Review: Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain/Hawa [3/7/16]

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imageW!ld Rice has really brought in a gem with this double bill. Both Riders and Hawa are unique in that they showcase voices rarely heard in the theatre scene – Riders for its honest portrayal of the mat moto subculture in Singapore, and Hawa for a glimpse into Islamic funeral rites from a recent convert to Islam grappling with personal issues of her own. These are issues and scenes that are in short supply in our local theatre scene, and perhaps with the successful run of these two, more will rise to meet the growing demand for alternative voices in the industry.

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Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain (W!ld Rice)

Riders is a coming of age play which follows four friends: Risha (Nessa Anwar, who also wrote the script), Alep (Norisham Osman), Remy (Raimi Safari) and Nizam (Riduan Zalani), as they enter the life of motorcyclists upon getting their class 2B licenses and learn more about the rules of the road and each other.

Riders follows a non-linear narrative, often jumping back and forth across the timeline. Early on, three of the characters wind up in hospital with broken legs and arms, sombre and angry, before returning to happier scenes where we see the gang engage in daily banter, touching on educational issues, financial issues, and of course, road safety issues.

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Alin Mosbit has exceptionally strong directorial skills, and the scenes are always firmly rooted in reality with the cast’s believable and down to earth performances. One particular scene sees Nizam and Remy cleaning a motorbike, a scene familiar to those of us who’re used to seeing it at HDB void-decks. In the scene, they are relaxed and simply enjoying each other’s company as they talk about love and life, light hearted and full of youthful energy, which quite frankly, is one of the biggest contributing factors to what makes this such an enjoyable piece.

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It’s their energy and strong onstage chemistry that makes the cast extremely likeable, and they reminded me somewhat of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, starting off as stereotypes but slowly unveiling much deeper personality traits as the play continues. Remy, for example, isn’t just a boy with family money – he cares deeply about his friends as well. Alep seems to be an obnoxious matrep, but often engages in reckless life threatening behaviour to deal with his inner pain. Nizam is the NITEC kid with a heart of gold, wryly observant and sophisticated, while Risha is more than just the token badass female of the bunch, and showcases a fierce independent spirit, fighting off gender stereotypes and struggling with  feeling out of place at university. The complexities of the characters keep them very real and three dimensional, allowing the audience to really feel a connection to them.

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In one of the penultimate sequences, the four friends ride to Yishun to hang out and ‘lepak’, with Alep commenting that they haven’t done this in a long time. It’s a sweet scene as they exchange stories they decide they’re going to tell their future children about each other long into the night, even ending up falling asleep there, and by having the audience care so much for characters they’re known for a little over an hour is testament to how well fleshed out the characters are, and make the ensuing tragedy even more horrific and sad, despite having already foreshadowed it from the beginning.

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It’s befitting then, that the play ends with an acoustic version of David Bowie’s Heroes, Alep’s favourite song he blasts whenever he can. None of them really end up doing anything heroic, but in that one scene, it’s evident what their friendship has built up towards, and how being a part of the moto subculture together has helped them feel a little more like heroes in their own rights, riding fast and furious and free through tunnels and expressways.

Riders was first staged at the Arts House for a single show last year, which was mostly passed over. Now, with W!ld Rice’s backing, it’s gained a well deserved wider reach and recognition. First time playwright Nessa Anwar has dazzled with her ability to write raw emotion and honest scenes and characters that echo reality. One can only hope she’ll continue to write and hone her craft, and showcase a side of Malay life that too few theatre goers are altogether unfamiliar with.

Hawa (Hatch Theatrics)

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Fresh from the 20something Theatre Festival, Jonny Jon Jon’s other script joins in the festivities at the Singapore Theatre Festival.

Hawa follows a recent Islam convert Siti (Koh Wan Ching) preparing for a Muslim funeral. She keeps closely guarded when questioned by her funeral director (Saiful Amri) about the lack of people showing up and her hesitation at revealing her relationship with the deceased. Along the way, an unexpected guest named Zaki shows up (Al-Matin Yatim), claiming to crash funerals to help imbue grieving hijab-clad women with strength, leading to Siti accusing him of simply taking advantage of women in pain to satisfy a hijab-fetish.

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Hawa is not an easy play to sit through. It is a play that riffs on rituals, with an entire scene dedicated to showcasing the process of cleaning and preparing a body for burial. The scene changes are punctuated by the names of tarot cards displayed on the surtitle screen, alongside a voiceover that describes its significance and link in decidedly abstract fashion. Emphasis is placed on the proper steps to take in an Islamic funeral, and how missing out on them is simply ‘not right’. There are many lines that seem out of place and uncomfortable, with a nervous Siti angrily losing her temper at the funeral director multiple times, questioning the ritual in Islam culture and the validity of prayer that is dependent on monetary transaction. The exchanges between Siti and Zaki are tense, nervous conversations, with either one accusing the other of being either unfaithful or selfish. But perhaps these are precisely the things that need to be addressed, things that are often buried too deep under our own polite social graces that we dare not ask. Islam is a bit of a prescriptive religion, rooted in practice and rites, and when brought into question, is often rebuffed with the explanation that that is how it is.

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Which is why Siti’s problem and reluctance is perfectly understandable. The deceased is later on revealed to be Sarah, her girlfriend who was disowned by her family, with whom Siti has a tumultuous relationship with as revealed in flashbacks. Siti is accused of being the cause of Sarah contracting terminal lupus by leading her sexually astray, and she fears that her relationship with Sarah may hamper her journey in the afterlife, should she be the one to prepare the body for burial. With such a hard and fast seeming religion, it’s only natural that one is afraid of messing it up for their loved ones with a simple mistake. Is religion decided by a rulebook, or is it up to us to decide how to interpret a series of signs? The play seems to go with the latter, with the funeral director deciding to allow Siti to carry out the rites in spite of their relationship.

Hawa’s script is at times slightly clunky, and certain things, such as Zaki’s character and relationship with his deceased mother, seemed more like a vehicle than a genuine well thought through aspect. But Hawa still manages to go for the emotional jugular in its portrayal of Sarah and Siti’s relationship. Sarah is never physically seen, but when she is diagnosed with lupus, calls Siti on the phone and requests for her to sing, in a tearful and powerful scene. Later on when Siti cleans the body, she is again heard singing the same song, and it is this central relationship that keeps Hawa firmly grounded instead of diverging into a formless commentary on faith and religion.

Hawa is an interesting look at religion, unafraid to ask difficult questions and come to its own conclusions about them. For the non-Muslim theatregoers, it also acts as brilliant exposure to Islamic culture and rituals, and is held together by a tragic central relationship that provides foundation for the script to bounce its ideas and questions off of. Although it could still benefit from a little more editing and tightening of the script, Hawa is one of the rare plays that takes a look at LGBT relationships facing the brunt of religion, and rarer still in an Islamic context. Kudos to Hatch Theatrics for producing such an insightful play.

Photo Credits: 36Frames and WildRice

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