When Chong Tze Chien’s Poop was first staged back in 2010, the new play was a tour de force that firmly cemented The Finger Players (TFP) as a company to watch, with a heartbreaking story about love and loss, told through evocative music, effective lighting, and of course, whimsical puppetry. 12 years on and several restagings later, the contemporary classic is getting a brand new adaptation by local Malay theatre company Teater Ekamatra, as they present Berak as part of the 2022 season of the Esplanade’s The Studios series.
Directed by Ekamatra’s artistic director Mohd Fared Jainal and adapted into Malay by Zulfadli ‘Big’ Rashid, Berak follows the aftermath of a father (Fir Rahman) taking his life, and the impact it leaves on his wife (Siti Hajar), his daughter (Siti Khalijah) and his mother (Alin ‘Alin’ Mosbit). Exploring themes of mortality and grief, we spoke to both Fared and Big to find out more about the process of adapting piece for the stage, and the state of Malay theatre in Singapore.
“We were initially meant to stage Berak in 2020 at Wild Rice @ Funan, before the pandemic struck. We’d already bumped in before the lockdowns were announced, and we had to make the tough call to cancel,” says Fared. “It’s been a tough two years for Ekamatra, but that’s never stopped us from trying and remaining as adaptable as possible. So this year, when we got a chance to return to live theatre with Bangsawan Gemala Malam at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, it was so welcome for us to reunite with the audience in the theatre at this scale.”
“Everyone wants to stage Poop. We all saw how big a hit it was when it was first staged, and it impacted us a lot. In addition, on top of producing new plays, our company was interested in the process of ‘transcreating’ existing scripts, like what we did with Hope (Harap) and A Clockwork Orange,” Fared adds. “Given a Malay voice, how would the world of the play change? Ekamatra was ready to use these as a way to tackle difficult issues not often talked about in the Malay community, and we feel it’s part of our responsibility to talk about these things.”
“Essentially, we started the process through a meeting with Tze Chien, who gave us his blessings and the license to transcreate the piece,” says Big, on the transcreation process of Poop. “There were some things we had to run by him, like adapting certain elements to fit the Malay-Muslim family and audience, and to ensure that his original intent was not lost. Things are certainly different from the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s better or worse – it’s been given a new lease of life.”
Knowing that unusual concepts of death and the afterlife can be quite touchy in the religious Malay-Muslim community, Big expresses how he navigated the script. “In a Malay-Muslim context, committing suicide well send a soul straight to hell, and if you attend a wake where someone committed suicide, the family will just say it was a ‘misfortune’. We so rarely talk about depression and suicide, and this is where the play comes in, to allow such dialogues and insight into the effects of suicide, and where it leads the living,” he says. “We do believe in the idea of a heaven and hell, but I also felt that imagination has a place to carry us forward, like how we still believe in hantus, which, while not mentioned in the Quran, we still sort of believe in their existence. Some schools of thoughts say that we shouldn’t believe in such things, but this is where imagination takes flight – we’re not being intentionally blasphemous, and we still treat these characters and what they go through with respect. Ultimately the show is about how the process of grief creates the universe people want to fall back on.”
“It’s hard not to compare it to the original, but the challenge lies in how we then build an identity around this new play, and deciding how much do push or stay within the boundaries,” says Fared. “We do take some liberty with our imagination, and it helps to set the premise of the how it’s being treated. Audiences come in knowing that it’s going to be a sad story, but at the same time, we pepper the set with some colour, and it’s going to be fun to watch. We’ll add dance, song and props, maybe even a bit of puppetry, and to follow through with that original whimsical world created, which come together to give a very different texture to a very sad story. We’ll be watching for if they cry during a fun moment – it’s about creating these unexpected contrasts onstage and explore the story in a new way, but still hitting the emotions hard.”
Even though live theatre was not an option for Ekamatra over the last two years, the company adapted several plays intended for live audiences to a digital format, including Pulang Balik at the Esplanade, and even an earlier version of Berak, which was screened as part of Festival/Tokyo in 2020. “After we were told we couldn’t do a live performance, we received an invitation to present work at Festival Tokyo, and we somehow had enough footage to bring it all together, including sound design, multimedia and more,” says Fared. “It was all very new, but we believed in the work and were happy it could reach out to audiences in some form.”
Berak boasts a stellar cast of Malay talent, with some of the very best the local theatre scene has to offer. Both Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit and Siti K are household names, while Fir Rahman and Siti Hajar have made their mark on both television and film, and all seem perfectly cast for their respective roles. “We wanted to work with Siti K, because she hasn’t been doing a lot of Malay theatre recently, and she’s been dying to do a project like that,” says Fared.
“For our projects, we tend to list people we want to work with, and we love working with new people all the time too, like how Bangsawan Gemala Malam featured cast members like Aisyah Aziz and Vanda Miss Joaquim, while also including people we’ve worked with before, trust our process, and open up to give the way we want to. But it’s only when you step into the rehearsal room that you will know if they’ll work together like magic or not, and it’s the responsibility and ethos of Ekamatra that whoever you get onstage, you die die have to make it work, or at least look damn good onstage.”
As one of the foremost Malay theatre companies in Singapore, Ekamatra could be seen as thought leaders as the scene continues to grow, and we asked both Fared and Big to share more on their role in the scene. “Honestly, there’s not a lot of Malay theatre out there compared to English, and we try as much as possible to support each other’s shows,” says Fared. “There’s actually so many interesting players out there outside of our radar, who perform at community centres, schools and so on, and they each find a different way of forming their team and have their own way of presenting theatre their way. We may have been on the scene a while, but who are we to say what we are doing is the ‘standard’? I love to celebrate different people doing theatre and finding their own path, to see them work towards what they believe in that isn’t necessarily the way they were taught in formal art schools.”
“There are so many exciting players these days in the scene, like the Main Tulis Group that has spawned their share of productions and collaborations, like Rupa co.lab, and like Fared said, people who may work with CCs and schools that end up putting up even more productions than the major companies, just that their work isn’t for the masses,” says Big. “Ekamatra does want to leave a legacy behind, but at the same time, would like to see the landscape more vibrant, where people talk to each other and share knowledge and collaborate with one another, company to company, rather than just having playwrights and actors go from one place to another. We can’t be elitist or see it as a competition or whether someone is better than the other; we need to work together to do things like connect to the younger crowd and how we can create something better together.”
“As an educator, I see how even though there is a very small percentage of Malay students in SOTA, they do somehow navigate their way to Ekamatra, and I really looking forward to them doing more work with us,” says Fared, on the next generation of Malay theatremakers. “We are always consciously looking at the landscape and seeing what’s lacking, whether stage managers or actors, and as much as possible, try to use our outreach programmes and workshops to start something, to get people interested.”
“One thing we’re still lacking is more directors, especially female directors. Yes, we have Alin, and we used to have Zizi Azah, who’s no longer based in Singapore, but besides them, who else do we have?” adds Fared. “We haven’t really come across people who come in knowing they want to direct, so usually, it’s those people who know they aren’t necessarily going to act, and end up dabbling in writing, directing and creating instead. The bigger concern is how we find these people and generate an interest in them to fill these spaces.”
Reflecting on this year’s The Studios theme of Nervous System, Big and Fared consider the idea of the theatre ecosystem, and how there is a need for companies to better work with each other and stay connected. “You know, the nervous system connects back to the brain, but I think what we need more of is the heart, to show more empathy and compassion, and put aside our egos,” says Fared. “I came from a time when Malay theatremakers just worked with other Malay people in their own enclaves, but I think we’re now in a time where the way we work is very rich. Companies like Drama Box, who Big worked with, show that we’re blurring the line between strict monoethnic theatre. And with so many independent artists, the scene is really quite strong, and constantly exploring new ways of presenting. It’s an exploratory stage, and I think people need to be more forgiving, but also be willing to learn to grow from criticism.”
“From a playwright’s point of view, I think we need to celebrate our own stories and our own struggles, and like what Fared says, we need more empathy if we are to understand what the nation needs,” says Big. “At the crux of it, yes we are a ‘Malay theatre company’, Drama Box is a ‘Chinese theatre company’, and we represent how we see things in our community, and how we relate to the larger Singaporean community out there. In this landscape we should move forward together but never forget about our culture and the legacy we have inherited from our predecessors]. We cannot paint everything with just one brush, we have to let the young ones take flight, and see how things progress while looking at our past.”
“The ecosystem is really growing, and it’s more important than ever to stay connected with each other, to learn to be a Renaissance citizen and learn to work hand in hand with each other,” Fared concludes. “Long gone are the days where Malay theatre focuses purely on the idea of carving a Malay identity. It still happens subconsciously, but there are bigger, broader national issues to be discussed. What’s important, and what makes it ‘Malay’, is how these issues are seen and experienced through our voices, and how these voices are given a space to be heard through avenues like theatre.”
Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra
Berak plays from 1st to 4th September 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here
The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here