By Nabilah Said
(1,670 words, 7-minute read)
We are in a rehearsal for Seven Views of Redhill. Well, not me – I am just a hanger-on trying to fold myself into a corner of the Chesterfield-like sofa backed up against a wall in a room I am told is called the ‘Back of Chamber’, because it is located at the back of the Chamber of the Arts House.
Opposite me, in elegant contrast, is theatre actor Janice Koh. She is seated on a low chair on a raised platform, brow furrowed in deep concentration. Perhaps she is summoning Kim Yin, the eldest daughter of an unnamed Chinese family whose story is contained in the script she has in hand, weaving through the old SIT blocks in 1970s Redhill, hearing the sound of drama serials from television sets of unseen neighbours. Then again, there are other daughters.
This rehearsal I am privy to is for the stage version of Seven Views of Redhill, a short story by Dora Tan adapted and directed by award-winning writer-director Lee Thean-jeen. Part of the Arts House’s The Page on Stage series, it is a two-hander.
“If this were our house, what would it be like?”
Lim Yu-Beng’s voice booms. He, like Koh, plays multiple characters. Lim moves energetically around the room, picking up and putting down various items of furniture, seeing which suits the requirements of the play best. I probably shouldn’t but sometimes I still see Lim as Sergeant Alan Leong from ‘90s Channel 5 series Triple Nine.
When you think of Redhill, do you think of Bukit Merah? The two names are literally the same, and yet they are not the same. Naturally, the Malay name Bukit Merah came first, so-called because of the red-rust colour of the soil found on the hill that gave the area its name. Its Hokkien name, ang suah, also means red hill.
Of course, many people grew up hearing the more exciting story of Hang Nadim, the boy who saved Singapura from a deadly attack by swordfish with his ingenious idea of using banana stalks to protect the coast, only to be killed by the jealous ruler, Paduka Seri Maharaja. According to this story, inscribed in the Sejarah Melayu, it is his blood that stained the hill red. Stories like these have always been a part of who we are, living on this historic land. In many ways, writing, telling and passing down such stories are a big part of our DNA.
The hill has since shrunk, but Bukit Merah remains huge – over 150,000 people reside there, and it is served by no less than 10 MRT stations, two Community Development Councils and three Town Councils.
This has nothing to do with Seven Views of Redhill.
“When people think of Redhill they think of the romantic legend of the boy who saved his kampong from the sword fish. They think of this boy who was killed by the jealous king and of his blood which subsequently stained the hill. I lived in Redhill for 24 years and I never heard that legend. Redhill, for me, has never been romantic.”
– Dora Tan
Seven Views of Redhill is originally a short story written by Tan, a Singaporean screenwriter and playwright, in 2012. It is a deeply personal story of a family – if you only count the mother and her six children, you get the titular seven views. The story was published in the anthology Balik Kampung, edited by Singapore writer Verena Tay, in 2012 and again in a reprint in 2015. The book comprised eight stories by both emerging and established writers, linked by their association and dis-association with different parts of Singapore.
Tan was born in Redhill Close.
This isn’t standard writer etiquette, as I should have written this at the start but didn’t because of artistic license:
SIT stands for Singapore Improvement Trust, predecessor to Housing Development Board, which built over 23,000 public flats to cater to Singapore’s growing population between the 1920s and 1960s. Tan’s story of the family in Seven Views of Redhill is located sometime in this period and maybe beyond, as it captures both a nostalgia for and repulsion to a past, and a grappling with an uncertain future.
“It’s a personal story which works within a larger context, showing us what Singapore was like. It draws you down an unexpected path.”
Lee tells me that anyone who has an idea of the SIT blocks in older Singapore neighbourhoods will feel a sense of resonance with the setting. The Penang-born writer-director identifies with that feeling of having moved “from a small place to a bigger place”. His screen work over the decades has also taken him to numerous locations within old and existing SIT neighbourhoods in Singapore, so it is a setting that he, along with many Singaporeans, is familiar with.
I think about the words “Singapore”, “improvement” and “trust”. It seems to fit this exact moment in this rehearsal room on Tuesday, 17 September 2019, 9.12pm.
We all have different memories of a place.
When collaged together, they start to form a kind of social map of a neighbourhood that overlaps yet is subsumed under geographical studies of the land – whether it be John Turnbull Thomson’s surveys of early Singapore in the 1840s; or the seven hills of Bukit Merah captured in the 1943 maps of Syonan-to; or Singapore’s changing landscapes over the years; or what we (and the world) see today on Google Maps. Perhaps a place is made of a composite of all of these.
Lee remembers a past life, when he used to work out of an office in Bukit Merah.
I think of a particular Indian Muslim stall in ABC Brickworks Food Centre, which is apparently and inconspicuously listed in a Michelin Guide, somewhere.
The Internet remembers a “Summon Auntie”, waving her umbrella at a pair of young women sunbathing on the rooftop of a multi-storey carpark in Redhill.
Someone ancient might remember those banana stalks.
Lee is one of the most prolific writer-directors in the Singapore scene today, having started his career working on corporate videos in the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, and then moving on to TV and film productions such as The Pupil and Code Of Law, telemovie Gone Case (2014) and horror film Bring Back The Dead (2015). He is no stranger to adaptations, having worked on the award-winning series AlterAsians and the mini-series The Singapore Short Story Project, where popular stories by local writers were adapted for TV.
What is nice is that this isn’t the first time Lee is working with this cast. In 2003, Lee and Lim worked together on The Singapore Short Story Project, and he remembers Koh being in a story about a medical doctor – “she played a cadaver” – written by Gopal Baratham.
He respects his colleagues working in theatre, and fondly recalls doing a page-to-stage project in 2011, working on a short story by Singapore writer Felix Cheong. While he says that working on stories for the screen and the stage aren’t that different, with storytelling and characters being important for both, he calls them “jealous spouses”. But he acknowledges that unlike TV or film, in theatre they are not exactly striving for realism.
“It’s not about making things appear real, but about filling in with imagination. We have two actors playing seven characters. This is the magic of theatre,” he says.
The ‘Back of Chamber’ is not quite an official venue of the Art House. I feel like I am in the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter, summoned into existence only when necessary. Seven Views of Redhill is the third edition of The Page on Stage, a programme of short story adaptations for the stage directed by award-winning film directors and curated by Singapore actor-producer Tan Kheng Hua.
Theatre in many ways is about creating and examining that liminal, and hence magical, space. A space where two actors can play seven, or 100 characters. A space where a story can be about a particular family in Redhill, heartbreak and loneliness, or become as big as a country, and its hopes and dreams.
With a maximum capacity of only 50 people, the intimacy of this room lends itself well to this production. You will see every detail. You will, if you’re like me, try to avoid making eye contact with the actors, and you will probably fail. This is that kind of story.
By this time, you wonder where I am taking you. And I have to confess that I do not know, because part of me is still in the crevice of that maroon sofa, and because this is only one part of the story of Seven Views of Redhill. I do not know, not yet, because for now, this is just a rehearsal.
And rehearsals are all about improvement and trust.
In rehearsals, there are adjustments to be made, furniture to be arranged, memories to mine, and characters to discover and rediscover. In rehearsals, endless conversations and negotiations are made between actor and director, creative and producer, venue manager and curator. In rehearsals, we learn how to fail. Fail together. Improve together. This is the true spirit of collaboration – trusting in the people around you that you can, while encountering failure, discover beauty.
It is exactly what is happening in front of me: Koh almost meditating in a chair, Lim, constantly in action, Lee already thinking about what to do next.
And then, someone asks a question that at once captures the vulnerability and powerful potential of theatre: “Why don’t we try that for now?”
Seven Views of Redhill, part of The Page on Stage series, takes place from 10-13 October 2019 at the Back of Chamber in The Arts House, Singapore. Info and tickets here.
This post is sponsored by The Arts House Ltd.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.