Review: A Novel Idea – SingLit Edition by The Arts House (Textures 2023)

New edition of the beloved dramatised reading series brings three SingLit works to life.

If movie trailers exist to promote films, why not book trailers to promote works of literature? Enter A Novel Idea, the brainchild of The Arts House and local theatre director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, which does exactly that, using a dramatised reading to bring the written word to life, and entice audience members to read the book.

In a very special SingLit edition of the beloved programme, Samantha unites local actors Serene Chen and Shafiqhah Efandi to perform three separate dramatised readings of prose by female Singaporean authors, namely – Inez Tan’s short story collection This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone, Kristin Chen’s Counterfeit, and Erni Salleh’s The Java Enigma.

The stage set-up in the Arts House Play Den is relatively pared down and simple, with only a map made of white tape lining the floor, demarcating various locales mentioned across all three books. As such, every reading hinges almost entirely on the performance of both actors, who play all the roles, with some additional props, costumes, and sound effects to assist with the immersion.

The first of the readings is the short story Oyster, from This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone. Telling the story of an oyster making its way from the ocean to a Singaporean family’s kitchen, Serene and Shafiqhah sit behind a table for this performance, and utilise cardboard cutouts for their faces to demarcate the different characters they play. Even though they never move from their initial positions, Samantha has good control over Inez Tan’s already evocative and imaginative writing to emphasise Oyster‘s subtle theme of loss, in terms of both time and distance. Both Serene and Shafiqhah are able to clearly differentiate their voices, from playing curious frozen oysters interacting with fellow groceries in the fridge and relishing the growth of mould on them, to the quiet distance between an estranged mother and daughter. When the oysters are finally disposed of, there is a sense of pain in saying goodbye to these shellfish we’ve gotten to know over the past half hour, yet hope in their belief that being trashed is not the end, and wonder how their lives continue in the future.

In the same session, a quick set change prepares the stage for Lee Kuan Yew Is Not Always The Answer, also from This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone. Set in the not-so-distant-future, the story follows a young primary school social studies teacher and a rabble-rousing primary 4 student, who convinces her peers to champion founding father Lee Kuan Yew and use his name as the answer to every question in class. Serene is well-suited for the role of the teacher, as she exudes a tiredness beyond her years and gentle awkwardness to her character, in contrast to Shafiqhah’s more boisterous Lola Pang, full of youthful energy and childlike verve. Shafiqhah also plays an older mother and an awkward math teacher, showing off her range. As a work of speculative fiction, Inez Tan’s writing offers up a familiar world with a hint of imagination, and effectively drives home the question – how much do we glorify the past and hold on to it before letting go?

It is in the novel adaptations that Samantha really shows off her prowess as a director, and manages to compact and truncate the lengthy prose into a bite-sized, exciting format. The first of these is Counterfeit, which follows goody two shoes Asian American lawyer Ava Wong (Shafiqhah), who gets roped into an outlandish partnership assisting ex-college mate Winnie Fang (Serene) in a lucrative counterfeit handbag scam. While there is not enough time to adapt the entire novel, Samantha deftly picks and adapts just the right parts to stir up interest, starting with a police interrogation before flashing back to how it all began, carefully charting Ava and Winnie’s unexpected reunion and effectively taking us on the wild good girl gone bad journey Ava undergoes.

Both Shafiqhah and Serene have plenty of fun in this roles, adopting an American and Chinese accent respectively, and pulling off pitch perfect scams as they return well-made counterfeits to department stores in lieu of real ones. Shafiqhah’s performance makes her easy to root for, as we watch Ava struggle with domestic issues and her discomfort at being thrust into a new world, before becoming a pro at the hustle. Meanwhile, Serene brings out the innate mystery of Winnie’s character, keeping us constantly on edge and unable to fully trust her with her multiple schemes and concocted stories. Suffice to say, we’ll want to pick up this book the next time we’re at the library or bookstore, and finish up where we left off.

In the final session, Erni Salleh’s The Java Enigma is a Da Vinci Code-style romp, as librarian Irin Omar (Shafiqhah) is alerted of a mysterious safety deposit box her estranged father left for her after a sudden death. Puzzles, codes and a multi-country adventure across Southeast Asia ensues, as she dives deeper into her family’s history and the secrets her father never told her. While the character of Irin is somewhat of a Mary Sue, and simultaneously a genius at puzzle-solving and a daring Lara Croft type, Shafiqhah makes Irin feel believable and even vulnerable.

This is particularly so when her character realises she is increasingly in over her head as she becomes overwhelmed by how far the mystery goes. All this while interacting and cooperating with the slew of other characters, all played by Serene, who takes on multiple accents and physicalities, whether as Irin’s younger brother or a seafaring older Dutch man. In covering so much of the book and making the rising action feel so suspenseful and leaving us hanging on to every word, curious to see where it all leads, The Java Enigma is certainly a successful trailer for the book.

Even with an absence of several years, A Novel Idea remains as engaging as ever, with Samantha Scott-Blackhall having selected intriguing pieces of writing to adapt, each one a completely different genre and experience that fully immerses audiences into the world. In addition, despite never having worked together on a show before, Shafiqhah and Serene make for an unexpectedly effective duo onstage, with keen chemistry and easily riffing off each other’s lines, bringing out the drama, nailing the comedic timing, and breathing life into these characters from page to stage. Highly entertaining and successfully shining the spotlight on these SingLit authors, A Novel Idea is the gift that keeps on giving. Who said reading can’t be fun?

A Novel Idea ran from 14th to 15th January 2023 at The Arts House Play Den, with This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone at 3pm, Counterfeit at 5pm, and The Java Enigma at 8pm. Textures 2023 ran from 6th to 15th January 2023 at The Arts House. More information and full programme availableĀ here

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