Of all the Singaporean commissions we’ve had this SIFA, this is clearly the one that’s received the most unequivocal praise from critics and audiences alike.
And I’m surprised! Not because I thought W!ld Rice didn’t have it in them, but because Marcia seemed to be hinting in her interview that everything was haywire and it might all come out as a glorious mess that would make us all go, “Mmmm, interesting, ambitious, needs polishing,” instead of “OMG YOU HAVE TO ARRANGE A RESTAGING PRONTISSIMO.”
And perhaps there isn’t a real need for me to say much about this show, given that Corrie Tan from ST and Mayo Martin from Today have already done such a comprehensive job. I’m also a little worried that I’ll end up giving away spoilers, which is relevant because Alfian’s confirmed that a restaging will happen come 2016.
But there are things I wanna say about this. So SPOILERS AHEAD, y’alls, cos we’ll be doing this in some depth.
I think it’s clear that we’re all in love with the multilingualism of this play, aren’t we? We’ve got lines in English, Urdu, Cantonese, Malay, Japanese, Hokkien, Tamil, Tagalog – a testament to diversity, a decolonization of our linguistic space, music to our ears, and just a bloody impressive achievement on behalf of the actors.
Actors with their Japanese coaches, Ken and Hiroko Takiguchi
Yap Yikai had to learn Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay practically from scratch, you know. As for Sharda Harrison, she had to learn Japanese AND Tamil AND brush up on her very rusty Malay. I honestly don’t now how they did it. Ben Cutler, aka token white dude, was the only actor who spoke in only one language – and even he had to vary his English accent for different characters.
Now, Corrie and Mayo didn’t think there was a problem with the subtitles. But that’s cos they didn’t bring along a boyfriend who got seated at the far right of the theatre, and couldn’t see the text, projected in white lettering against a pale or patterned surface, angled towards the left.
He couldn’t see shit. He gave up in Scene Two and fell asleep, and didn’t wake up till Scene Three. And Scene Four didn’t have a single word of English in it.
It’s not just him who had the problem, either. Other folks gave similar feedback:
So for the next staging, let’s please have more user-friendly translations. Bolehkah? 可以不可以？ நீங்கள் அதை செய்ய முடியும்? できますか？ Eh sai boh? Ho um ho yih?
Remember how in her review of The LKY Musical, Kirsten Han complained that it was simply “the history of Chinese men’s Singapore”?
I’ve realised that Hotel remedies this very cleverly.
Of its 11 scenes, only one features a Chinese man as its primary protagonist – the very last one. (That guy is dying, anyhow. And he’s also a bit of a douche.) The others often focus on the marginalised and oppressed – and I’m not just talking about women and non-Chinese; I’m talking about indentured servants, sex workers, eccentrics, neurodivergents and queer folks.
By the way, I would like to claim Bridget Tessensohn (Brendon Fernandez), the Bugis Street Queen who decides to keep her schlong, as one of the few canonically genderqueer characters in Singapore literature. :D
Brendon Fernandez as Bridget Tessensohn
As someone who’s trying to control his #chineseprivilege, I’d like to thank Ivan Heng and Glen Goei for keeping their Peranakan angst out of this (not even a squeak about the Speak Mandarin Campaign!), and for casting such a diverse group of actors to workshop the series.
Those workshops helped playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten to write bloody compelling scenes of clashes between cultures that are not their own – hell, Alfian wrote about Eurasianness in 1975 and Marcia wrote about Muslimness in 2005. Folks came together, shared their genius, and worked shit out.
I’ve been coaching my niece for her Literature O-Levels (she’s doing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), and one of the points I had to explain to her is that a literary text is like a machine, in which every element is working with every other element in order to provoke a response in the reader.
One generally doesn’t apply such logic to newborn plays, but it makes sense here when what we’ve got is a multi-storey four-dimensional juggernaut of a play, where voices and faces echo through the corridors of time.
Let’s look at the eleven scenes, for starters. They don’t just take place in different eras – they also correspond to different genres:
1915 – drawing room drama, cf. George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde
1925 – absurdist theare, cf. Jean Genet’s The Maids
1935 – farce, cf. Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit
1945 – minimalist Japanese theatre or film, cf. Yasuhiro Ozu
1955 – film musical, cf. Bollywood, Golden Age of Malay Film
1965 – [?]
1975 – anarchistic cabaret, cf. La Cage aux Folles, Rocky Horror Picture Show,
1985 – minimalist Japanese theatre or film again…
1995 – Singaporean screwball comedy, cf. Michael Chiang, Under One Roof
2005 – theatre of social commentary, cf. Haresh Sharma’s Gemuk Girls
2015 – [?]
This isn’t a perfect pattern, mind you. The concluding scenes of both plays – 1965 and 2015 – aren’t as obviously stylized, and of course the stripped-down Japanese style repeats in 1945 and 1985.
But that’s also because these serve as parallel scenes. In 1945, Japanese officer Captain Matsuda (Moo Siew Keh) and his lover Sharifah (Sharda Harrison) are heartbroken when they must part; in 1985, an elderly Sharifah and her long-lost son Natsuo (also played by Moo Siew Keh) are heartbroken when they finally meet.
Likewise, in 1965, we see the staff of the hotel gathering to watch Lee Kuan Yew cry on television. Then, in 2015, the staff gather to meet Henry Yao (Lim Kay Siu), a dying old patriarch who is as tactless and forthright as Mr Lee. But this time, he’s laughing.
And from there we can figure out other, less obvious parallels. In 1915, Margaret (Julie Wee) is on her honeymoon when she realises she has married the wrong man, so she gives away his gift of a necklace. In 1995, Lisa (Julie Wee) holds a wedding reception at the hotel and proves to her family she has married the right man; she receives from her mother-in-law a gift of the same necklace.
In 1935, a gender-bending medium played by Jo Kukathas throws other people's minds in chaos when he summons a spirit played by Brendon Fernandez. In 1975, a a gender-bending sex worker played by Brendon Fernandez throws her own mind into chaos when she takes LSD and sees the apparition of a surgeon played by Jo Kukathas.
And in 1955, P. Ramlee (Ghafir Akbar) talks about wanting to escape romantic conventions for the sake of realism, when the door flies open in comes his fan Azizah (Siti Khalijah) who convinces him to stick to escapism. In 2005, Azizah returns with her son Hakim (Ghafir Akbar) as a guest, and reminisces about the romance of the past, when she worked on the film. The police burst in; they interrogate Hakim and take him away for no good reason. Azizah realises romance is gone: this is the reality of Singapore.
... I'm not sure where 1925 fits in, TBH. But there are other callbacks and connections all over the place. It's a complicated machine, and it's definitely worth watching again.
I'd told someone after Part 1 that this is a play that ought to be taught in schools. And that someone told me not to be ridiculous: only relatively apolitical works like Jean Tay's Boom and Haresh Sharma's Off Centre manage to get into the MOE syllabus. And while this piece doesn't take on political detentions, it does touch on thornier issues of racism and the government's handling of the Little India Riots, and it does have a scene in which Lee Kuan Yew jumps out of a closet and the Virgin Mary sniffs cocaine...
More to the point, how do you teach character development when characters change from scene to scene? How do you do readings when the whole point of a scene may be that characters are speaking different languages?
I would like to see this play published, though - and I believe Ethos Books should be on that soon.
Perhaps what's more worth considering is the question of what this work means for SIFA. It definitely means there's a good precedent set for commissions by W!ld Rice. Hell, who knows, maybe they'll commission another populist commercial English language theatre company like Pangdemonium or Dream Academy to do something ambitious and risky next time. The Dim Sum Dollies Do the Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps, with Pam Oei as Adorno, Denise Tan as Horkheimer, and Selena Tan as the Culture Industry.
The wrong lesson to take away from this is that these epic collaborative multi-generational surveys of Singapore history are a surefire win. I've seen them falter before at previous editions of the Singapore Arts Festival, e.g. The Necessary Stage and The Theatre Practice worked together on 100 Years in Waiting in 2001, and when TNS did their play Singapore in 2011. These works are really tricky to pull off.
What this means, of course, is that the W!ld Rice crew didn't hit on a winning formula. They chose the right people, did a hell of a lot of work, and managed to score a big win.
And for that, they deserve some applause, no? Big congrats, guys. :)
Curtain call of Hotel, taken by Shawne Wang