Arts Malay Theatre Review Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Kepaten Obor – Igniting A Withered Torch (Pesta Raya 2022)

Carrying on her grandmother’s torch.

There’s a long-held belief that in growing up, there are certain elements of our personality that will always remain the same. For Suhaili Safari, it seems that she was always destined to be an artist, so rooted in her that it’s practically passed down through her bloodline.

In Kepaten Obor, Suhaili not only gets to tell a deeply personal and emotional story about her family dynamics, but also gets a long-overdue opportunity to show off her medley of skills in this solo show. Directed by Adib Kosnan and co-written with Agnes Christina, Kepaten Obor tells the tale of Suhaili’s lineage, where she traces her family history and explores the possible reason she’s so enamoured with the arts today.

While artist origin stories aren’t new to the stage, what makes Kepaten Obor work is how Suhaili convinces us of the tight-knit bond and lifelong fascination she has with her paternal grandmother’s past and career that leads her to cherish every moment they have together. Known throughout her life for a stellar singing and entertainment career, Suhaili’s grandmother, though retired, holds a strong degree of influence over her life, an aura that surrounds her every time she visits. These specialisations in singing and performing are skills that have evidently been inherited by Suhaili, as she recalls her childhood singing and dancing, never missing a chance to perform for others. No matter how much she tries to leave the arts as a side job, the arts always comes back to her in some form of opportunity, and in her adulthood, rather than heed her mother’s advice not to be an artist, she eventually embraces it and accepts her destiny.

In her journey towards this, Suhaili recalls constantly asking her grandmother about her celebrated career, each time strengthening her resolve as she finds out more and strengthening her bond. Combine that with the live singing and musical numbers, supported by musicians Danial Ahmad and Isyraf of sl_owtalk, and Suhaili shows off the various facets of her skillset, at times taking on the persona of a five-year old on a guitar singing childhood folk songs, or in her adulthood, a powerhouse singer who brings the house down in an emotional ballad. There is a confidence to her performance and a stage presence that exceeds her stature, remaining calm even in the face of tech hiccups, and always commanding the space.

In directing Suhaili, Adib Kosnan allows this otherwise simple monologue to fully explore the power and hope vested in the arts. There is no doubt Suhaili is always the star of the show, and her physicality shifts each time she plays different versions of herself, or other characters, allowing her to better represent these characters through her voice and body. Most of Kepaten Obor is quiet and reflective, with Suhaili voicing out her own inner thoughts, but in externalising it, Adib allows every word to hold more weight, and feel as if her musings are universal truths, helping us realise that even if we’re not artists ourselves, there’s something in the bloodline that keeps us connected to our ancestors, something we bear the responsibility of making good on in our own lives.

Kepaten Obor really hits its emotional stride after Suhaili brings up her father’s divorce, and how the sudden split leaves her increasingly estranged from her grandmother, with little reason to visit or see her anymore. It’s the point that drives home the play’s title – kepaten, which refers to an ‘accidental death’, and obor, which means torch. By no longer having as strong a link to her grandmother, we feel the pain of severance as she feels the sense of separation, as if an entire history has been suddenly removed from her being. With her own parents not in the arts, it seems as if the burden of responsibility falls on Suhaili to continue to carry the torch her grandmother established.

It is with this renewed sense of conviction that the show ends, determined to succeed in her career as an artist, and learning to accept and grieve the loss of her bond with her grandmother. We finally see Suhaili’s grandmother in her full glory, when the performance ends with Suhaili turning back and watching a video of her grandmother singing at a concert, beloved by the adoring crowd. In seeing the standing ovation Suhaili receives, it is clear that her grandmother’s legacy lives in on in her, and the flame of passion for the arts continues to burn bright.

Photo Credit: Akbar Syadiq, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Kepaten Obor ran from 27th to 29th May 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2022. More information available here

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