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The Necessary Stage


Ng Yi-Sheng






The Drama Centre Black Box



Lost Face, Found Voices

By definition, 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 rich material.

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"

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