Tiger of Malaya

by Alfian Sa'at
Teater Ekamatra
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Only a month ago, there was a furore over Crazy Rich Asians, local critics debating whether the glossy Hollywood treatment was accurate in its portrayal of Singapore. This brings with it the related question of examining history and how stories of a particular society or community are told. Who has the power to shape and control these narratives? The state, with its own political or nation-building agenda? The dominant race or culture? Does this make an alternative or unofficial account any less valid?

Teater Ekamatra continues its 30th anniversary season with a critical dissection of history. In this play-within-a-play by Alfian Sa’at, a group of Singaporean and Japanese actors have been commissioned to remake the 1943 Japanese propaganda film Marai no Tora (Tiger of Malaya) in a more culturally sensitive light. The original film portrayed the Japanese protagonist Tani Yukata as a dauntless hero who stood up to the evil British colonialists in Malaya during the Second World War. Japanese actors played the simple Malay natives in ‘brownface’ make-up while the Chinese were depicted as cardboard, conniving villains.

Photo Credit: Monospectrum Photography

The format is deceptively simple. The actors re-create scenes from the film with the original black-and-white footage being flashed on the curved white screen behind them. However, through these re-creations, they realize that any attempt to tell a story necessarily involves imposing one person's interpretation over another. Should the Japanese be portrayed in a more sympathetic light? Should the Chinese or Malay characters be presented with more nuance?

Parallel to these scenes, the actors trade anecdotes about theatrical conventions and cultural or national identity, revealing how much one tends to be fixated by caricatures. Director Mohd Fared Jainal is alive to the rich comedy in the text and coaxes strong,  engrossing performances from the ensemble cast comprising Siti Khalijah Zainal, Rei Poh, Farez Najid, Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa.

Even as Tiger of Malaya ties us up in complex questions about race, culture and identity, it constantly brings us down to reality by joyously breaking the fourth wall and indulging in meta-theatrical commentary about topics ranging from surtitles, post-dramatic performance and the very concept of intercultural theatre. 

In this month's Arts Equator podcast, Matt Lyon and I are joined by theatre educator Charlene Rajendran as we discuss the production and its themes in more detail. Check out our podcast here

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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