned earlier, with Bukit Brown and with Dakota Crescent. And also with The Lesson, which is a participatory theatre model that draws from but doesn’t replicate – it develops a lot of the practices in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and pedagogies of the oppressed, to allow people to think about their responsibilities to their own environment.
And here– I’m still really struggling with why I felt this didn’t sit quite so well with me as previous explorations. And I think… one thing I truly loved about The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk, which was about Bukit Brown in 2015, is that they really made us work for the payoff. Which is not a great term to use, but they really made us work for it. We woke up at 4am in the morning to go to the cemetery, which was still under contention at that moment. We witnessed this movement piece as the sun came up – in Ubin, it’s the sunset that we experienced, so things get darker and darker – and there’s a respect that you have because you know you’re stepping on sacred or spiritual land. So there’s a care and respect that people take when walking through the cemetery because there’s that immediate awareness that you’re in a spiritual space that’s not your own. And then you’re given the whole day to sit with this experience, to let it sediment in your half-awake, half-asleep brain. And at night you get to watch, in a black box, a verbatim theatre piece put together from all the speeches, the press releases, the newspaper articles about the struggle for Bukit Brown – not unlike the stories we hear in our ear when we listen to the stories of Ubin.
But that kind of future of Bukit Brown felt so potent in that moment, because we had really sat with it for a longer period of time, with both the inarticulacies of the struggle told through movement, through music, through the elements – and then also through people’s very real struggle for a site. To me I suppose that’s always been an exemplar of, wow, this is what it’s like to work with a contested space.
And for me, the stakes for Ubin, even though we have that existential crisis around land in Singapore – and maybe they did want us to feel like voyeurs, like intruding into people’s spaces… but that discomfort wasn’t sharpened enough for me to go, oh yes, this is very deliberate, I’m here gawking at people and I should really reflect on that. It didn’t quite have that sense for me. It felt strange to condense the lush sprawl of Ubin with all its histories into that really short engagement we had with it. I don’t want to come across as prescriptive or dramaturgical in this moment, maybe just see this as a reflection of my own cravings rather than anything the company could have done or did, yeah.
dh: Maybe because, for me at least, I don’t think I’ve heard any urgency around Ubin? There isn’t that threat, I think.
NS: Which is why I feel that we needed maybe more time, or more consideration? Because, and again, maybe they purposely – but I feel maybe it could be, it’s not a threat now, so why not pay attention to it now? Why must we wait until tomorrow when we’re going to lose the, the residents have to be evicted or whatever – I feel maybe that’s what they wanted?
CT: Absolutely. And I really think, yes, we should offer care, thought and attention to sites that we take for granted. Absolutely. And I always appreciate when pointed in that direction. We shouldn’t always need a “political” stake to fight for something, to care for its maintenance, to do the day-to-day maintenance of a place.
NS: The work that activists are doing.
CT: Yeah! So maybe that’s the reorientation. Instead of, let’s solve this problem for Ubin islanders now – what are those rituals of maintenance that we should do as people who have a stake, not in Ubin necessarily, but in this country, right?
Everyday acts of maintenance are deeply political – where we park our attentions, what we are sensitive to, what we choose not to ignore, even though everyone else is ignoring it. I appreciate work that points us to that everyday practice of politics. Not only the gestures of performative politics, right? Protests or electoral politics, like voting – those are very obvious political gestures. But I think what maybe many of these works are also pointing us to are those tending of the day-to-day things that form the basis of our living together. And even if they struggle with it or grasp at it, I’m still very appreciative of these orientations. I feel like, yeah, Drama Box pays great attention to these things and that’s why I always marvel at their work in the mundane and the everyday, right?
ubin. Image credit: SIFA.
dh: Yeah, tenderness is also so deeply political.
CT: Yeah, absolutely. And even Bangsawan Gemala Malam, to imagine a space of great maritime power in a place that’s so colonised by so many different colonisers. And also in terms of Devil’s Cherry, to allow us to think about land in a very different sort of way, and what we claim as ours. I do think all these are political on many different levels.
I wonder what other audience members took away from it, whether they thought as deeply about these issues when watching, or if they didn’t want to sit with it and turned their attentions elsewhere. And then I wonder, how do we cultivate audience members who are willing to stick out the investment of shows that might be long, that might be difficult to get to, to hike to. What do we offer them to allow them to think of these journeys as also pleasurable, especially if they’re new to performance and don’t have the patience sometimes for work that’s a little slower, a little more repetitive? I think it’s also valid when they have responses that are not as generous, if they don’t see a reason to go. So I wonder how we can cultivate patience and capacity and pleasure for more difficult work. And I mean “difficult” in that, there are conditions or tropes or genres or ideas that are not immediately accessible or decodable to people. That’s just my lingering thought.
NS: Thanks so much. This discussion has really helped me appreciate and relook some of the things I was feeling about these individual works. So that’s actually been great.
CT: Personally I’m also curious where Natalie Hennedige goes next. This was her first outing as festival director, and it’s been interesting to see how different the personality and curatorial approach of each director has been. I feel like the first year’s always a settling-into what we expect of this person, and also the person for themselves, getting used to working on this timeframe and this scale. I do wonder what the next two outings will be like.
NS: Yeah, looking forward to the next two years. So with that, thank you so much to our special guests for your generous sharings, and thanks for listening. Bye!
CT & dh: Bye!
Resources we enjoyed and found helpful for our discussion:
Channel NewsTheatre’s Instagram response to ubin: https://www.instagram.com/p/CeRfB19PFrd/
“Dreaming in Malay: Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Shakespeare’s Tropical Encounters” by Faris Joraimi: https://sifa.sg/lp-read/read-details/dreaming-in-malay-bangsawan-gemala-malam-and-shakespeare-s-tropical-encounters
Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan reflect on how “time”, “artefact” and “gesture” manifest in their creative practice: https://sifa.sg/images/life-profusion/grow/pdf/+GROW_Kaylene_Tan_and_Paul_Rae.pdf
Corrie Tan’s response to Drama Box’s IgnorLAND of its Loss (2016): https://corrie-tan.com/blog/2016/7/7/ignorland-of-its-loss-by-drama-box