Around three goosebump moments. Woot.
The grand narrative of Singapore has always been, in modern times, framed (ahem) in relation to this huge thing called Malaysia.
To my mind, this kind of linear, binaristic approach to its history has rarely been questioned. A given. A myth that no one challenges.
Epic Poem of Malaya (the painting by Chua Mia Tee) partly subscribes to this tactic. It is after all a painting about a man in the middle of describing this kind of utopian “History of Malaya”.
Epic Poem of Malaya (the play) does not. It screws that dominant view and offers a completely outsider perspective on this notion of nationhood by looking at the world from the eyes of the often ridiculed or ignored orang laut (sea gypsies). The result is a complete re-mapping of one’s perception of Singapore history.
You think “multi-cultural” is as fragmented as it gets? Try a bunch of islands (Riau Archipelago) sliced and diced to fit certain geo-political needs!
At two and a half hours (with intermission) some may find it “too long” (oh dear, here we go again).
Not me. spell#7 and Zai Kuning’s piece reminded me of the beauty of listening to a story and the pleasures you derive from it. (If you’re planning to catch the Singapore Arts Fest’s Gatz, the seven-hour reading of The Great Gatsby, this is your dry run!)
If National Language Class (spell#7’s first Mia Tee piece in what I hope to be a trilogy. The Chua Mia Teelogy? Heh.) turned the blackbox into a classroom, Epic Poem of Malaya harkens back to the days of village storytelling. When storytelling relied as much on the storyteller’s prowess as it did on the listener’s imagination and willingness to patiently help create that story in his mind. When it’s not so much getting about “and then” and “what’s next” but the relishing of moments.
And like in National Language Class we were part of this one too even as Kaylene Tan technically took on the roles of the 14 characters in the painting “listening” to this fictional “Epic” (that in the play becomes the personal story of one orang laut living in the fringes) being recited/re-enacted/acted out onstage in various levels of exaggeration or awkwardness by Tony Yeow, Janice Koh, Siti Khalijah and K Rajagopal.
If back in the day, storytellers played a multitude of characters, this one does the opposite by having four actors playing the same character in four different ways. It can be disorienting at times, but I found it engaging.
And then there’s Zai Kuning.
The Riau Archipelago/Orang Laut story that directors Paul Rae and Kaylene had effectively slapped unto Mia Tee’s beautiful but essentially one-sided (ideogically/racially) painting (it’s a picnic scene by what we assume to be Maoist-leaning Chinese progressive students and workers in the 1950s) was his. And his presence – as musician, singer, and the occasional times he butts in with a mumble or two – added to the play’s tension.
His notorious unpredictability (“OMG, was he really supposed to be hitting the cymbals that loudly?!”) worked as a nice counterpoint to spell#7’s deliberately meticulous, understated manner of staging plays as if they were arranging chess pieces.
There are productions that can deeply move or entertain you. There are also those that give you a headache (in a good way) during and after the show.
Epic Poem of Malaya has bits and pieces of all these (like I said, three goosebumps).
But more importantly, it’s one of those shows that, after having stepped out, made me feel like the world seemed a bit bigger.
(If you’re up for it, there are still two shows tonight and tomorrow night, 8pm, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.)