Time Out Singapore: M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016

17 Dec 2015: Beauties and beasts roam the stages of this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which returns with the theme of ‘art and the animal’. We pick out four productions that’ll unleash your wild side

Doggy Style

‘Doggy Style’

The Shape of a Bird

Enter a wondrous world of birds and cicadas in this new work by local playwright Jean Tay, starring Tan Kheng Hua, Brandon Fernandez, Jean Toh, Thomas Pang, and a bunch of puppets. It’s a world that’s dreamt up by an imprisoned writer who defiantly refuses to cave and make a confession – instead, she writes allegories of her situation to her daughter. As her fiction and real world collide, however, she’s forced to pick a side between the two.

Doggy Style

This wordless, hour-long production by Switzerland-based American dancer and choreographer Joshua Monten uses a mix of dance and sign language to take a playful look at the behaviour of dogs and their relationship to humans. On the one hand, they’re our loyal companions. But on the other, we’re their masters. How has this connection been forged, and where will it go?

Human Bestiary

Our friends at Time Out Mexico have said that Mexican company Principio…’s play ‘leaves a pessimistic feeling about men but [it is] optimistic about humanity’. Using technology and multimedia platforms – plus a live DJ set – this work is a documentary that examines our place within the global ecosystem. It tells the story of all the precious flora and fauna that we’ve destroyed, and questions how we got to where we are today and when it all started going wrong.

Hyena Subpoena

Hyenas have long had a bad rep – which child who grew up on The Lion King could love those ‘evil’ creatures? Yet, they are also perhaps one of the most misunderstood. This play by Canadian writer and performer Cat Kidd follows the story of Mona Morse, who left civilisation behind and go into the woods. She comes across an Ark’s worth of animals, from lions to antelopes and elephants to hyenas, and uses each to link back to some of the harshest – and most darkly comical – life lessons in her past.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Beauty World’ Review

10 Dec 2015: Gwen Pew cha-cha-chas her way through the beaded curtains to delve into the sleazy ‘Beauty World’


Beauty World - Alfred Phang

Photo by Alfred Phang

As one of the first locally produced English-language musicals, there’s no denying that Dick Lee and Michael Chiang’s Beauty World holds a special place in Singapore’s theatrical canon. Twenty-seven years and five stagings later, it’s still a charming production that leaves the audience both entertained and aching for a happier ending.

Set in the glamorous, seedy ’60s, the show follows 19-year-old Ivy Chan Poh Choo as she travels from Batu Pahat in Malaysia to Singapore in search of the parents who abandoned her at birth. A jade pendant is her only clue, and it leads her to the murky realm of cabaret nightclub Beauty World, where the music is hot, the girls bitchy and the drinks strong. What follows is a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal.

This production is nowhere near as glitzy as Wild Rice’s 2008 version, and instead chooses to highlight the grittier aspects of the story. This is reflected in an ingeniously designed set created by Wong Chee Wai – the cabaret nightclub oozes sleaze, while a sense of desperate loneliness lingers in the yellowed, peeling walls of all the other spaces. Within these dirty walls, a brilliant bunch of colourful characters come alive.

The cast have big shoes to fill, as Beauty World has an illustrious alumnus that includes Claire Wong and Lim Kay Siu. But fill it they do. The role of Ivy is confidently taken on by Malaysian jazz singer and actor Cheryl Tan, who succeeds in depicting Ivy’s wide-eyed naivety while holding her own as a strong-minded heroine. Her angelic voice also brings out the best in Lee’s score, still catchy after all these years. Likewise, Janice Koh, Timothy Wan and Frances Lee – who play Mummy, Ah Hock and Rosemary respectively – evoke such depth and sensitivity in their characters that it’s easy for us to root for them.

Mediacorp actor Jeanette Aw’s role as the nightclub’s queen bee, Lulu, should have been one of the biggest highlights of the show, but her performance underwhelms. She’s got the whole sexy temptress thing down pat, and yet she never comes across as either vicious or tragic. Her big scene takes place right at the end, but she is unable to convey the full spectrum of emotions and bring home the full weight of the moment. She sobs, but somehow, her tears just don’t say enough.

Still, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable riot of a show. It’s not one that leaves you satisfied – it is, after all, set in a world where beauty is only skindeep – and a trail of broken dreams is left hanging in the air. But hey, life is a cabaret, old chum, so come to the cabaret.

Time Out Singapore: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ Review

8 Dec 2015: There’s nothing like winding down at the end of a big, action-packed year with a big, action-packed pantomime. And who else can we count on delivering that but Wild Rice? This time, the company took on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and turned it into a full-fledged song-and-dance show. Here are five magical elements that make the – very localised – production such a delight for the whole family.

The Emperor's New Clothes

The cast

The great Lim Kay Siu leads a brilliant cast of emerging and established talent. The Sam Willows’ Benjamin Kheng and fellow pop singer Sezairi have a wonderful dynamic as the tailors Nathan and Khairul, while Andrew Lua, Siti Khalijah and Benjamin Wong make for the ultimate comedic trio as government ministers.

The songs

The music is without a doubt the strongest element of the production, brought to life by three musicians as well as the actors themselves (who knew Lim Kay Siu could play the violin so well?) It took every bit of self-restraint for us not to triumphantly yell out the lyrics to ‘Naked as My Butt’ as we exited the theatre.

The costumes (or lack thereof)

The play revolves around the 50th edition of the ‘NDP’ – that’s ‘New Dress Parade’, natch – as there’s nothing Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun adores more than his clothes. In fact, he decided that an air-conditioned dome would be built over his kingdom just so he could break out his Fall/Winter pieces.

The set

The set here is, typical of Wild Rice productions, a sight to behold. We’re especially impressed by the dungeon scene, during which the huge birdcages used to imprison innocent people whom the Emperor disliked cinematically haunt the stage.

The jokes

A panto ain’t a panto without the laughs – and there’s certainly no shortage of that. Case in point: Khai No Surname and Nate No Surname’s tailor shop is a mash-up of their names, ‘KNN’. At the Emperor’s request, the name gets upgraded to include ‘Costume Custom Bespoke’ at the end, which also gets abbreviated. We’ll leave it at that.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Hello Goodbye’ Review

14 Sep 2015: The Singapore Repertory Theatre stages its very first rom-com, but the bland production fails to arouse any sort of warm, fuzzy feelings in us


Hello Goodbye - SRT

Photo by Singapore Repertory Theatre

The Singapore Repertory Theatre is known for staging some pretty hard-hitting stuff, but for the first time in its 22-year history, the company decided to delve into a much more whimsical world of romantic comedy by performing Peter Souter’s Hello Goodbye. It’s a refreshing change, especially since the local theatre scene is currently dominated by works that deal with more serious topics. But while the idea sounds appealing, the choice of play leaves much to be desired.

Hello Goodbye’s fundamental flaw lies in its script. It begins with two strangers, Juliet (Denise Tan) and Alex (Shane Mardjuki), both moving into the same apartment on the same day. Rather than getting their incompetent estate agents to sort the mess out, they choose to squabble like children for the entire hour of the first act – which culminates in a make-out session and the curtains coming down just before their clothes fall off. The second act takes place ten years down the line, when the couple is on the brink of a divorce. It makes us wish that we hadn’t nipped to the bathroom during the intermission, as the most important, tender part of the play seems to have taken place then.

Since we didn’t get to see how Juliet and Alex’s relationship developed, it’s impossible to empathise with them when they fall out of love. The premise of the play is that opposites attract – but we struggle to find anything attractive here. Every play requires the audience to suspend a certain degree of disbelief, but their match is so improbable that it leaves us feeling completely incredulous. Tan portrays the spoilt, crazy, selfish Juliet perfectly well (after all, she did play a similar role in Pangdemonium’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice a couple of years ago), and Mardjuki is great at playing up all the quirks and quiet eccentricity of Alex – and yet there’s almost no chemistry between them. In fact, it almost seems like they couldn’t quite believe that they lasted ten years together, either. Their exchanges are often predictable and their jokes are more cringey than witty.

The production could have used a much stronger direction from Lisa Spirling. We don’t see the point in bringing onstage the two secondary characters – Juliet’s ex-boyfriend (David Howard) and a pretty auctioneer (Amanda Tee) – for instance, as they appear for a grand total of around five minutes each, and their physical presence adds little to the story.

Don’t get us wrong. We love a good rom-com as much as anyone, but the play simply doesn’t have enough charm or soul to keep us engaged for two hours. It’s by no means a terrible production, and there are one or two rather heart-warming scenes in the second half, but we’re not sure what to take away from the production, and we certainly didn’t leave with the warm, fuzzy feelings that we were looking for.

Time Out Singapore: Sukki Singapora

24 Aug 2015: Yes, Sukki Singapora is the Lion City’s first professional burlesque artist. No, that’s got nothing to do with stripping

Sukki Singapora

Luscious waves of electric blue and purple hair, a chic vintage dress, sky-high designer heels and a perfect, lipsticked smile that lights up the café we met in one rainy afternoon – you simply can’t miss Sukki Singapora. She looks every part the pin-up girl, but make no mistake that behind her glamorous exterior is a hardworking, determined, and surprisingly down-to-earth… ‘dork!’ she grins. ‘I’m such a huge dork!’

Except this dork is Singapore’s first burlesque artist. Yes, the corseted, sensual, titillating, swinging-from-the-ceiling kind of performance. Sukki is a true trailblazer in that regard: she’s the woman who successfully convinced local authorities to legalise the misunderstood art form. Because that’s exactly what it is, says Sukki. Misunderstood. And she’s taking it upon her lithe shoulders to change that perception.

Born Sukki Menon, the 25-year-old grew up as a half Singaporean-Indian, half British girl whose parents wanted her to be a lawyer or doctor. ‘I had a very traditional upbringing, and I wanted to do something that felt liberating,’ she recalls. ‘I’ve been trained in classical ballet since the age of seven, and I discovered vintage clothing during university [in the UK]. So one day I was googling dresses – I’m such a millennial, I know – and found this thing called burlesque. Two questions popped into mind: “What is it?” and “Where do I sign up?”’

Fate stepped in, and a comedy club called The Laugh Inn opened down the road from where she lived in the UK. Sukki marched up to the owners and talked them into believing she was an experienced burlesque dancer. She had never done it before.

‘So I had seven days to teach myself how to do burlesque by watching YouTube videos!’ she laughs. ‘When I went in, everything that could go wrong went wrong. I couldn’t even find the zip at the back of my corset, so I literally spent, like, 5mins wiggling around the stage like this.’ She sticks out her elbows as she awkwardly reaches for her back, ducking her head around to check. The crowd assumed the gaffe was part of the comedy, and went wild.

Burlesque began as a type of comedic musical performance that poked fun at highbrow theatre in the 17th century. It became popular in Victorian England, and soon spread to the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike the European style, American Burlesque is more focused on female nudity. That – and burlesque’s association with alcohol when it stormed the US – explains its seedy reputation.

Not any longer. When the art form made a recent comeback as ‘neo-burlesque’, performances centred on nostalgic showgirl glamour. ‘Burlesque is not sleazy, and it’s not just someone prancing around on stage. There’s a real art behind it,’ Sukki insists.

In fact, a 5min act can take up to two years to wrought. That may sound excessive, but then again Sukki is a one-woman machine. She does everything from designing and hand-sewing all her gorgeous costumes to coming up with the full choreography and deciding how to light the show. Pretty astounding for someone who read geography at university and who used to work as a computer programmer.

Burlesque also requires a Sisyphian amount of physical stamina. Sukki hits the gym five days a week while trying her best to maintain a balanced diet – but she’s quick to point out that burlesque is not only for petite girls. ‘Anyone can do it,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s all about body confidence and loving the skin that you’re in. When you’re confident, you exude sexiness.’

Which might account for Sukki’s audience: it’s 80 percent female, not the leer-and-sneer frat boy affair you’d expect. ‘Burlesque is more sensual than outrageously sexy,’ she clarifies. ‘Striptease does play an important role, but it’s more about the tease than the strip.’

In the four years practising the craft, Sukki is already seeing her hard work bear fruit. She’s headlined shows around the world. She’s founded The Singapore Burlesque Society, attracting a flock of 600, including several guys who’re interested in ‘boy-lesque’. Hell, she was even invited to Buckingham Palace two years ago for her contributions to the global burlesque scene.

‘That was surreal!’ Sukki smiles, her eyes widening. ‘I was told that in the 312 years that Buckingham Palace has existed, I was the only burlesque artist to be invited for tea. It really helped put Singapore on the map.’

All that swayed her once-averse relatives – they thought it was a shameful profession – to her side. They’ve even started collecting magazine and newspaper clippings that feature her. But that pales in significance to Sukki’s biggest coup: convincing the Singapore government to legalise her art.

In January, with the ban only just lifted, Sukki made history by performing at an event at Clifford Pier. This debut of the dance on our shores was long in the making, she reveals, and involved a touch of subterfuge. That Singapore Burlesque Society? It ran burlesque workshops, disguised as yoga classes.

And now, she’s about to participate in the island’s largest fiesta – the Grand Prix. Sukki is strutting her stuff at the post-race party Boudoir Noire, co-organised by New York’s (in)famous ‘theatre of varieties’, The Box. She’ll be performing two of her favourite acts, including ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, which features a huge sparkly ring with lights and a champagne bath.

‘I think that burlesque is going to explode after Boudoir
Noire. It might even be the next big thing to take over the fitness scene, like pole dancing did four years ago,’ she muses, and then giggles. ‘It’s called “burlexercise”. Really! Go google it!’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Takizawa Kabuki’

11 Aug 2015: Japanese theatrical extravaganza Takizawa Kabuki marks its tenth anniversary by coming to Singapore for its international debut. Gwen Pew hits Tokyo to chat with the star of the show

Takizawa Kabuki

It is almost 10pm when we emerge from the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre in Tokyo. Despite it being an unusually cold evening for that time of year, a huge crowd of female fans gathers outside the back door. Their cause? To catch a glimpse of their idol, the actor-singer Hideaki Takizawa.

You wouldn’t be able to tell from his boyish good looks, but Takizawa – affectionately known as Tackey – is 33 years old. Taken in by Johnny & Associates, Japan’s largest male talent agency, when he was just 16, Takizawa struck gold as one-half of the J-Pop duo Tackey & Tsubasa before rising up the ranks and gaining the trust of Johnny Kitagawa, the agency’s founder. ‘Johnny decided that I should get into acting,’ he tells us. ‘So I did.’

TV dramas, commercials and theatre followed, and now he’s the star of Takizawa Kabuki, a modern and colourful take on the four-centuries-old art form that’s making its international debut on our shores this month.

Takizawa Kabuki, like most of its home country, is an intriguing if perplexing mix of the old and the new. ‘There’s no other show like this in Japan,’ says the fresh-faced talent. ‘Johnny wanted to stage something that’s in line with the Japanese taste, but still create something very different.’ Under Kitagawa’s supervision, Takizawa is also directing the spectacle.

Takizawa mentions that in Japan, he watches everything from Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas to kabuki and family-friendly shows like Peter Pan, so he can incorporate different elements into his own production. A curious combination of J-Pop, comedy, drama, acrobatics, shadow play, kabuki and more, Takizawa Kabukidefies traditional definition – and it’s a sight to behold.

One of the more memorable scenes is an impressive Taiko drumming segment, in which 40 bare-chested men hammer their instruments while Takizawa – and his drum kit – are slowly turned upside-down. There’s no room for error. The backstage crew manually control everything, from hoisting actors up in the air to backdrop changes, with an elaborate pulley system. Clearly, no expenses were spared.

The kabuki scenes are just as visually arresting. We’re also treated to one in which the cast members apply makeup on stage – something even Japanese audiences aren’t usually privy to. However, those aching for an authentic kabuki experience can look elsewhere, perhaps to Ebizo Ichikawa XI’s return to the city in October.

While Takizawa Kabuki will be tweaked for local audiences, and a few scenes – especially those that require surtitles – may be nixed, we’ll nonetheless get to have extra fun with a snow machine. ‘Singapore doesn’t get to experience snow,’ Takizawa says. ‘So we want to bring the snow there.’ It makes sense, since the theme for this year’s edition is ‘Four Seasons of Japan’.

Yet whatever the weather, you can be sure of one thing, as evidenced from our trip to the Land of the Rising Sun: it’s not gonna stop the hordes of fan girls. You have been warned.

Time Out Singapore: ‘The LKY Musical’ Review

1 Aug 2015: This hyped-up musical, starring the excellent Adrian Pang as Lee Kuan Yew, is as slickly put together as it is predictable


The LKY Musical - Watson Lau

Photo by Watson Lau

It doesn’t get any more SG50 than this. The LKY Musical has been one of the most talked-about plays of the year, and unsurprisingly so: it celebrates the life of one of our founding fathers, and it’s due to be staged right through the National Day festivities.

It’s risky to portray such an iconic man on stage, but on paper, the newly minted Metropolitan Productions’ inaugural performance sounds great. Everyone likes a success story, and this one is backed by a stellar cast and crew that include composer Dick Lee, lyricist Stephen Clark and librettist Tony Petito, with Adrian Pang starring as the titular character and Sharon Au as his wife, Kwa Geok Choo.

The show takes us from Lee Kuan Yew’s Raffles College days – when he sulked about his future wife, affectionately called ‘Choo’, beating him in the English and Economic exams – to Singapore’s independence. It unfolds against a minimalistic, effective set, crafted by London-based stage design company takis, that comprises a series of moving wooden panels onto which photos and newspaper headlines are projected.

Although the stories featured in the production are those we know well, it’s refreshing to see them told in a theatrical setting. Our main concern, however, lies in the way that they are told. Twenty-five years is a lot of ground to cover in two and a half hours, but rather than focus on a few key events in detail, the show hurtles through many. Chapters from the former prime minister’s life are only touched upon lightly. One scene cuts quickly to the next, and there’s nothing and no one to serve as an anchor. At times, it feels like we’re watching a dramatised version of Lee’s CV.

Due to the pace, the characters are not given the time to develop. They seem more like stock characters – the supportive wife, the happy-go-lucky trishaw driver, the poker-loving former prime minister of Malaysia – than three-dimensional people. It becomes difficult for us to empathise with any of them, which is a shame as they have great back­stories.

That’s not to say that the cast didn’t give it their all. Pang perfectly encapsulates Lee’s passionate determination and the conflicts that he faced during his lifetime, while newcomer Benjamin Chow portrays the role of friend-turned-rival Lim Chin Siong in a measured, balanced way. Sebastian Tan steps away from his Broadway Beng persona here, though he’s clearly well suited to take on the part of Koh Teong Koo, the kind Hokkien rickshaw puller credited as having saved Lee’s life during the Japanese occupation. Au, to some extent, captures Kwa’s ‘perfect Asian wife’ image, although she is clearly not as musically trained as her fellow cast members, and doesn’t get much time onstage.

It’s a shame. The romance between Lee and Kwa – a beautiful tale in itself – would have been a brilliant way to tie the loose plot together. She was, after all, his rock in real life, and he had often said that he would not be who he was without her. Rather than positioning this as a love story and have the political storm rage in the background (or vice versa), this production ends up downplaying their relationship during those tumultuous years.

As the first show dedicated to arguably the nation’s most significant political figure, the play does have its place in the history of local theatre. It tells Lee’s – and Singapore’s – story without completely airbrushing out the not-so-flattering chapters (Operation Coldstore does get a brief mention). Yet it’s by no means revolutionary: the whole story is still fairly predictable and the colouring is done within the lines. But as far as SG50 celebrations go, this is par for the course.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ Review

23 Jul 2015: If you’re looking to have a splashing good time, check out this West End smash hit – it’s almost impossible not to come out of the theatre grinning


Singin in the Rain - Hagen Hopkins

Photo by Hagen Hopkins

As the stage version of Gene Kelly’s beloved film Singin’ in the Rain splish-splashes into town, we went into the theatre expecting a good time. And we weren’t disappointed. A gorgeous flurry of colour, humour and upbeat tunes, it’s the kind of show that checks all the feel-good boxes and urges you to leave your worries at the door.

Set in the ’20s, the show opens at the premiere of a silent movie, starring Don Lockwood (Duane Alexander) and Lina Lamont (Taryn-Lee Hudson). Despite their onscreen romance, Don can’t stand Lina, whose comically terrible voice also puts her at odds with her studio, which is hoping to embrace the talkies. So the studio heads enlist an aspiring actress, Kathy Seldon (Bethany Dickson), to be her voiceover artist. And here’s another spanner in the works: Kathy and Don fall head over heels with each other, leaving behind one jealous and angry Lina.

The cast is great to watch, and there’s a lot of chemistry between them. The two female leads – Hudson and Dickson – stand out by singing beautifully and deliberately horrendously, respectively, while Steven van Wyk shines in his role as Don’s loyal yet overlooked best friend, Cosmo Brown. As a result of these very strong actors, however, Alexander’s performance as Don does come across as somewhat bland, though not to the point at which it affects the overall experience.

The set is kept simple for the production, a good call as it allows us to focus on the impressive costumes and choreography. This is most evident in the number ‘The Broadway Ballet’, in which almost the entire cast performs in a brightly coloured dance sequence. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs are still catchy more than half a century after the fact, and they’re all wonderfully sung by the cast and well supported by the live orchestra.

But of course, the scene that everyone’s waiting for is the title song, performed at the end of the first act and reprised during the finale. We’re told that 12,000l of water is used in each performance, as the stage – and the audience members in the first four rows – gets drenched. It’s a sight to behold, and so much fun that it’s bound to unleash your inner five-year-old.

The show is the perfect way to de-stress after a long day, so get in there, kick back, sing along, and know that you’ll come out with that ‘glorious feelin’’, and ‘be happy again’.

Time Out Singapore: ‘The Imagination of the Future’ Review

Imagination of the Future - Kevin Lee : CAKE images

Photo by Kevin Lee/CAKE images

30 Jun 2015: Lights, camera… and a crew of hysterical PR gurus and government ministers bursts onto the set, screaming at one another to get ready before the president arrives. The wheel of time has been set in motion. For the next hour and a half, we are taken to a reimagined Chile in 1973.

Staged by Teatro La Re-sentida as part of The OPEN Festival, The Imagination of the Future is a masterpiece. In order to truly appreciate its genius, however, it’s worth taking some time to understand the history and context within which the play is set. In a nutshell, Salvador Allende became the president of Chile in 1970, and while he implemented a series of programmes that improved the lives of many lower- and middle-class citizens, not everyone welcomed his socialist agenda.

A coup was finally staged on September 11, 1973, when the military bombed the presidential palace. Allende made a famous farewell speech live on radio, and then chose to commit suicide rather than resign or surrender. The 17-year dictatorship that followed was one of the darkest and most brutal chapters in South America’s history.

In the Chilean company’s play – which is performed in Spanish with English surtitles – the cast takes the key events that happened in the last days of Allende’s rule and fills in the blanks with a series of ‘what-if’s in a last-ditch attempt to save his vision and his life.

It never pretends to be a history lesson, and yet by taking things to the absolute extreme, Imaginationis able to tackle the past, present and future all at once. It’s especially relevant now as what’s known as the ‘Chilean winter’ – a wave of student protests against income inequality and the lack of public universities – has been sweeping through the country in recent years after decades of silence.

The play daringly portrays the legendary figure of Allende as a droopy but stubborn old man with a penchant for cocaine, who needs to take regular 30min naps. His team of young communication specialists and ministers, by contrast, is fuelled by a different type of Coke (of the Diet variety), and obsessed with how best to market his image.

Not a dull moment can be found in this high-energy performance, which is deftly directed by Marco Layera. At times, the manic disorder and exaggerated shouting can get a bit much, but those scenes are thankfully balanced out by quieter moments that give the audience time and space to grasp the gravity and inevitability of the troubles.

Intensely funny and tragic at the same time, Imagination is not the kind of work that we can simply sit back and enjoy. Visually, we’re constantly assaulted with chaos in the form of fistfights and graphic descriptions of Pinochet’s horrific regime. Morally, it raises a series of challenging questions. How would you spend $50: to help a child in need, or to see a woman take her clothes off? Can revolution and democracy ever go hand in hand? What is the role of the media in presenting a country’s history?

So much ground is covered in such a short period of time, but the actors remain committed throughout, the performance is well paced, and it never shies away from the heart of those difficult issues. And even though the play itself offers neither answers nor respite, its bold gestures and colourful scenes will linger on, vividly replaying in our minds long after the curtain falls.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Another Country’

22 Jun 2015: In Wild Rice’s upcoming play, ‘Another Country’, the battle of the century unfolds: Singapore versus Malaysia. Ivan Heng tells Gwen Pew more


Ivan Heng is reading from a script, his arms flowing and eyes dancing to the rhythm of the words. ‘Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets,’ the Wild Rice co-founder begins. ‘Robes of silk, satin, brocade and white muslin, emphasised by the glitter of barbaric gold and Parsees in spotless white; Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs…’

He pauses to make a point: ‘This was written in 1879. 1879, and not a swamp in sight!’

Which makes it easy to see why, on our nation’s 50th anniversary, the colourful passage was selected as one of the 50-plus published works to be featured in Wild Rice’s upcoming play, Another Country. Lifted from a letter written by English explorer Isabella Bird to her sister during the former’s visit to Singapore, the description of the island is at odds with the version preferred by those who believe in the ‘fishing village to first world’ narrative ascribed to a certain, late political leader. Provocation – along with a good dose of humour – is the crux of the production.

Another Country is, chiefly, a story of two neighbours: Singapore and Malaysia. It explores the relationship between ‘us and them’ – and humanity as a whole – using short stories, plays, interviews and jingoistic songs to bridge the pair. The first half of the performance features texts culled from Singapore’s cultural archive while the second half plumbs from Malaysian works. And the twist: each half is performed by actors from the opposite country.

‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them,’ muses Heng, who directs the Lion City portion of the play. ‘We share so much with each other: our heritage, our culture, our stories. [The stories in Another Country are] of hope, disgust, strength, humour, love. There’s a sense of longing and wistfulness about them that’s quite romantic, quite sayang [a Malay word with dual meanings: ‘love’ and ‘with pity’].’

Through the barricades

The chosen texts date back to the 15th century. Alfian Sa’at, who curates the Singaporean works, explains that while he was led by his ‘idiosyncratic taste in both the literature produced about Singapore and by Singaporeans’, he opted for a ‘broad historical sweep’. Texts from the Malay annals, writings from colonial travellers, Singaporeans writing in exile, songs about the Little Red Dot and even the work of Catherine Lim and Michael Chiang make appearances. ‘I was very conscious that I wasn’t performing a canonising function,’ Alfian adds.

And not a rabble-rousing function, either. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin – he’s Alfian’s northern equivalent inAnother Country – insists his chosen texts serve not to mend fences but break them altogether.

‘In his poem “Salam Benua (Greetings to the Continent)”, the Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang urges us to choose not to be separated by “passports, visas and frontiers”, which are all “names for barriers”,’ recalls Leow. ‘The world would be a better place for all of us if we could follow him in sending our greetings past these arbitrary man-made barriers, to humanity, to the people of all continents.’

Heng agrees with Leow’s message of amity. He believes Another Country is, above all, about peace. ‘Peace is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand one another as human beings,’ he says. ‘We all want to be happy. It’s a utopia, of course, but we try.’