Second Link: The Singapore-Malaysia Text Exchange

Singapore Theatre Festival 2006 (W!LD RICE)
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

As the finale performance of the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival, W!LD RICE brings back acclaimed cross-Causeway performance Second Link, directed by its Artistic Director Ivan Heng based on an original concept by the late Krishen Jit. Short, poignant works spanning the gamut of local literature from both Singapore and Malaysia are given a strong and impressively energetic performance by a cast of ten.

The first half of the performance, Riding the Nice Bus, features a group of five Malaysian actors performing Singaporean works of literature. The cast of three men and two women are dressed in plain white and perform with virtually no props on a illuminated white platform. The local works featured are curated by Eleanor Wong and Alvin Pang and boast extracts from plays, novels and poetry.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

While some pieces strike one as being distinctly Singaporean such as a classroom lesson on Singlish inspired by Hwee Hwee Tan's Mammon Inc. and a dramatised reading of Ulysses by the Merlion by Edwin Thumboo, there are numerous others that are far more difficult to place and which do not truly reflect the Singaporean identity. It is also lamentable that the titles of the works being performed are not highlighted on the overhead screens for the audience, something that would certainly have helped to increase awareness of Singapore's rich local literature. The extensive use of pictures, movies and diagrams being flashed throughout the performance prove rather jarring at times, especially where they do not add much to the flavour or tone of the work.

Heng's direction is smooth and aesthetically pleasing and the transitions between scenes is effortless and breezy. The Malaysian cast prove especially strong in their physical tableaus and work very well together as a team in many of the pieces. Unfortunately, some of the actors have the tendency to lose conviction in the longer scenes. A poignant exchange between two female lovers from Eleanor Wong's Jointly & Severably is sadly under-performed, the rich and moving cadences of the dialogue feeling rather laboured. 

However, individual cast members prove highly adept in delivering monologues; Edwin Sumun shines in scenes from Chay Yew's A Language of their Own and Chong Tze Chien's PIE which dissected issues of race and identity and Sukania Venugopal is peerless in her portryal of a tortured Indian-Muslim wife in a scene from Elangovan's Talaq.

The second half of the play, interestingly named Tikam Tikam: Malaysian Roulette, sees the Singaporean cast of five actors (dressed in black as a nice counterpoint to the earlier five actors in white) perform various works of Malaysian literature curated by prolific playwright Leow Puay Tin. Before the interval, a huge board is brought out and audience members chose the sequence of plays to be performed on the spot by picking numbers randomly (tikam-tikam). Apart from a fixed beginning and finale piece, the cast would be performing as many of the plays as they could within an hour in the sequence determined by the audience.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

Though Heng directs both sets of actors, the second half feels vastly better mainly due to the more light-hearted take on some of the pieces and excellent performances. Jonathan Lim has the audience in stitches with his portrayal of Raffles with British-accented Malay in an extract from historical piece Hikayat Abdullah; Karen Tan does a delighfully cute impersonation of a mousedeer in the fable Sang Kancil and Gani Abdul Karim is spellbinding in his delivery of the muezzin's call to prayer in Lee Kok Liang's Flowers in the Sky. A particular hit with the audience is the scene from Huzir Sulaiman's acclaimed political comedy Atomic Jaya about the Malaysian bureaucracy; the remark "Chinese do the work, Malays take the credit, Indians get the blame" brought the house down.

The range of works selected by Leow Puay Tin in the second half is considerable, including interviews, folk-tales and songs in addition to prose, poetry and plays, giving one a far more thorough and evocative picture of Malaysian literature than the first set of texts. The titles of the various works being displayed on the screens also allow the audience to appreciate each piece more effectively than in the first half.

Second Link is a marriage of two sets of rich literary treasures delivered in bite-sized chunks to give one a taste of the history, culture and tradition on both sides of the Causeway. While it could benefit from more even direction and better editing, it remains a powerful, entertaining piece of theatre that celebrates the invariably distinct, yet inextricably intertwined national identities of Singapore and Malaysia.

The Crystalwords score: 7.5/10


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