a classic is something that's remembered, something that outlives its
original audience, its voice resonating rather than fading through time,
inspiring us into perpetuity. Rosnah is such a classic for
me. Though I never saw the original performance in 1996, several years
ago I had the fortune of reading it in Haresh Sharma's This Chord
and Others: A Collection of Six Plays. And what a trip that was,
to explore through a series of monologues of the voice of a young Malay
woman studying in London, faced with the fears of cultural loss and
shaming the family and community.
Consequently, when I read that a new performance of Rosnah
would be staged for this year's Singapore Fringe Festival, I promptly
asked for a reviewer's ticket. Certainly, I was prepared for disappointment
- the pitifully small audience suggested that the play has been less
widely lauded as a classic than I'd assumed. Anyway, could this new
Rosnah meet the high standards of my envisioned one-woman show?
Happily, it did. What emerged onstage on Thursday night was a powerful
performance, running the emotional gamut from playful hilarity to sombre
introspection, directed by Alin Mosbit, the original Rosnah,
in collaboration with emerging actress Siti Khalijah bte Zainal. The
multiple voices that the play demanded spilled beautifully from Siti's
throat, and the collaborative effort put into renewing a ten-year-old
play through additional sources and texts resulted in a colourful, poignant
new constellation of dramatic voices. Yet while the words of the play
came alive, the visuals were often unsatisfying, with neither the set
design nor the bodily expressiveness of the actress equaling the strengths
of the spoken performance.
One can understand the directiorial rationale for setting the stage
as a white bedroom, the bed clad in a blanket of discreet frills, the
actress herself dressed in a white nightgown. An intimate journey into
the feminine psyche might, by association, be best housed in lacy linens.
But the resulting landscape, half between minimalism and realism, made
the play resemble a pre-teen slumber party show-and-tell, trivialising
it somewhat. Still stranger was the placement of a projection screen
of rippled fabric on far stage right, yielding an unaesthetic distortion
of projected images, the distance from stage centre turning what could
have been a dramatically enveloping backdrop into a half-hidden visual
accompaniment with little dramatic impact.
Siti herself seemed on occasion imprecise in her movements and postures,
leaving a few scenes strangely static, especially when she narrated
and enacted the legend of the legendary warrior woman Siti Zubaidah.
Nonetheless, on the whole, her performance was a triumph. Despite her
youth, she excelled in her vocal portrayal of the plethora of characters
Rosnah draws upon, including her slutty antithesis Maslinda,
her white philosopher boyfriend Edward, her parents, her Malaccan grandmother
(which she did to heart-wrenching perfection), and even herself as actress,
breaking the fourth wall to interact with the audience.
Abandoning the scripted interjections, Siti brought her own girlish
ebullience into play, erupting to criticize Rosnah for even hesitating
from dating a white man and persuading the audience to take photos with
her since, "Inshi'allah, if I become famous after this play, you will
become famous too." By the close of the play, her movements also took
on greater dramatic definition, as witnessed in the culminating moment
of a jump into a frozen river to escape the cacophony of the voices,
all calling and fighting within her. As a young actress, Siti deserves
a special commendation for her delivery of this point of crisis and
her portrayal of a complex, shifting ego of many layers.
Alin's decision to rejuvenate the classic by tampering with its text
was also, on the most part, a successful move. Beyond certain logical
steps like replacing Rosnah's political idol of Rafidah Aziz with Halimah
Yaacob, Alin also worked in some very poignant images of the meetings
between the post-millenial world and tradition, such as Rosnah's MP3
player filled with Malay songs in London and a particularly heartbreaking
instant messenger conversation on her boyfriend's possible conversion
to Islam between a distraught and speaking Rosnah and the projected
text of her jokingly immature brother Rashid. Siti's karaoke performances
of Malay songs, though beautifully performed, eventually wore my patience
as their contribution to the themes of the play was only tangential.
Of special interest to me was Alin's incorporation of an account by
a Malay Singaporean of being in one of the Underground trains during
last year's terrorist bombings. This brought entirely new dimensions
to the issue of Islam in both Malay Singaporean and London culture as
discussed in the play, delivering a fresh shot of life into already
Thus, while I wasn't entirely satisfied with the staging, I'm
more than happy to throw stars at this production, though with only
a two-day run during this festival, you may have to keep your fingers
crossed that the script will be again performed in anything less than
ten years. I'd give the thumbs-up to additional performances of
this show even with the same director and actress, as the play's
shortcomings are all ultimately quite correctable, and the low turnout
was probably due to competition with more international fringe events.
In preparation for the next time it comes round, I'll highlight that
Rosnah is an extremely important work. This is not only by
virtue of its universal themes of youth and womanhood, love and religion,
modernity and tradition, freedom and duty, the world and the home; it
is also a magnificent text of empathy, written by a Hindu man but bringing
the outsider into the conflicted world of what it means to be a Malay
woman in Singapore today. It's vital that classics of Singapore theatre
like these should be given new treatments, not only to build up a sense
of dramatic heritage, but also to rejuvenate them, freeing them from
forgotten pages and once again giving them voice.
"What emerged onstage on Thursday night was a powerful performance,
running the emotional gamut from playful hilarity to sombre introspection"