Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa'Hassan

by Oliver Chong and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA)
based on texts by Kuo Pao Kun and Alfian Sa'at
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: My Country and My People
(organised and curated by TNS)
NAFA Studio Theatre, Singapore

This year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is inspired by Lee Tzu Pheng’s poem My Country and My Home and seeks to explore the compromises of national development and economic ambition. To what extent has the forging of a collective identity by the authorities effaced our individual expression and personal stories?

Oliver Chong's production splices texts from two plays - Kuo Pao Kun’s Kopitiam (1986) and Alfian Sa’at’s Anak Bulan di Kampong Wa’Hassan (2006) - with verbatim texts drawn from interviews with the cast who are currently students at NAFA. By drawing on the voices of a Chinese playwright from the Pioneer generation, a Malay playwright from the post-Merdeka generation and today’s millennials, it aims to excavate perspectives on nationhood and identity from a wide spectrum of Singapore society.

Photo Credit: Memphis West/Joe Nair

While there is certainly ambition behind the work, it falters in execution. Excerpts from the two plays sit uncomfortably with segments where the cast sit in a row and banter, presumably to the unseen director, about topics such as education, housing, immigration and their individual hopes and dreams. A mobile phone ringtone is used as a heavy-handed device to cut them off each time. The format feels weak and one struggles to see how this string of seemingly unedited interviews interacts with the stories being enacted elsewhere, be it the grandfather and grandson debating the question of staying versus quitting in Kopitiam or the group of villagers dealing with the mysterious disappearance of a schoolgirl in Anak Bulan.

Chong also employs a distracting series of aesthetics, almost to give the comparatively large cast something to do. Actors walk around slowly scattering leaves, skipping or simply lurking in the background doing stylized movements and these repetitive actions tend to distract from the substantive scenes. The production runs for some ninety minutes but feels twice as long. The young and effervescent cast however do their best with the material and there are assured turns from the likes of Yazid Jalil and Darren Guo.

Photo Credit: Memphis West/Joe Nair

Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’Hassan may not emerge as a revelatory piece of theatre but it offers us a chance to reflect on the complex and contradictory meaning of home. If nothing else, one may gain some perspective on how best to negotiate one's place in a country that has so relentlessly surged forward in this uncertain world.

I discuss this production in more detail in this month's Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with playwright and editor Nabilah Said and theatre educator Matthew Lyon.

The Crystalwords score: 2/5


Popular Posts