Kalaripayattu is not something you would immediately link theatre with. Heck, you might even be scratching your head as to what it really is. But on a typical rehearsal day at Wild Rice, a theatre company along Singapore’s Kerbau Road, the five actors rehearsing for the upcoming play Another Country sometimes begin with kalaripayattu – an ancient martial arts from Kerala, India.
Sharda Harrison, one of the actors, mixes elements of it into the group warm-ups. And sometimes they even practice the ashtanga yoga. After all, the play, which opens on June 4 at DPAC, Petaling Jaya, is filled with physically demanding pieces. Infusing dance and movement, it is no wonder then that the Singaporean actors begin their rehearsals as such.
No doubt their Malaysian counterparts go through similar physical warm-ups.
“What? Malaysian counterparts?” you may ask.
Yes, Malaysian counterparts. Another Country is a collaborative work between Malaysian and Singaporean theatre makers to celebrate our neighbour’s 50 years of independence.
Directed by theatre big wheels from both sides of the Causeway, Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng, the ensemble consists of 10 actors, five from each side. The actors are Anne James, Ghafir Akbar, Sharifah Amani, Iedil Putra and Alfred Loh from Malaysia and Lim Yu-Beng, Gani Karim, Lydia Look, Sharda Harrison and Siti Khalijah Zainal from Singapore.
The production is part of Wild Rice’s year-long Imagination season, which marks the company’s 15th anniversary.
Interestingly, the various productions in the season take inspiration from the five stars of the Singapore flag. The stars represent democracy, equality, justice, progress and peace, which Another Country explores. The play looks at the similarities, differences and everything in between shared by our two countries. It is a funny and insightful exploration of what makes us uniquely Malaysian and Singaporean.
Heng says that sometimes the separation of the countries “feels illusive, even fictional, especially when we travel to each other’s countries and realise how much culture, history and food we still share”. For that to work, the performed texts were specially curated by playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Leow Puay Tin, with the former curating the Singaporean texts and the latter curating the Malaysian texts.
The actors then perform their neighbour’s script, walking in each other’s shoes if you like.
Kukathas says that to “look at a country through literature, not politics, to see a nation through poets, not politicians – is to open up new landscapes.”
Talking about her curatorial process, Leow shares she is drawn to writings which have impacted her, “sometimes for reasons I can’t clearly explain”.
One of the texts the playwright included, whose previous works include Tikam-Tikam: And Her Grandmother Said, Ang Tau Mui and Family, is an account by Tunku Abdul Rahman on the 1969 race riots in Malaysia. “The part which has always remained with me are his dreams of rats and flies just before the event,” Leow points out.
The other Malaysian texts include excerpts from a Jit Murad play, a 1985 article by the late Krishen Jit from his Talking Drama With Utih column in the New Straits Times and an Usman Awang poem from Uda Dan Dara, among others.
Lim Yu-Beng, who wrote and directed the successful 2 Houses at last year’s George Town Festival, says he is “conscious that these are precious words. Words that have been carefully wrought by the wordsmiths, lovingly curated with a specific bent and words of our Malaysian neighbours, relatives and friends. We try to see what they saw, hear what they heard and express that somehow.”
Siti Khalijah Zainal quips: “There are some scenes where it feels all too familiar and similar that I can’t believe it’s not actually written by a Singaporean.”
For a project that rides on reflection and personal interpretations of national issues and identities, the phrase “another country” could mean a few things.
For Gani Karim, who played Utih in the latest staging of Uda Dan Dara at KLPac last month, the phrase is dichotomous.
Personally, the 45-year-old says in a recent e-mail interview from Singapore, another country is that feeling of “being in your own homeland yet not feeling totally at one with her. A feeling of longing to return, yet feeling not quite at home after returning.”
He adds, as far as the show is concerned, another country is a “celebration of this longing. A celebration and acceptance of our common heritage and differences that make us unique.”
Siti, on the other hand, shares that Singapore “already feels like another country”.
How was it then for the Singaporean thespians to perform the Malaysian texts? With so much shared history and heritage, how did they tackle it? More importantly, did it pose any unique challenge for them?
Being a Singaporean of Malay ethnicity, Siti’s challenge was putting herself in the shoes of her Malaysian counterpart “where I’m a majority and trying to understand the struggles they may face and the advantage they have.
“I’m a Singaporean Malay, a minority in my country, and I’ve never known how it feels like to be on the ‘other side’.”
The actress won Best Actress for her role in Model Citizens (2010) at the 2011 Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards
Gani feels the same way. For him, the challenge was to “understand and empathise with the emotional and sociological psyche of my neighbours”.
What Another Country hopes to do is to make audiences realise that the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is more than just bilateral.
There is something deeper that we share, something personal, perhaps familial that connects us, disparate though we are.
The poems, speech and play excerpts and writings from both sides of the Causeway are a testament to that. It is imperative, then, for us to really listen to the stories shared.
“I think more than ever we need to tell these stories, which speak of ties that are not just historical but also very much of the present: personal, cultural, visceral, umbilical,” says Alfian.
Another Country is on at the Theatre, DPAC, Petaling Jaya, Selangor from June 4-6 (8.30pm), June 7 (3pm), June 9-13 (8.30pm) and June 14 (3pm). Tickets are priced from RM35 to RM80. The production will also play at Singapore’s Drama Centre Theatre from June 25 till July 11. For more information, contact 03-4065 0001 or visit dpac.com.my.