Review: Rosnah by The Necessary Stage [5/8/16]

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Rosnah is one of those classic Necessary Stage plays that hasn’t been onstage in a while. This year’s edition, presented as part of the Esplanade’s annual Pesta Raya Malay Festival of Arts, is being performed for the first time in Malay since first being staged at Tampines Regional Library in 1995.

Siti K is certainly the most prolific and well known Malay theatre actress right now, and I can think of no better person to have been chosen to play Rosnah. Siti is no stranger to the role, having performed it once already in English back in 2006, and now with the mostly Malay script, there’s a new kind of depth to the twenty one year old monologue.

Translating the script into Malay wasn’t the only change though (aptly done by the original Rosnah, Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit). Siti opens the show as herself, the actress, by directly engaging in small talk with the audience and even taking the time to snap a wefie, before plunging straight into the briskly paced 70 minute run. Later on, Siti the actress breaks character occasionally to deliver meta-textual commentary in the context of the post-Brexit, terror-ridden world of 2016, which I thought was a fantastic way to update the script while still playing it out in its entirety.

Of course, despite all these new observations and lines, the heart of the monologue is still Siti’s performance of Rosnah, and she does this with enough enthusiasm and heart to bring the audience on a roller coaster of laughs and tears. Rosnah is a script with a strong female character that was surprisingly forward thinking for its time, and it seems that 2016 has finally caught up with her. It’s aged very well and its themes ring particularly true even today and with Siti K breathing life into it, is a riveting and thought provoking watch throughout.

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The titular Rosnah is a 20 year old Singaporean Malay girl embarking for London for her university education, navigating the strange landscape and coming to terms with her identity, religion and morals. Rosnah is the epitome of the ‘good Malay girl’, maintaining a close relationship with her family and sense of duty to her community, at first promising to join Mendaki upon graduation and teach tuition to the less fortunate.

It’s interesting then, that one of the first characters we are introduced to is Rosnah’s friend and housemate Linda, an anglicised Malay Singaporean girl in London. Linda adopts a false English accent (swinging between cockney and Northern), parties hard and avoids the other Malays in London like the plague, in stark contrast to Rosnah’s good girl persona. For me, Linda represented a possible path that Rosnah could have taken upon studying in London, leaving behind all her former values in a foreign land. What makes her different from Linda however, is her staunch refusal to let go of those values. Rosnah’s parents’ and fiesty nenek’s advice constantly echoes through her head, and her eventual path is decidedly different from Linda’s and fraught with more internal debate.

Rosnah is a story that deals with growing up, change and identity. Although she is always firmly placed within moral boundaries, Rosnah is constantly battling her desire to remain the conservative, ‘good Malay girl’ while taking in the expanded world view she’s been exposed to. Rosnah is portrayed as a very innocent girl at the start, recounting her first meeting with her boyfriend as something out of a romantic movie, and this helps to the audience seeing the change she has experienced by the end of the play. Rosnah is reliant on and mentions multiple strong female figures in her life, from her talkative and lovable grandmother, to heroine of legend Siti Zubaidah, and often looks towards them for answers and inspiration when she is at a crossroads. It’s something that made me realise how much we as a society are still very much in need of more strong females in the limelight to inspire young girls everywhere.

Siti K is adept at playing the entire medley of characters, and once again proves that she’s one of the very best in the local theatre circle. One particularly impressive scene sees Rosnah imagining bringing her Caucasian boyfriend home to the family and their exaggerated, horrified reactions. In the span of a few minutes, Siti becomes a whirlwind of characters: Rosnah, her father, mother, grandmother, and a host of nosy neighbors attempting to outdo each other with the next ridiculous rumour (‘She’s pregnant!’ ‘She’s marrying Michael Bolton!’)

As a conservative family, having a non-Muslim, or even non-Asian boyfriend is practically unheard of, and she dares not tell her family for fear of her imagined outcome coming true. In any case, the marriage never does work out, due to her boyfriend’s inability to reconcile having to convert to Islam with their relationship. Rosnah is again tossed between her religious beliefs and the modern thinking of the West, and towards the end of her monologue, Rosnah is left more lost than before, unsure of where her heart truly lies, having lost the people closest to her on both continents.

Lighting and set design veterans Lim Woan Wen and Wong Chee Wai created a space that resembles an airport transit area, representing Rosnah’s inner mindscape and state of mental limbo. However, the space isn’t the eternal hell of Sartre’s No Exit, but a reflective one, for Rosnah to think back on her life and decide what comes next. Rosnah’s script has also been newly punctuated with Malay songs sung by Siti K and Bani Haykal between scenes, which serve to better represent the mood more than words alone ever could. Bani Haykal also provided the ambient background music, and a particularly affective solo when Rosnah eventually begins to set down paper boats across the entire stage, turning it into a river.

Rosnah’s aforementioned heroines are no longer completely separate beings at this point, and her grief and experiences coalesce to form this final scene. She has internalised them, become an amalgamation of them, older and wiser than when we first met her, a fresh faced international student. The monologue concludes with her still in transit, still unsure where her path will take her, but now has become a woman grown and with eyes opened to a world beyond our island city, more capable of moving along with the changes that life throws at her.

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Rosnah’s story is just a small glimpse into the fear of looming adulthood, and is one I identified with greatly, being of a similar age with a murky path lying ahead. It’s not a story that seems hopeful at first, but upon second thought, really is all about a young person finding the inner courage and strength to come to terms with the fact that life and identity aren’t set in stone, and that offers the possibility that things being alright, even when they don’t quite go the way they’re planned.

It’s been an interesting year for TNS so far, with a medley of restagings, reworkings and sequels to their older plays, and we cant wait to see what they continue to bring to the table in their 30th anniversary next year.

Rosnah is on at the Esplanade Theatre Studio until Sunday, 7 August. Tickets are sold out. If you’re interested in catching more monologues by TNS, check out Best Of (His Story) in November, the sequel to their earlier Best Of, which was played by Siti K. 

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