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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021: Saiful Amri and Anwar Hadi Ramli find the animal inside us with ‘Wan Belantara’

Photo Credit: Anwar Hadi Ramli

Anthropomorphic and personified animals have always played a huge role in most people’s childhoods, whether as Disney cartoons or legends passed down from generation to generation. And so it is that this year’s edition of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival would feature at least one show that’s all about animals, with WAN BELANTARA: Enjet-Enjet Semut (KING OF THE JUNGLE: As the Ants Go Marching In) making its debut in January.

“At the heart of the play is really the accuracy of the stories, where I ended up researching five versions of the same story, making sure even the dialogue is consistent.”

Directed by Saiful Amri and written by Anwar Hadi Ramli, the play draws inspiration from Farid ud-Din Attar’s poem Conference of the Birds, while also incorporating familiar folk tales and fables from the Malay Annals such as Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. At its heart though, is a central story of a change in politics; where previous lion kings (no not that one) have always ascended via their royal lineage, the animals have gone against tradition and finally elected a new, more peaceful king. To celebrate, an army of ants are on their way to send gifts and tributes to this new king, and begin WAN BELANTARA’s story of loyalty, betrayal, and injustice.

Wan Belantara literally means ‘king of the jungle’, and the script actually had its origins as a school play,” says playwright Anwar. “I like historical stories, and initially, I just wanted to use it as a tool to teach my students about these stories, based on things that happened in history. Maybe 95% of my students didn’t know these stories, but the thing is, so many of them happened on the very ground we walked on, where these kings and queens once lived. To make it more appealing, I thought it might be easier to use animal characters instead, but more Malay than The Liong King, and as a good entry point for exposure. At the heart of the play is really the accuracy of the stories, where I ended up researching five versions of the same story, making sure even the dialogue is consistent.”

“I think about this sculpture I once saw of Sang Nila Utama, and he’s surrounded by animals. The joke is, he think they’re all ‘Singa’, and assuming he was short-sighted when he saw the lion he named Singapore after,” he adds. “And then there are times people see legendary strongman Badang as crazy because he sees ghosts. I just think there’s very little respect for these stories, unlike say a Greek legend like Hercules. That’s also a reason why I want to expose audiences to these stories, and perhaps with the exposure, understand the content, be entertained by it, and maybe go home and find out more about it, in the hopes that they’ll see it as something to be admired and respected that we have all these legends and tales.”

Photo Credit: Hidayat Nordin

“The first time I read the script, I saw how Anwar was also incorporating some of his familiar messages about hitting back at the community in it, and I thought it was actually quite close to this year’s Fringe theme of Quiet Riot,” says Saiful. “It’s gone through some changes since I first read it; for one thing, the lion used to be the main character, but I told him to focus on the ants instead, as they come to represent the ordinary Singaporean. Because the aim is to make these stories accessible, we also incorporated a nursery rhyme Malay students would likely be familiar with, and to present these stories, we made the characters animals, sort of like Orwell’s Animal Farm, and it becomes a useful way to see how animals fit in, with their own hierarchy and politics of the animal kingdom.”

Some audience members laugh, some people see another layer, and others just say ‘I don’t understand it’.”

Whether you’re familiar with these tales or not, both Anwar and Saiful promise that their show will add a degree of complication and layers of meaning to it. “There’s a few levels of understanding that you can read into for the script,” says Anwar. “As mentioned, it’s firstly for students to understand history, with ants going on a journey re-enacting past events, and wondering if the new king is better than previous ones. Saiful’s direction makes it really fun, and that’s really the main goal. But if you want to, you can dwell deeper on its potential political commentary, but otherwise, the goal really is to enjoy it. Some audience members laugh, some people see another layer, and others just say ‘I don’t understand it’.”

“I think it’s inevitable that everything can be read as political, and it’s more a case of whether you want to see it or not,” says Saiful. “If you look at the ants, even though they all look the same, they’re still individuals with their own thoughts and opinions, and that applies to each Singaporean too, and how they choose to perceive the world.”

“Sometimes I think that people complain too much, whether it’s about politics or something as simple as public transports fees going up a few cents,” says Anwar. “And it’s something that is inevitable; you complain about an old king, and when he gets impeached, you celebrate. But when the new king comes into power, you’ll find some kind of problem anyway, the king you voted in yourself, and find something new to complain about. There are no perfect political systems, but at least the one we are in is the one we have chosen, unless you want to go on another ‘long walk’ to find a new king.”

Photo Credit: Hidayat Nordin

“As Malay theatremakers, of course we’re free to do anything we want, but we feel this need to come back to Malay issues, because we haven’t resolved anything.

Reflecting on how Malay theatre companies have a tendency to touch on the same issues time and time again, Saiful offers up some thoughts. “As Malay theatremakers, of course we’re free to do anything we want, but we feel this need to come back to Malay issues, because we haven’t resolved anything. You’ve got people moving on to other issues and aesthetics, but here we are still talking about drugs and the divorce rate, and about religion. It’s quite sad. We actually very rarely do re-reruns of shows, and I think that we need to take life a bit slower and look back sometimes on why we are doing this, how we are moving forward, and how we want the audience to respond, more than ever. Ultimately, my hope is always to trigger a bit of curiosity in the audience, and the presentations we do, to tell a story. And that every time we have a production, to help us be better in one way or another, directly or indirectly.”

“One of our cast members was asking – why animals? And beyond the accessibility, I thought about how on the surface, we’re all about politeness and following decorum, but really, we’re all just animals at our heart trying to be human, and would backstab and kill a king if we were pushed to it,” says Anwar. “But again, it really is so that people come in and have fun with their experience. That in itself is something I hope to see affect the Malay theatre scene, where it goes beyond just the artists’ friends and contacts buying tickets, and every member of the community finds a way to take something away from the performance.”

Photo Credit: Anwar Hadi Ramli

WAN BELANTARA: Enjet-Enjet Semut (KING OF THE JUNGLE: As the Ants Go Marching In) plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 26th to 27th January 2021, while the Live Stream is available from 29th January to 4th February 2021. Tickets available here

The 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 20th to 31st January 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC

For the first time, the Fringe is launching a special stay-home package to catch all performances at the festival via SISTIC Live. For an exclusive rate of $95, get access to all videos on demand of the Fringe performances throughout their screening periods.

Check out more information and the safety measures at venues the Fringe will be held at on their website here

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