The Gunpowder Trail

by Zizi Azah
adapted from the short story by Claire Tham
Teater Ekamatra
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

One cannot deny that Teater Ekamatra's latest excursion, an adaptation of Claire Tham's award-winning short story The Gunpowder Trail, has the hallmarks of compelling black-box theatre: an intriguing non-linear plot, strong female characters and an unconventional mother-daughter relationship set against the backdrop of modern Singapore.

Tham is known for her strong, character-driven plots and this slick two-hander, written and directed by Ekamatra's Artistic Director Zizi Azah, is largely faithful to the original text. Lina (Onietta Effendi) is a Yale scholar, formidable banker and single mother. Her career is everything and she barely has time to raise her teenage daughter Alia (Natasha Thangamany), whom she had abandoned for 12 years before returning home from the States. Lina then mysteriously disappears with 50 million dollars of client money. The play proceeds through a series of flashbacks and monologues, interspersed with scenes of Alia being interrogated by police officers as to her mother's whereabouts.

The Gunpowder Trail

Zizi shows a mastery of space in her direction and has the characters pace up and down, run round in circles, shout from opposite ends and share intimate scenes in the very middle, all the while playing to audience members seated on both sides of the theatre. In the post-show dialogue, she describes how she had conceived of Alia's space (the dressing table) and Lina's space (free rein over the rest of the stage) and this contrast between the contained and the uncontained is paralleled in the characters as we see parts of them being reined in, yet others spilling out.

A key theme of The Gunpowder Trail is the distance between people in modern relationships and this is echoed by set designer's Izmir Ickbal's long dining table with a chair at either end. When Alia kisses her mother's hand, it is deliberately played such that we see the daughter lean forward and kiss and the mother receive whilst they remain seated at opposite ends of the table, the flat distance between them making the show of emotion all the more poignant.

Structurally and aesthetically, it all hangs together quite well but I spent most of the production pondering over one question: what does Zizi seek to achieve by introducing a new racial/religious angle into the plot, changing the race of the two women from Chinese in the original text to Malay-Muslim?

Racial politics is certainly nothing new for Teater Ekamatra; their recent productions of Charged and Pariah dealt with issues of race with an uncompromising frankness. What The Gunpowder Trail however lacks is that same level of trenchant social commentary. Zizi certainly does try to weave in a religious backdrop to the story. It is revealed that as an undergraduate, the pregnant Lina had wanted to get rid of her child but had experienced a religious awakening at the abortion clinic when she heard the azan (Muslim call to prayer), making her fall to her knees in forgiveness. In another memorable sequence, an inebriated Lina stumbles home after a client dinner and is chastised by her daughter with images of hellfire and damnation for drinking as a Muslim. Yet such scenes, while providing a religious gloss to the play, are piecemeal and do not fit together as a coherent whole.  

What emerges from a Malay-Muslim interpretation of this particular story is the rarely seen image of an emancipated and educated Malay woman who, unlike so many others from her background, is in every respect the equal of her peers. As she recounts her days of academic glory, Oniatta's Lina arches her back and repeats her mother's words: "kibarkan bendera Melayu" (fly the Malay flag high), miming the brandishing of a flag with the ferocious air of a social nobody who has reached the zenith of accomplishments. It would have been nice for this motif of the simple Malay girl having succeeded in life to feature more. Yet Lina's material success is for the most part universal; apart from the occasional colloquial reference, one may struggle to place this in a specifically Malay context.

Oniatta cuts a striking figure as Lina in her cropped hair and designer clothes, marrying feline charm with world-weary cynicism. Her accent itself is modulated perfectly; Oniatta's clipped anglophone tones are a world apart from the coarse Malay which she employs to portray the role of an intimidating police inspector.

Natasha Thangamany, in her professional debut, is rather wooden in comparison. Of course, this is only to be expected from a newcomer and one playing a more passive character like Alia. Yet, her speeches seem rather forced and it is difficult to imagine her playing a lascivious Caucasian man with very little change in her mannerisms. The fact remains that in a two-hander, there is very little room to hide one's inexperience.

Even at her most callous, it is difficult to paint Lina as a terrible mother; by giving her daughter up for 12 years and letting her be raised by her grandparents, she allows Alia to be brought up in a home full of warmth and religion, a home which she herself had been brought up in. As she drops Alia off at school, Lina reminds her daughter to say her prayers and silently breaks down in the car before driving away. We sense that deep inside Lina, there is a good mother who wants the best for her daughter and Oniatta's strength lies in being able to draw out the tenderness buried underneath her cold corporate shell.

It is refreshing to see a bold take on a Malay character and despite the uneven acting and the racial theme not being integrated into the plot quite as much as I would have liked, this is a play of great potential that is beautifully staged. Singaporean theatre needs to see more Linas and the three-day run of this production at the Esplanade Theatre Studio certainly does not do it much justice. As Lina herself would say, "kibarkan bendera Melayu"!

The Crystalwords score: 6/10

*This review appears as a guest review for The Flying Inkpot.


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