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Separation 40


Dramalab and The Necessary Stage


Ng Yi-Sheng






The Esplanade Theatre Studio



Human Nations

The project of Separation 40 appears rather grandiose: it reacts, as the work of a binational cast, crew and creative team, to the fortieth anniversary of the separation of Singapore and Malaysia. Playwrights Haresh Sharma and Jit Murad write a series of scenes, set in different periods in modern Singaporean/Malaysian history, to be performed by an ensemble, toying with giant bamboo sets in a performance space where the audience is symbolically split across opposite ends of the stage. All is set for as grand a narrative as can be contained in a black box, reminiscent of TNS's 2001 play on Sun Yat-Sen, 100 Years in Waiting.

However, in more conventional TNS style, national narratives were shrunk down to a human scale as politics was deftly encapsulated within the intimate spaces of everyday relationships. There was no indication of this at the opening, as the audience watched an inspired vignette featuring a dystopian parallel history where separation had never happened. Malaysia and Singapore were equally parodied: veiled newscasters celebrated the 50th national day of the Islamic Republic of Malaya under the fundamentalist rule of Jemaah Islamiyah, while cheongsamed Singaporean announcers hurrahed the 5th anniversary of their takeover of Suzhou as an independent country. The simultaneous decisions of a Malayan and a Singaporean newscaster to migrate, however, come to the same result: they are informed on and detained. The remaining MCs, standing on opposite scaffoldings, catch a glimpse of each other, and stare as if in recognition. Such moments of human connection in spite of national politics are the ultimate focus of Separation 40.

Sadly, in spite of a hilarious premise and a competent cast, this first scene set a slow pace for the play, with moments of redundancy such as the use of the same national dance choreography three times for both Singapore and Malaysia, to underscore the blindingly obvious point of our commonality. This problem continued well into the next two scenes. Thankfully, the tempo of the play soon recovered with a hysterical exchange between a Singaporean man and a Malaysian woman flying Malaysian Airlines, each condemning his own country and airline while praising the other's. The chemistry between Chua Enlai and Soefira Jaafar was tangible as they fed off their rapid-fire dialogue, the two disagreeing utterly with one another, yet bonded in their alliance of self-blame. The lines also gave a marvelously original perspective on cultural difference, as in the Singaporean's comment: "Malaysian Airlines is like a kampong. They want you to feel at home. So if you need anything, you just have to take it for yourself. But Singapore Airlines is like a prison! Everyone has to eat at the same time, sleep at the same time, watch movies at the same time!"

It was also in this scene that we witnessed the playwrights' subtle strategy of reflecting political history almost as an afterthought in the midst of everyday human drama, illuminating the backdrop against which the scenes took place. Both the Malaysian and Singaporean passengers are frightened by turbulence into not criticising their countries, reflecting the 1987 crackdowns on dissidents in Malaysia and Singapore. A mother's conversation with her son on death row is eventually linked to Singapore's winning of the Malaysia Cup in 1997, and a narrative of friendship between a Malay boy and a Chinese boy, forged over model jet fighters and birthday presents, is brought to a sudden halt by Malaysia's racial riots of 1966. Here, both Chua and Syed Zalihafe must be commended for their split-second shifts of character, as they played not only the primary school-age protagonists, but their patrician fathers and their adult selves, narrating the past.

It was only in the final scene that the characters grappled full-on with history, as a Malay man spoke to his Chinese Singaporean friend about moving to Malaysia on 9th August 1965. Politics was thus consistently presented as an outside force that separates people, interfering with their basic desire to unite and form bonds. By focusing on these bonds, Separation 40 reminded us of the importance of sanity and individual alliances of the heart over ideological mania.

Having praised the accomplishments of the play, it seems a shame to nitpick at its lesser flaws, yet the devil is in the details, and without their perfection, a production comes off looking unprofessional. The actors flubbed their lines on more than one occasion, an event I cannot recall at any previous TNS production. The decision to have the actors move the colossal bamboo sets themselves left momentous gaps of silence between scenes, and even when the actors stayed in character to fill these scenes with dialogue, the sight of them towing scaffolding in the midst of conversation felt contrived. Several similar problems emerged during the three-part sequence about a Singaporean production team and Malaysian creatives collaborating on a movie on colonial Malaya. Certain inconsistencies rankled with this reviewer: the fact that a clear historical period was not assigned to the film - pre-war or post-war - and that the two romances between the Malaysian and Singaporean teams popped into being without foreshadowing in the final scene. It was certainly enlivening in the last scene to witness the actors transforming history into an eclectic musical montage, yet the excuse that was brought in to explain this (that the boss's daughter was a very persuasive experimental musicologist) simply failed to ring true to my ears. Audiences can expect dramatic performance to be wild and strange, and apology for your actions simply undermines confidence in the dramatic vision.

With only one weekend's run in Singapore and another in KL, a play like this may not have the time to develop itself into something more polished. Nonetheless, as it stands, Separation 40 is a commendable project of cross-border collaboration and cultural sharing, as well as being simply a good play, though not really venturing into greatness. And on the un-epic human scale which is what the play directs us to attend to, perhaps it is not such a bad thing to be less than great.

"Separation 40 is a commendable project of cross-border collaboration and cultural sharing, as well as being simply a good play"


Written by Haresh Sharma and Jit Murad

Directed by Alvin Tan and Zahim Albakri

Lighting by Mac Chan

Set Designer by Vincent Lim

Cast: Chua Enlai, Soefira Jaafar, Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, Yeo Yann Yann and Syed Zalihafe

More Reviews of Productions by The Necessary Stage

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.