This is why I love theatre. It’s half time and I’ve laughed so much!
Yo mama’s so ugly she made an onion cry!
Addendum on 27 Dec 2014:
First off, I need to say that I love Singapore despite the stupidities that exist here (which also exist in every single society in different permutations and degrees). I especially love local theatre, because it holds up a cracked mirror to the flawed society we live in. And because we’re a fledgling nation with minuscule culture to call our own, local works by local playwrights just resonates that much more when it hits the spot. Playwrights whose plays I grew up watching, such as Kuo Pao Kun, Ovidia Yu, Eleanor Wong, Tan Tarn How and Haresh Sharma, reflect the zeitgeist of the 1980s to 2000s, offering an uneasy look at what Singapore has sacrificed in the name of progress. (Ovidia and Eleanor have also contributed significantly to the feminist discussion, by virtue of their gender influencing their writing.) Alfian Sa’at is the current flag-bearer of the line of dramatists who chronicle our rapidly evolving society through teh-peng-tinted glasses.
I love how Alfian Sa’at has taken the Chinese classic of Journey to the West and given it an extremely Singaporean spin. Although the characters are Chinese (Singaporean), they’re pretty representative of middle-class Singaporeans of any race. Ironically, the adaptation, Monkey Goes West, has the narrative focus shifted to Tang, as opposed to the original story, where the Monkey King is the protagonist. The role of the Tang Monk is now Tang, an orphaned secondary school boy who finds solace from his overachieving cousin and her proud and indulgent parents in the comics of JttW. The Goddess of Mercy is Guanyin-Ma, a warmer and more localised way of addressing the deity. She’s also the personification of Tang’s deceased mom, and instead of holding a vase of pure water in one hand and a willow branch in another, she offers a mug of our local favourite, Milo (rhymes with willow, geddit) to Tang towards the end of the story. The best part is, she’s played by the wonderful Siti Khalijah, the brightest young star the Singapore stage has seen in a while, who not only shows comic timing a trick or two, but also imbues this role (among her other roles here as per pantomime custom) with so much heart. (Further digression: She practically generates her own force-field to suck you into her performance. I think I’m mixing up metaphors and science here. Sorry, science. Sorry, English.) The dual roles of the malapropism-prone Princess Iron Fan and Tang’s adoptive aunt is played by Chua Enlai, always a hoot, and even more so in drag. The denouement, in which Tang understands the characters of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy to represent different facets of his character (the impulsive id, the libertine that wants to run off at the first sign of trouble, and steadfastness respectively) in his journey to maturity, struck me as a surprise revelation, given that I’d watched the TV adaptations and read the English-translations numerous times. Therefore hats off to Alfian for having crafted an entertaining, yet highly complex production that has lots of heart, pokes fun at Singapore society, yet is food for thought.
Alfian Sa’at, whose iconic Asian Boys Trilogy brought the LGBT struggle to the forefront of Singaporean consciousness, has also done a bunch of prolific Malay and English productions, many of which have been critically acclaimed. (He’s been mentored by Haresh Sharma, who has the keenest ear for dialogue that has been put onto Singapore stage. Alfian’s work can be a little too bitchy for me at times.)
Alfian is fairly open about his opinion on Malays being sidelined in Singapore, likening the Malays to aborigines while the Chinese are white colonialists who have overrun and taken over the ruling of the land. He’s also often stated that he feels more comfortable in Malaysia, where the Malays still hold more privilege (and ironically where the other races feel marginalised by the bumiputra laws. I do not blame him. After all, even as a Chinese, I feel that Singapore is too Chinese – TV, online forums, and society by and large cater to the predominantly Chinese demographic, and that would definitely serve to alienate the minority groups, just like how I didn’t feel quite at home in Melbourne, London, or even New York, even though these communities have significant Chinese populations. While I can understand that he feels displaced in a land that is supposed to have been his native soil (just like I feel displaced in the country of my birth where only half of us are Singaporeans), I’m not very comfortable with his strong sentiments. Still I wonder if the play might have turned out differently if the pantomime had been written by a Chinese Singaporean. Would the nuances, the heart of the play, be teased out so wonderfully? Or if it hadn’t been Journey to the West, but was the intense Mahabharata, or a fable about Hang Tuah, would a Chinese Singaporean playwright been able to do it justice and contemporarise it with modern insights? Or would it have been found to be lacking in understanding the subtleties of a culture that the playwright was not born in or familiar with? Would there be double standards in assessing the effectiveness of the adaptation?
So anyway, back to Monkey Goes West. Although the run has ended, and there probably wouldn’t be a re-staging until some years later, I won’t be surprised if it’s quoted in future as a life-changing production for some kid who’s experiencing the enchantment of theatre for the first time. Good work, W!ldRice, for building the theatre culture of the Little Red Dot, one magical show at a time.