by Hazwan Norly 
Rupa co.lab
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021: Quiet Riot!
(organised and curated by TNS)
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

This is the second full-length production by Malay theatre collective Rupa co.lab after the powerful Rumah Dayak in late 2019. Presented as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021, it's a sensitive and nuanced look into the lived experience of Malay-Muslim homosexuals in Singapore.

The action centres round Jihad (Irsyad Dawood), a closeted swimming instructor who is in a relationship with an older man, Ramlan (Saifuddin Jumadi), a religious leader at his mosque. Jihad's best friend and confidante is the feisty, tomboyish Zana (Syimah Sabtu), who meets a religious man on a dating app and tries to adopt a more conservative image. Rounding out the quartet is Ramlan's good-natured and unsuspecting wife, Ramlah (Dalifah Shahril), a budding livestream baker who treats Jihad as a surrogate son.

Interspersed in the narrative are scenes of a young boy (strongly hinted as the young Ramlan) trying to search for mermaids in the swimming pool and meeting mysterious creatures like talking conch shells. It's a nod at the internal tussle which each of these nuanced characters undergo in reconciling their private lives with their public identities. 

Photo Credit: Back Alley Media

Playwright Hazwan Norly avoids neat caricature and imbues his characters with richness and complexity, making it clear that there are no easy answers here. Are we meant to root for the clandestine gay romance while a marriage quietly founders? He is also unapologetic in confronting the theme of religion and sexuality, a topic that rarely gets much air time in Malay theatre. 

There is uniformly strong work amongst the cast. Ramlah starts off as a stereotypical makcik figure who lives her best life making pandan cake and fashionably styling her tudung but reveals a surprising open-mindedness towards the end. Irsyad and Syimah shine as best friends grappling with parts of their identity who are only able to reveal themselves fully to each other. Syimah, in particular, lends the character of Zana a beautiful complexity: tough-talking but vulnerable, liberal but guided by her own moral compass. 

The production is sensitively directed by Rizman Putra who keeps the pace tight and balances the mostly naturalistic scenes with his trademark surreal and comic elements. In a particularly hilarious nod to internet culture, the actors march up and down the stage with a stream of emojis and portray a group of gossipy women chatting with each other online while watching a Facebook livestream bake by Ramlah. 

Pandan joins a slew of recent plays like Johnny Jon Jon’s Hawa and Potong which seek to challenge Malay stereotypes and openly discuss faith and sexuality in the community. Much like the final scene hinting at a note of acceptance, this is a rainbow kueh lapis of a play that is colourful, layered and tasty. 

I discuss this production in more detail in the Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with writer, editor and producer Kathy Rowland and theatre educator Matthew Lyon.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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