Singapore International Festival of Arts

Hotel's grip on 100 years

Indian spiritualist Professor Rao (Jo Kukathas, centre) conducts a seance in a scene set in 1935.
Indian spiritualist Professor Rao (Jo Kukathas, centre) conducts a seance in a scene set in 1935. PHOTO: W!LD RICE/ALBERT LIM KS

Eleven well-crafted short plays make for a breathtaking journey through Singapore's history

Once in a while, there comes the sort of show that makes you set your critic's notebook aside and sit up in your seat. Hotel is one of those rare creatures.

With its five-hour epic, divided into two parts, Wild Rice has created the sort of superb, astonishing show that is both a set of finely crafted individual stories but also a breathtaking journey through Singapore's history on the other side of the history book. There are stories that break the heart and others that split the sides and fill the soul, populated by a host of endearing characters, from ignored hotel staff to seminal film-maker P. Ramlee.

Hotel spans 100 years (1915 to 2015) with 11 short plays, one per decade, in the same room in an unnamed hotel in Singapore.

The action never leaves the room, but then again, you'll never want to leave your chair either.

At first, each story feels like a self-contained vignette, drawing connections between the past and the present: the bloody Sepoy mutiny in 1915 and the riots in Little India in 2013; a maidservant, lonely in a hotel room in 1925, is not so different from a foreign domestic worker cooped up in Singapore today.

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    Wild Rice

    Victoria Theatre/Last Saturday

And then as the stories stack up, you start to get a sense of the vast tapestry of history, that a single moment of regret in the past can reach forward and yank at the threads of another person's life, unravelling him, decades into the future.

Ivan Heng and Glen Goei co-direct Hotel with a script co-written by award-winning playwright Alfian Sa'at and up-and-coming writer Marcia Vanderstraaten.

It is brought to stunning life by some of the most hardworking cast members I have ever seen - not a single weak link among the 13 of them - speaking at least eight languages and dialects (some they had to learn from scratch) and stepping into one character after the other with a seeming effortlessness that, in turn, reveals the amount of work poured into making it look that easy.

Japanese soldiers, one of the Shaw brothers, a racist British plantation owner, Bugis Street transvestites, a bride-to-be, a dying old man, and the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself - in his younger, more virile days - the actors tackled them all.

What emerges is also a textured portrait of Singapore's linguistic heritage as a nation that stands at the confluence of South-east Asia, one that could have easily created not just a bilingual but a polyglot people, switching instinctively between languages when the occasion arises. We have retained some of that wonderful hybridity in the Singlish we speak, but as a certain wedding scene deliberately sans subtitles will reveal, we are perhaps not so fluid after all. An old man proclaims in the show's final scenes that perhaps the only diversity we have truly championed is that of our food.

Every scene also takes up a different genre, from the farce to the musical to the intense drama, with nods to theatrical influences far and wide: Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit gets a moment in a seance, Puccini's soaring opera Madama Butterfly in a parting between a Japanese soldier and his lover, Jean Genet's The Maids when two servants decide to try on the delicate, beautiful clothes of one of their mistresses, even a homage to Kuo Pao Kun's first subtitle-free multilingual play, Mama Looking For Her Cat, as an inter-racial wedding unspools.

But Hotel subverts these inspirations masterfully each time, turning them into well-made stories of their own and at the same time capturing the socio-political climate of Singapore at every turn.

In a hysterical, drug-fuelled hallucination involving a Hallelujah chorus; enormous, fuzzy pink penises; Mr Lee (who could also be God) emerging from a hotel closet; and a scissors-wielding Dr S. Shan Ratnam, a pioneer in sex reassignment surgery - one character's personal revelations about her sexual identity fit perfectly against the growing tide of anti-yellow culture in 1970s Singapore.

Singapore artists have played historian and historiographer many times this year, perhaps influenced by the country's Golden Jubilee celebrations to create historical narratives of their own. Graphic novelist Sonny Liew has put out his magnum opus, telling the story of Singapore politics through the eyes of a fictional political cartoonist in The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The LKY Musical was a rousing song-and-dance tribute to Mr Lee. Some works of art have cleverly appropriated history, others have repeated what we already know, but Hotel has gone a step further in reclaiming it as our own.

In Hotel, it is not just the broad characters and stories that carry a magical continuity - this goes down to the tiniest of details that pervade the play, where a necklace, given as a token of apology in 1915, can make a reappearance in 1995 as an heirloom at a wedding, making you wonder at how this small object might have changed hands in 80 years.

Blink and you might miss it, but it is a quiet, beautiful metaphor for Hotel's ability to contextualise history and tell it anew through the vehicle of the theatre.

Hotel was commissioned for the arts festival and fits perfectly into its larger thematic scope of Post-Empires. But it deserves a longer revival of its own. Like the onstage hotel guests, we theatregoers are simply passing through, yet the building of the Hotel remains. This is a permanent notch in Singapore theatre history, the sort of play that declares to the world - we have arrived.

Wild Rice, please bring this back. I'll check in as your first long-term guest.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Hotel's grip on 100 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe