Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Make Hantus Great Again by Teater Ekamatra

Spirited political farce about the death of democracy.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Rizman Putra)8
Script (Suffian Hakim)7
Performance (Hafidz Rahman, Munah Bagharib, Azizul ‘Izzy’ Mahathir, Farah Lola, Jamil Schulze, Neo Hai Bin, and Norisham Osman)7
Sound Design (Safuan Johari)8
Lighting Design (Ian Pereira) 8
Set Design (Allister Towndrow)8
Hair/Makeup (Suzana Salleh)8
Total54/70 (77%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

Like a curse you can’t get rid of, politics is the impossible to exorcise ghost that haunts every aspect of life, from the workplace to literally deciding how the country is run. So in all honesty, to imagine it being a key aspect of the afterlife might not be so far-fetched after all.

That is the premise behind Teater Ekamatra’s new show, as audience members enter the realm of underworld politicking in Make Hantus Great Again. Penned by prose writer Suffian Hakim in his debut theatre script, Make Hantus Great Again imagines the existence of a Convention of Metaphysical Entities (COME), the governing body for the spirit world that oversees the going ons of every supernatural being in Singapore, from hantus to pontianaks, vampires to jiangshi.

In the show, audience members have been invited to bear witness and even cast their vote in the second General Election to determine the next leader. Among the candidates are: Pak Ahmad (Norisham Osman), an elitist, conservative hantu; Aisyah (Farah Lola), a liberal, forward-thinking pontianak; Humphrey (Jamil Schulze), a sexually-charged vampire; and Tan Ah Kow (Neo Hai Bin), a money-minded jiangshi. When the politicking begins and the schemes and strategies emerge, we prepare themselves for a showdown of supernatural proportions.

Make Hantus Great Again follows a fairly simple plot, where we are introduced to each of these characters in turn, and get to know their motivations and political leanings before the election proceedings itself. Allister Towndrow’s set may be simple, but is highly effective at evoking the sense of the underworld with stony-hued paper lining the floors and walls to resemble a massive cave, while a cauldron sits right in the centre, for potential candidates to toss in their names. Throughout the play, oversized props, from massive sticks of satay to a huge copy of The Singapore Story, make an appearance, and provoke laughter from their sheer ludicrousness. In addition, the costumes are also simple but effective – there is something endearing in their makeshift quality, capturing the essence of each paranormal creature without being too over the top, and making clear reference to Malay baju or popular film depictions.

Considering this is Suffian Hakim’s first script, the author (known for comedic works such as Harris Bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher and The Minorities) manages to bring and maintain his unique brand of humour from page to stage. There is an unapologetic, no holds-barred approach to fleshing out his characters that play on familiar stereotypes. Pak Ahmad, for example, is a cantankerous older Malay man and a typical ‘boomer’, complaining about woke culture and believing in the majority race (the hantus) being the best leaders. Humphrey, on the other hand, is pure, unbridled libido given form, and actor Jamil Schulze takes every opportunity to camp it up and revel in the chaotic role, earning him plenty of laughs for his uncontrollable urge to flirt with everything he sees (and more).

However, Suffian isn’t content to play just for cheap laughs, and even affords some of the characters are storylines that go beyond the surface, particularly with the pontianaks. Besides Aisyah, there also exists fellow potianaks Petom (Munah Bagharib) and Sin Siti (Azizul ‘Izzy’ Mahathir), the latter being a former vampire transitioning into becoming a pontianak. As a coven of pontianak sisters, the three are given the most backstory, and the only ones to share interpersonal relationships, affording all three actors the opportunity to showcase more emotional moments. This is especially interesting as we watch the ensuing tensions from Aisyah’s increasing powerlust, Petom’s reluctance to continue supporting her, and Sin Siti’s pained cold turkey state, leading to the eventual dissolution of the sisterhood. These, however, could still be further developed, and sometimes feel like too drastic a tonal shift from the comedic moments.

The standout actor among the ensemble however, is Hafidz Rahman, as Mistress of Ceremonies Joyah De Vivre. Hafidz has been given the difficult role of not just performing in drag, but also to draw on his improv chops to actually play a good host and riff off the audience’s energy, warming them up at the start of the entire show and keeping us invested throughout. To this end, Hafidz does a stellar job, and nails every punchline and euphemism, adjusting his voice from sultry and sensual to manly and deep when ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Sang Nila Utama, or commandeering with a dominatrix-like authority (and a literal whip) when called on to lead democratic proceedings.

Once the introductions and backstories are out of the way, as with most politics, it all eventually devolves into a raucous circus, particularly when the candidates begin the public debate, revealing unsupported claims, racial/class biases and incompetencies. There is a lot that Suffian Hakim tries to stuff the script with, making for a plethora of both hits and misses, including a reference to parliamentary lies and an awkward rap sequence from Hai Bin’s Tan Ah Kow. This segment does drag on somewhat, revealing of the strained pacing of the script that tries to deepen and elongate a relatively simple idea. But as we watch the ghouls devolve into fisticuffs and a rigged voting system, Make Hantus Great Again is crystal clear with its message that democracy is merely an elaborate farce, and a game of thrones where no one really wins.

To director Rizman Putra’s credit, Make Hantus Great Again is ultimately a fun romp into the afterlife, balancing the sobering pessimism towards modern politics with wry humour, slapstick comedy and lewd jokes. Supported by a mostly capable cast who put their all into their over the top roles, this is a welcome direction for Teater Ekamatra to take as they explore more overtly comical work in their season, while still infusing it with an urgency and a uniquely Singaporean flavour. Even if the character development between supernatural ‘races’ is somewhat unbalanced, and the pacing could do with more streamlining, the tensions that arise offer us valid insight into voter sentiment in the 21st century – where even the prospect of a spoiled vote can be more attractive than choosing between severely flawed candidates, none of which have the voter’s interests at heart.

Photo Credit: A. Syadiq

Make Hantus Great Again ran from 28th to 30th October 2022 at Wild Rice @ Funan. More information available here

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