By Cyril Wong
On a stage with only four scaffolding structures and two foldable screens, four actors come on to commemorate 50 years of the Islamic Republic of Malaya and Singapore’s National Day in 2007. This is a scenario dreamed up by two playwrights (Jit Murad from Malaysia and Haresh Sharma from Singapore) with two directors (Zahim Albakri from Malaysia and Alvin Tan from Singapore), in which Malaysia and Singapore never separated and both ended up being ruled as a single Malaya by the terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. Meanwhile, the real Republic of Singapore has escaped to China, bought over Suzhou and then claimed independence from the mainland. The republic is celebrating its fifth birthday.
Yeo Yann Yann (Malaysian) and Chua Enlai (Singaporean) are at first co-hosts during the hilarious live reportage of the celebrations in Singapore, before Yann Yann tosses off her kitschy Chinese costume and proclaims that she is tired of censorship and political repression. Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit (Singaporean) and Soefira Jaafar (Malaysian) are also co-hosts, but to Malaya’s national celebrations. Aidli’s character soon complains too that she wants a life not stifled by the government.
Such notions as oppression, freedom of choice and betrayal, as presented in the above skit, tend to transcend the specifics of ideology and politics in any play. It was vital that a play like Separation 40 (15 Sep 2005, Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore) engaged consistently with these specifics and plumbed their implications in new and meaningful ways, even while it while it makes us laugh over issues of water-shortages and cultural kitschiness.
It is not often that theatre practitioners from either side of the causeway come together to collaborate on a production. When I learnt that the theme for this collaboration between Malaysia’s Dramalab and Singapore’s The Necessary Stage is about the 40-year-old separation between the two countries represented, I started wondering about what fresh and profound revelations could possibly be born from such a presentation, beyond stating the usual issues about race relations, and the similarities and differences between the two governments or the people. In the end, Separation 40 is indeed a performance that suggests there is nothing really significant after all in the fact that Singapore and Malaysia have been separated for this long.
After all, both our governments are often accused of the same political machinations. In one scene, Enlai the Singaporean, and Soefira Jaafar the Malaysian, are aboard a plane and are discussing about the faults and strengths of each other’s country. While the characters think it ludicrous that the air turbulence they encounter should be a construction of their governments, they do suspect that the relational turbulence between the two countries is man-made. What is implied is how a large part of the general public have chosen, since the separation, to harp on the differences between the two countries, resulting in some prejudice and hostility. The characters then hinted that these differences might have been augmented deliberately by our respective governments to fulfil a political agenda. But it was just a hint; perhaps it is still too dangerous to attempt to criticise – or even just to poke fun – at one’s own government within a public performance in any sustained way.
This inability to sustain can be rather limiting. In another skit, a group of filmmakers were told to portray a historical film in the cinematic mode of Lars Von Trier, fusing the musical element of Dancer In The Dark with the minimal staging of Dogville. What was once spoken now has to be transformed into song, Moulin Rouge-style. I did enjoy how the problems of race relations could be reduced to a childish repetition of the line: “I am all that’s not you, I am all that’s not you.” The results are funny and occasionally ironic. But the references are too countless and varied and therefore not explored further enough.
Occasionally, one of the narrative threads jumps out to grip the heart. The most touching scene has Aidli playing a powerfully moving figure as a mother to Malaysian actor Syed Zalihafe’s character of a man on death row. But apart from the fact that they were betting on who would win the Malaysian Cup, the connection of the skit to the larger themes concerning the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia escapes me.
There are many other memorable moments. One of which is when the actors switched incessantly between depicting children playing hide-and-seek to depicting adult characters in a story about a friendship; one of them eventually leaves the other to go to Singapore and when they have grown up, they claim not to remember much of their relationship. Syed and Enlai played the two friends, as well as their fathers, with great ease and conviction. The problem started when, as the boys, the two of them began to sing “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music by way of demonstrating their common love for movies. The moment spirals on for too long, causing the play to tumble rapidly down the treacly path of over-sentimentality and cliché.
There was something excessive about the whole production, since all the relevant issues about the separation of our two countries were covered, albeit hastily, in just a few of the skits. The remaining bits felt like they could have been excised from the play altogether, allowing for a less draggy and corny experience. Perhaps the issues were not juicy enough to sustain the play, or the playwright’s intentions to expound on them have resulted in a production that did less to provoke the mind than to entertain.
At the end, the two buddies in the above skit share a hope of unification, not of two countries, but of – in Syed’s character’s words – “two separate people”. What sounds like a pat ending could have been a stirring statement about the irresolvable ambivalence to issues of separation and co-existence. It could have pointed to that mutual capacity to “agree to disagree” (Soefira’s words from the airplane skit) over the need to impose one’s ideology onto another.
If the point of the play had just been to use the idea of Separation 40 as a springboard to more universal themes, then this production worked, at least to some degree, in reminding the audience that to cultivate one’s own personal sense of right and wrong is more valuable than succumbing to prescribed ideologies, and that to focus on what is the same between people is more important and meaningful than to dwell on their differences.
Separation 40 will be staged from Thurs 29 Sept – Sun 2 Oct 2005 at KLPac – Pentas 2.
Cyril Wong is the editor of the Substation online magazine.
First Published: 22.09.2005 on Kakiseni