As the Esplanade’s 2019 seasons of The Studios roars into its second week, The Art of Strangers presents a brand new show – Miss British. Based off an original idea by Sharon Frese, who stars alongside Grace Kalaiselvi, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and Riduan Zalani, Miss British is a devised, multi-disciplinary work questioning the British identity, thinking about issues of both the monarchy and slave trade. What then are the prejudices and social hierarchies left behind by colonialism, not just by the British but across the entire planet? And who exactly, is Miss British? We spoke to director Felipe Cervera prior to the show’s premiere this week to find out a little more about what to expect from this ambitious new work. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: Could you share a little more about the title of Miss British and how the concept came about in the first place?
Felipe: The concept of Miss British was born out of an original text by Sharon Frese, developed in collaboration with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma, titled The Extraordinary Travels of Ms British. That piece was developed as part of The Necessary Stage’s The Orange Playground (TOP) a few years ago. I previously worked with Sharon in a show I directed for the Fringe in 2014 titled The Mountain, and Sharon and I had good chemistry. I figure that that’s the reason why after the work’s TOP stage, Alvin and Sharon approached me to direct a full version of The Extraordinary Travels of Ms British.
However, when I read the text, I immediately realized that we couldn’t tell this story — Sharon’s life as a global nomad — without doing a deeper reflection about the many things that had to happen for her to be there. If we were going to tell the story of a black global citizen, we had to unpack the circulatory histories that made black populations migrate in the first place, and connect that to the colonial histories that underline our life in Singapore in varying degrees and to different extents.
I then suggested that we revamp the work, leave behind the text developed in TOP and, inspired by that original material, create a work that explores Miss British less as a person and more as a metaphor — or a vortex of many different metaphors that somehow come to be central to colonial legacies. I invited Grace and Sangeetha to join the cast so that we could untangle this concept and connect more clearly with Singapore.
Miss British is a metaphor for many things. It can be as simple as it stands for the British Crown and all it symbolizes, good and bad. But it can also stand for beauty pageants, for the privilege of a British or European passport, for identity and gender politics, for social standards and strata, and so on. In a way, that is what I found most attractive from Sharon’s original text, that its “Miss Britishness” could not be contained into a single narrative, but that it had to be cracked open as a metaphor for the explicit and implicit traces of colonialism in ALL of us.
Bakchormeeboy: Why is it important that Singaporean audiences come and watch Miss British, and what do you hope the takeaway from it?
Felipe: I think that the occasion of the Bicentennial celebrations is a good one to look back at our shared histories and reflect on our colonial and postcolonial paths. In a way, the show contributes to that conversation, and my intention is that it does so by asking questions rather than answers; sharing stories, rather than preaching messages. I think that we need to reflect on this, on how has colonialism shaped us, and to disentangle that legacy to overcome the trauma, reclaim our narratives, our bodies, and stand anew and tall to recalibrate the eye of history.
Bakchormeeboy: Miss British is set to be a multidisciplinary work involving theatre, dance and even video installation. As a director, how do you ensure that all these different elements coming together flow or remain cohesive?
Felipe: Directing this piece has been one of the biggest challenges in my career. Partly because of what you mention. Balancing the different elements and their languages is certainly a challenge if what is one is attempting to create is a show that expresses a singular discourse. The thing here is that this show is precisely about NOT having a singular discourse.
So the question, rather than how I make elements “cohesive”, is how can each of the elements express different aspects of the metaphor we are exploring. The cast sings, dances, and tells stories; The music explores different rhythms and textures; the video behaves more like a documentary, the set invites multiple perspectives, and finally, the light inspires moments of self-reflection.
And I have been tremendously honoured to be working with people that I respect so very much like Chloe, Silei, Yvette, Riduan, Adrian, and Zihan that have so generously embarked in this process. And also the team from The Esplanade, Shireen, Evelyn, Carolene, Hakim, and Amy. So finding these different voices, sounds, and images in the space has been a fascinating challenge and I am very happy with how it is shaping up. In a way, it is an intellectual show… somewhere between a stage poem and a stage essay.
Bakchormeeboy: As a Mexican theatremaker living and working in Singapore, what would you say you bring to the table in directing this piece (eg an objective point of view in interpreting British identity)? Are there certain issues in the show with parallels experienced in Singapore or Mexico?
Felipe: I would run away from any invitation to put forward an objective point of view of history–especially one that is not totally mine. And I always find it intimidating when someone asks me what do I bring to the table, haha I guess…myself?! I can also bring some tacos and enchiladas if you want…
Jokes aside, I think that what we are doing, first and foremost, is to reflect what history means to us, as everyday individuals. In that sense, my “Mexicaness” brings to the table a perspective from the other side of the planet, where the Spanish Empire had a larger impact than the British. But some of the traces are very similar and sure, I am privy to the postcolonial parallels between Mexico and Singapore, but also their differences, which are no less important.
Miss British plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 4th to 7th April 2019. Tickets available from the Esplanade
The Studios 2019: The Weight Of A Stone In A Pocket plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Esplanade Annexe Studio from 28th March to 27th April 2019. Tickets and full lineup available from the Esplanade. For updates on the works, follow The Studios on Facebook