By Ben Brooker
(910 words, 5-minute read)
In 2015 Singapore celebrated ‘SG50’, the city-state’s golden jubilee, marking 50 years of independence as a sovereign nation. Commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts to respond to that year’s theme of ‘Post-Empires’, W!ld Rice created Hotel, a sprawling, four-and-a-half-hour-long play in two parts intended to subvert the nationalistic triumphalism of the jubilee’s official narrative. The result is a sort of vividly realised ‘people’s history’ of Singapore, woven from 11 well-made but stylistically diverse scenes that take place in the same suite between 1915 and 2015 in an unnamed three-storey hotel (presumably modelled on Raffles, the colonial-style luxury hotel established in Singapore in 1887).
Wong Chee Wai’s simple set – two flats, with back projection screens for walls – subtly traces the changing fashions and mores of the times, two single beds replaced by a double, the suite’s wallpaper and furnishings, by turns austere and garish, reflecting each era’s prevailing tastes. Projection is used, too, to broaden our view beyond the hermetic world of the suite, most notably in the scene set in 1965 when we are shown footage of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s tearful press conference after separation from Malaysia.
One of the first things you notice about the work is its reflection of Singapore’s striking cultural heterogeneity. Officially the city-state has four ‘races’ – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and ‘others’ – but playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten paint an infinitely more diverse picture of its evolving demographics. Singapore, as Ivan Heng – cast member and co-director (with Glen Goei) – has noted, ‘is a country of immigrants’, situated at the confluence of Southeast Asia. In the play’s final scene, a terminally ill long-term resident of the hotel is shocked to be introduced to a self-described ‘Indo-Sino-Mauritian’ man. Elsewhere, the audience meets Irish Catholic missionaries and speakers of Japanese and Hokkien (the cast, all of whom perform multiple roles, in many cases had to learn unfamiliar languages by ear).
Through its micro-narratives, Hotel tracks other socio-historical developments too: the outbreak of international conflict (1915, 1935, and 1945), the revolution in sexual mores (1965 and 1975), and a kind of re-colonisation of the country by a globalised corporatism (1985). Touching on 2013’s Little India Riot, sparked by a fatal bus accident that turned into a riot involving migrant labourers, Hotel does not shy away from the plight of migrant workers and problem of social cohesion within polyglot societies. Class, too, is a continuing theme. Each part of the work opens with a frantic choreographic sequence – performed by the entirety of the 14-member ensemble – featuring the hotel’s housekeeping staff, as much members of a usually invisible underclass in 1915 as a century later.
And yet, lovingly drawing on popular forms from the well-made play, to the drawing room comedy, to Bollywood film, musical theatre, and light opera, Sa’at and Vanderstraaten maintain a lightness of touch through it all, an attention to their characters’ humanity as well as their folly. Some scenes are played almost entirely for laughs, such as 1935’s Noel Cowardesque meeting between a famous Indian spiritualist and a sceptical British accountant. In 1975, the ripples of the 1960s counterculture and its liberalising attitudes to sex and drugs are rendered as farce in a drug-fuelled encounter between a US army veteran and two Bugis Street transvestites. A Freudian dreamscape, sacred and profane, ensues, memorably featuring both the Hallelujah Chorus and two enormous dancing penises. The large, culturally diverse cast handle the play’s tonal shifts with admirable skill, quickly and convincingly sketching character after character through multiple changes of costume, accent, and even language. To single any of the actors out would be to do a disservice to the ensemble’s seamless cohesion.
Gradually, over the 11 scenes, a sort of zooming-out effect takes place. What had appeared at first as a series of isolated vignettes is revealed to be more like a tapestry, a rich weave of interconnecting stories and currents. Scenes reach both backwards and forwards in time, sometimes in surprising fashion. A young actress desperate for a role in a P. Ramlee film in 1955 turns up again in 2005 as the mother of Hakim, a Muslim businessman harassed and beaten by the police in the grimly authoritarian post-9/11 atmosphere of paranoid xenophobia. A necklace gifted by a racist plantation owner to his new wife in 1915 resurfaces 80 years later as an heirloom at the wedding of a young Indian woman. The names Henry and Margaret, appended by the colonialist surname Comber in 1915, return in the shape of an elderly couple in 2015, only this time they are Chinese Yaos.
Finally, the hotel itself – with all its arrivals and departures, its ephemerality and hauntings – is transfigured into metaphor. ‘Home is an illusion,’ says the dying Henry Yao in the final scene. ‘We are just visitors to this world and after we go not a trace of us will be left.’
W!ld Rice’s Hotel, written by Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, directed by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei was presented at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide from 28 – 30 October 2017.
Guest Contributor Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic, essayist, bookseller, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review, RealTime, The Lifted Brow, and Daily Review. Ben is a co-facilitator of Adelaide’s Quart Short literary reading salons and in 2016 was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow. More from be here and on Twitter @BenMBrooker.