Second Link (National Library Drama Centre, 3 Sept 2005)

It isn’t too often that I unhesitatingly plonk money down for theatre in Singapore, having previously suffered the cultural equivalent of third-degree burns with godeatgod and Private Parts, but Wild Rice’s Second Link just had too much going for it for me to pass up.

Last year, a Singaporean playwright chose and arranged a selection of Singaporean literature, which was then performed in KL by a Malaysian cast working with a Malaysian director. Last week, they brought that production back to Singapore and added its logical counterpart – a performance of Malaysian writing, chosen by a Malaysian playwright, to be performed by a Singaporean cast with Singaporean director – to round up the production.

I think the conceptual appeal of this will be immediately clear to someone familiar with the historical and cultural baggage which tends to unduly define relations between Singapore and Malaysia from time to time, and I’m glad to say that the concept was satisfyingly backed up by an abundant supply of craft. The complex, capricious relationship between the two countries gave the production an interesting foundation, the selected texts breathed life and nuance into the concept, and the truly impressive performers from both countries ensured that this promising experiment became a resounding success.

What was ultimately quite intriguing was how different both halves were, something that is only partly explained by the different contexts in which they were created. (Eleanor was specifically choosing Singaporean literature as a showcase for a writing festival in Malaysia. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin had no such constraints, and chose excerpts from articles, interviews, folk-tales and songs, as well as conventional poetry, plays etc.)

Eleanor’s selection and arrangement evolved thematically and had, by and large, a serious, fairly contemplative tone. Leow Puay Tin’s was subtitled “Tikam-Tikam” (definition here), the pieces to be performed were determined on the spot by audience members picking numbers, and the whole thing therefore unfolded almost randomly apart from a fixed beginning piece and end piece. In terms of direction, the Singaporean cast set a slightly more slapstick tone and milked every joke in the texts for all it was worth, whereas the Malaysian cast exaggerated things a little less. The thing is, both styles were thoroughly enjoyable in themselves, and were made even more so by the very fact of their contrast.

Well-earned diplomacy aside, I will however say that ultimately I did enjoy Tikam-Tikam (the Singaporean production of Malaysian texts) more. Superficially, I wasn’t in the most energetic of moods, so the livelier production woke me up a bit. Also, I think the strong Malay cultural presence in many of the texts (something entirely absent in the Singaporean texts) just made them feel relatively more exotic to someone like me who doesn’t find being part of Singapore’s majority Chinese race very interesting.

In an excerpt from the autobiography of Abdullah bin Kadir, Sir Stamford Raffles’ translator, Jonathan Lim was a scream as Raffles speaking fluent but totally British-accented Malay. Mark Teh’s Daulat: Long Live was performed in the style of a delegation paying tribute to a sultan, but contained bitingly satirical content aimed at Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew alike. For Lee Kok Liang’s Flowers in the Sky, where the poet finds inspiration for his Buddhist meditations as he hears the call of the muezzin from a nearby mosque, Gani Karim intoned that beautiful call to prayer as Jonathan Lim recited the poem. In Singapore, the call doesn’t go out directly from every mosque any more, they just play it on the relevant media channels. I was reminded, watching this, that I haven’t heard it since I was in Turkey, where hearing the call at dusk while the Blue Mosque was wreathed in sunset remains one of my most spellbinding travel memories.

Add to all this the personal ties that enriched my appreciation of the experience – curator of the Singaporean texts was Eleanor Wong (the best coach I have ever had), original director of the KL premiere was the late Dr Krishen Jit, for whom I bought lots of coffee, called lots of cabs, and generally did a lot of running around for when he came to conduct drama workshops at the CAP and have fond memories of – and the presence of sexy charismatic bald men on either side of the interval (Edwin Sumun from Malaysia, Lim Yu Beng from Singapore) and you have the best theatrical experience I’ve had since For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again. This production really, really needs to be given a more extended run, because three performances just don’t do its achievement justice.

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