Theatre review: Wild Rice's 'Another Country'

Wild Rice's Another Country takes a look at the ties that bind Singapore and Malaysia - with song and dance included. — TODAY pic
Wild Rice's Another Country takes a look at the ties that bind Singapore and Malaysia - with song and dance included. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, June 29 — We’re into the Malaysia segment of Another Country, Wild Rice’s latest production, and things are getting somewhat interesting. For instance, why is a Malaysian chef explaining how to properly cook Hainanese chicken rice? Is that Sir Stamford Raffles — our Raffles — casually mingling with the “natives”? And isn’t that a scene from Emily Of Emerald Hill? The amusing disconnect is all part of the fun of Another Country, which is now playing in Singapore after a successful run in Kuala Lumpur.

Director Ivan Heng and his Singaporean cohort take on Malaysian literary and archival texts chosen by Malaysian Leow Puay Tin, while the Malaysians, led by director Jo Kukathas, do the same for Singaporean texts handpicked by Alfian Sa’at.

Stella Kon’s famous monologue was actually first performed across the Causeway a year before its Singapore debut in 1985 (with Leow herself playing the iconic Emily — preceding Margaret Chan); the scene with Raffles (taken from the literary work Hikayat Abdullah, which was written by a Malacca-born Singaporean writer from the 1800s); and the chicken rice recipe are all reminders of, for the most part, the fluid relationship between the two countries.

As an update of sorts to a similar Wild Rice project a decade ago titled Second Link, the long but ultimately enjoyable Another Country is divided into two segments.

First, comes the orderly and linear unfolding of the texts in the Singapore part. It’s followed by the playfully haphazard Malaysia segment, which takes its cue from the old tikam tikam (a Malay phrase meaning “to pick randomly”) board game — audiences choose the order in which the texts are to be performed, resulting in a new order every night.

While it does make the two segments clearly distinct — the chronological “narrative” arc of the former as opposed to the impressionistic nature of the latter — one wonders if it also unintentionally plays on certain cultural stereotypes.

With the docu-play’s role-switch approach, the familiar takes on a somewhat new sheen (in the case of Singapore via the Malaysians) and the unfamiliar becoming less so (Malaysia via the Singaporeans). It was a hoot to follow the homegrown cast (including Siti Khalijah Zainal and Janice Koh) on a Malaysian tour via the works of Krishen Jit, Lloyd Fernando and others.

The same goes for seeing our neighbours (including more familiar theatre faces such as Ghafir Akbar and Anne James) taking on works like Arthur Yap’s 2 Mothers In A HDB Playground, Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking For Her Cat or Michael Chiang’s Private Parts.

There’s an added facet in Alfian’s thorough curation: For Singapore audiences, the unfamiliar also comes to light as he incorporates more alternative voices.

Not only do you have a typical tiger encounter in the Sejarah Melayu or the usual early Orientalist accounts of old Singapore, you also have excerpts from some hard-hitting plays, such as Elangovan’s controversial play Talaq, Tan Tarn How’s Fear Of Writing and Haresh Sharma’s Gemuk Girls; as well as texts by and about Opposition politicians and political detainees Francis Khoo, Lim Chin Siong and Tan Jing Quee.

In comparison, Leow’s Malaysian selection is less fiery, although it also includes a story about the 1969 race riots by Beth Yahp and a deliciously sarcastic salutation to leaders by Mark Teh titled Daulat: Long Live.

One of the more curious things about putting these two worlds side by side is discovering how they figure in each other’s imaginations. Going by the texts, it would seem Malaysia doesn’t seem to have that kind of psychological hang-up that Singapore does.

While you do have works that directly deal with the two country’s links — Malaysian writer-director Amir Muhammad’s piece shows how much of the Malay movie industry grew out of Singapore, for example; as a whole, it would seem Malaysia doesn’t get all that flustered. When it talks about borders, one of the pieces even looks north to Thailand instead of south.

In contrast, a whole bunch of Singapore texts collectively obsesses about the other side: Claire Tham’s work on a confrontation between a Malaysian traffic police and a Singaporean businessman; Cyril Wong’s piece about a trip to Johor Bahru where he stands “gazing at our country from a briefly gratifying distance”; and Alfian’s own memories about visiting his Malaysian relatives. It would seem questions about the hinterland and the abrupt separation in 1965 are still very much on our minds.

Nevertheless, it’s probably nothing that can’t be remedied by a delicious plate of chicken rice, right? Country of origin, of course, is optional. Mayo Martin

Another Country runs until July 11, 8pm, Drama Centre Theatre.

With 3pm weekend matinees. Tickets from S$45 to S$75 (RM125.70 to RM209.40)  at SISTIC. — TODAY

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