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The Studios 2018: How Did The Cat Get So Fat? (Review)

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It’s been 11 years since How Did The Cat Get So Fat? was last staged and its message of a hollow pledge still rings true.

Besides literally referring to corpulent felines, a fat cat can of course, also refer to corrupt businessmen and politicians abusing their wealth or power. And in Zizi Azah’s play How Did The Cat Get So Fat?, it is these members of the upper class who are placed on trial as it dissects our national pledge word for word, examining the values and people who’ve been left behind in the drive towards progress and a ‘perfect’ society.

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Last seen in 2007 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, How Did The Cat Get So Fat? returns to the Esplanade for an all new staging. Siti Khalijah Zainal reprises her role once more, and stars as 9-year old Fatimah as she gets on a magical coin-operated lion and goes on an odyssey into the dark underbelly of Singapore’s lower depths, a modern parable not unlike Alice In Wonderland or The Little Prince. Each scene is titled after a word or phrase found in the pledge, and Fatimah, in being whisked around, explores how each individual word manifests itself in society. There’s the pregnant maid garnering no pity from her employer, a taxi driver lamenting his daughter’s bright future suddenly cut short, her engineering degree useless when she ends up running a cafe, and even a scientist who has created an unbalanced scale (representing the state of various races in Singapore), refusing to see the flaws in her design. All around Fatimah are denizens suffering in various ways, and there is little she can do but despair over the injustices afforded them, undercutting the very ideals of the national pledge in its failure to live up to its own word.

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The bizarro world of How Did The Cat Get So Fat? is striking from the moment one steps into the Theatre Studio, with Chan Silei’s cold, shuttered concrete-jungle like set, lined with forbidding hazard tape that only increases as the play progresses. This stands in stark contrast to Zizi Azah’s initially cheery descriptions of the quintessentially Singaporean landscape, such as the familiar sight of an Indian man selling keropok downstairs, and the disjoint creates a sense of unease, as Fatimah’s adventures become increasingly bleak. Under direction of Finger Players artistic director Tan Beng Tian, the show has also taken on an interesting twist, as Siti wields and interact with various cleverly designed puppets along the way to represent each of the people she meets. Loo An Ni has constructed a wide variety of puppets, each one carefully incorporating clever aspects of their character into their design – the Indonesian maid is made of a mop head to represent her domestic chores, while the taxi driver is made of pandan leaves, a familiar sight and smell sitting in the back of any Comfort cab.

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Siti herself is without a doubt, one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and proves this once more by expertly wielding the many puppets she meets while clearly differentiating her voice for each character. One scene even sees her rapidly speaking to her own shadow in a made up ‘F language’, its meaning made clear through her carefully rehearsed actions and fluency. As Fatimah, there’s an earnest ingenuity to her performance that makes us believe in her innocence, and as she bears witness to more problems in society, her actions too begin to droop, footfalls heavier each time she asks her lion to take her home. In a particularly affecting moment, Siti is swayed by an integrated resort’s Satan-like mascot convincing her to try gambling, and we can practically feel her disappointment and desperation to win, a pure, insistent desire to use the money to help her family.

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In between Fatimah’s adventure, audiences are exposed to abstract ‘diatribes’ separate from Fatimah’s narrative, taking the form of conversations between a disembodied eye and ear. These conversations are not heard, but displayed onscreen as Chong Li-chuan’s melancholic post-rock tracks play, elevating the impact of the pledge’s failure to apocalyptic extents as they discuss ‘perfect mushroom clouds’ arriving to wipe out the world and restart the process of nation building in the wake of a desolate nuclear winter. Although hard to grasp at first, the sequence ultimately pays off with devastating emotion, begging the question of whether one needs to metaphorically tear everything apart before truly being able to rebuild a nation for everyone.

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How Did The Cat Get So Fat? is far more complicated than it first lets on, and goes from simple fairytale to sobering social commentary, crushing with the weight it’s saddled on the shoulders of one girl. Whether it’s a hopeful or dismal ending is questionable, but that’s not what truly matters; it’s the fact that even 11 years on, there’s a truth in this play that still cuts deep even today. As Fatimah raises her right fist to her chest with an inscrutable, pained expression on her face, and the music rises to a fever pitch as the lights fade to black, one feels the urgency for change coming from this play, and it moves us to fight the wrongs in this world, and to think about what it really means to ‘pledge ourselves as one united people’.

Photos by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 19/4/18

How Did The Cat Get So Fat? plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 19th – 22nd April. Tickets available from the Esplanade

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