conceptualised by Nabilah Said
written and devised by Irfan Kasban and the cast
Teater Ekamatra
Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

Teater Ekamatra's traditional end-of-year productions are a mixed bag. Over the years, we've seen some really good ones like the critically-acclaimed Charged and Kakak Kau Punya Laki, both of which have gone on to enjoy revivalsOthers, like political thriller Mata Hati and science fiction drama Paradise, have proven rather less satisfactory. Angkat is based on a concept by emerging playwright and resident artist Nabilah Said and centres around the relationship between a mother and her adoptive daughter. It's a collaborative piece that was devised by the cast of the play and written and directed by Associate Artist Irfan Kasban.

Walking into the auditorium at the Malay Heritage Centre, one sees rows upon rows of cardboard boxes adorning the stage. The flimsy backdrop, which literally falls apart by the end, unfortunately proves a metaphor for the threadbare plot which ends quite abruptly, leaving one distinctly unsatisfied.

We follow Salmah, a young woman who dreams of becoming the next National Idol (a singing competition), as she undergoes a probing audition process. Her adoptive mother Khadijah, who works at an orphanage, disapproves of such public displays before the media and wants her to stop. Over the course of the play, Salmah navigates the gulf between being a modern Muslim woman and a simple, conservative person like Khadijah. Meanwhile, the discovery of a dark secret about her past makes Salmah evaluate her life choices.

Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra

It's a good story but a lot of the scenes are filled with tropes reminiscent of television soap operas. Many of Ekamatra's productions provide a nuanced examination of how Malay characters deal with the pressures of the outside world. Angkat, on the other hand, simply collapses this into a binary between modern and traditional. The actions of the characters echo this. Khadijah constantly prays on her rug while Salmah lurks in the background, preoccupied by other things. Khadijah hides her possessions away while Salmah keeps unpacking objects, laying them out for all to see. It feels rather heavy-handed.

There are also instances where the plot can be developed further. We never quite get to see Salmah outside the audition room or learn about her daily life and interactions with other people. One longs to hear more about Salmah's biological mother and her relationship with a Caucasian man who mysteriously disappeared after her birth. Instead, we get a hasty denouement which makes the play feel unfinished.

Ultimately, what ultimately lifts Angkat are the strong performances by the cast. Sahirrah Safit carries the show as the sweet, slightly diffident ingénue and one finds oneself rooting for her to achieve a mark for herself in a world where she is constantly being taught how to behave. Seasoned actress Norsiah Ramly provides good support as Khadijah, the taciturn but warm-hearted woman who found a baby abandoned at her doorstep and brought her up as her own, working multiple jobs to give her a good life. Scenes of her yelling at Salmah and conveying the quiet disappointment of a mother who wants her child to go down the right path have a strong mark of authenticity. 

Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra

Erwin Shah Ismail, Farez Najid and Faizal Abdullah provide great moments as a panel of judges ranging from 'good cop' to 'bad cop' and, alternately, a group of mischievous children at the orphanage. They are especially engaging as they pick Salmah apart with a torrent of personal questions. As we watch the poor girl being coaxed to change the spelling of her name and embellish her back story to stand out from the crowd, we are reminded of the inevitable cost of fame: having to compromise one's identity in some way.

Irfan provides generally slick direction and keeps us invested in the tale. He coaxes strong performances from his cast and blends physical, almost childish, slapstick comedy with scenes of deeper emotional resonance. Sound designer Tini Aliman captures the mercurial shifts in tone beautifully with an evocative range of classic and contemporary music.

Angkat is a sweet coming-of-age story about finding oneself and the sustaining power of family. However, there's just not enough substance or subtlety here to sustain an entire play. With some work, perhaps it may rise to the occasion. 

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5


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