Make Hantus Great Again

by Suffian Hakim
Teater Ekamatra
Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, Singapore

Anyone familiar with the works of Suffian Hakim would know his penchant for blending comedy and the supernatural. His first novel Harris Bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher was a rollicking Singaporean satire of Harry Potter featuring a Malay protagonist. This was followed up by The Minorities, about a motley crew of Yishun flatmates whose lives take an interesting turn when a pontianak pays them a visit. Suffian’s playwriting debut, presented by Teater Ekamatra over the Halloween weekend, centres around the Convention of Metaphysical Entities (COME), an organisation introduced in the latter novel. It’s a rip-roaring, laugh-a-minute affair, set amidst the world of the Singaporean undead that serves up plenty of food for thought.

Presided over by sassy bomoh Joyah de Vivre (Hafidz Rahman), we are welcomed to the general elections of COME, an organisation managing supernatural affairs in Singapore. Four candidates vie for the position of leader, each hailing from a different supernatural race. Pak Ahmad (Norisham Osman), from the Hantus, is a haughty supremacist who declares that the majority race should naturally rule over the community like they have done for generations. Pontianak Aisyah (Farah Lola), stridently champions for minority representation, wanting to reclaim the narrative of her people and show their worth. An oddball entry is presented by Humphrey (Jamil Schulze), a leering, lascivious Vampire who is all about having fun. Rounding out the quartet is Tan Ah Kow (Neo Hai Bin), a jocular Jiangshi (Chinese reanimated corpse) who has made a fortune haunting Changi Airport.

Suffian intersperses the action with strident commentary on Singapore affairs and politics, riffing on everything from Chinese supremacy to the exhumation of graves at Bukit Brown and Bidadari Cemeteries for development, to the much-publicised case of former Workers Party MP Raessah Khan, caught lying in parliament. We are even given a sense of agency as the audience, when we are asked to vote for our ideal candidate using a QR code. Of course, it makes no difference to the outcome of the election whatsoever, a statement in itself. 

One cannot deny that Suffian can write a catchy one-liner, but the play is absolutely drowning in them. Themes such as representation, diversity, and political legitimacy are bandied about like wafer-thin strips of margarine, barely allowing their flavour to soak through the bread of the play. A #MeToo moment, where allegations of sexual misconduct are levelled against one of the candidates in the midst of the hustings, is piled on so suddenly that it falls flat. It does not help that the characters themselves are painted with bold brushstrokes and little nuance: the unabashed sex addict dishing out one ribald pun too many, the tone-deaf bigot refusing to be more inclusive, the power-hungry minority striving for sensation over substance. 

Photo Credit: A Syadiq

That said, there are tender moments in the storyline that prove redeeming. I appreciated the character of Sin City (Azizul ‘Izzy’ Mahathir), a Vampire transitioning into a Pontianak who copes with serious withdrawal symptoms and ends up being dismissed by the others. She acts as a powerful symbol of society’s ambivalence to those who do not fall into neat, state-sanctioned categories of race and gender, an issue that continues to disrupt our social fabric. 

Director Rizman Putra infuses the action with a kooky abandon and keeps things clipping along at a great pace. He makes good use of the wings of the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre, with the actors coming back and forth, and there is the sense that the audience is very much part of the action. He also extracts great performances from the cast, who have a whale of a time inhabiting their ‘larger-than-dead’ characters. Hafidz Rahman is a positive scene-stealer as the irreverent Joyah, gleefully breaking the fourth wall, and having the audience eating out of his hand. Munah Bagharib quietly shines as Petom, a Pontianak caught between being an ally for the assertive Aisyah and lending emotional support to the fragile Sin City. Neo Hai Bin, best known for his more serious work with companies like Nine Years Theatre, flexes his comedic chops to great effect as the rapping, hip-hop loving Tan Ah Kow.

Photo Credit: A Syadiq

On the production front, Allister Towndrow’s set, Safuan Johari’s sound and Ian Pereira’s lighting designs fuse together seamlessly to turn the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre into a shimmering underground den that feels like a cross between Hogwarts and the Batu Caves. Special mention also goes to the costumes, make-up and hair (Suzana Salleh) which helps to transform the actors into arresting, ghoulish creatures of the night.

Hot on the heels of their elegiac Malay-language transcreation of Berak, Ekamatra certainly has to be lauded for this bold left turn into the world of the supernatural and one played out amidst memorable local characters. A great way to tap out of the year with tongue firmly in cheek.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for Arts Equator and published on their website on 10 November 2022. See original post here


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