National lampoon shows up split personalities
In an alternative world dreamed up by Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma, Malaya is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The country is run by the authoritarian Jemaah Islamiyah, which constantly fears American terrorism. Meanwhile, Singapore, having gained independence by buying an industrial park, is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a parade of 120 floats celebrating the 120 financial achievements of the country in the past financial quarter.
This hypothetical world, which pokes fun at each nation's quirks, differences and similarities, is the first tableau of Separation 40, a tongue-in-cheek collaboration between Singapore's The Necessary Stage and Malaysia's Dramalab. The play is a collection of fictional vignettes, written separately by Sharma and Malaysian playwright Jit Murat and stitched together by directors Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage and Zahim Albakri of Dramalab.
'We'd been trying to find a way for the two companies to collaborate for some time now,' Albakri says. 'The 40th anniversary of the two countries' separation gave us the opportunity to do so.'
The directors and playwright say the play probably couldn't have been staged even a few years ago, given the tension between the two countries.
Separation 40 will be the second artistic merger this month in Singapore. Wild Rice staged Second Link: The Singapore-Malaysia Text Exchange, in which Singaporean actors performed Malaysian works and vice-versa.
'I think even two years ago, this play wouldn't have been possible, but things are changing,' Tan says. 'We just want to have some fun. People tend to be nervous about relations with Malaysia, but we just want to show people we're great friends and we can come together and laugh at each other, and there's nothing to be nervous about.'
Albakri says laughter is helpful 'in terms of cohesion and in terms of human friendships and relationships'.
Several vignettes take a light approach in depicting each nation's character. In one, a group of creative Malaysians pitches a love story to Singaporean film producers, who are concerned only with the bottom line. 'Singaporeans come out as pragmatists,' Albakri says. 'The Malaysians come out as more laid back and not so driven - a bit more creative and bohemian.'
But not all the stories poke fun. One features a Malay mother talking to her son, who is about to be hanged in a Singapore jail. 'The common thread through all these stories is separation and loss, not just at a national level, but also a human one,' Tan says.
Sharma is conscious that the script touches sensitive subjects, but says he doesn't believe it will be an issue with the Singaporean censors because 'the play isn't political'.
'When the mother talks to her son in jail about how she plans to repatriate his body, there's nothing political,' he says. 'It's a personal story on the theme of separation and loss. I don't see the play as political - at least, it's not coming from a political point of view. There are no messages. If anything, it brings out more questions than answers.'
The directors acknowledge that, although some of the themes are universal, some of the dialogue will be more easily understood by a local audience. 'With humour, a lot of time it's about references,' Albakri says. 'Historically, Singapore and Malaysia have the same references and their humour is similar. But some of the more human pieces transcend nationality.'
Ultimately, the play aims to make the audience reflect on the meaning of the successes of the two countries since independence.
'I've tried to be positive,' Sharma says. 'We have certain ways of marking our successes and achievements and, in a hypothetical situation, you can push those to ask what success means. It's not about criticism, but to make us think a little bit more about what it means to us.'
Separation 40, Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore. Ends today. Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Sept 28-Oct 2