Ma'ma Yong is a wonderful mash-up of cultures, languages and forms

The musicians and cast of Ma'ma Yong.
The musicians and cast of Ma'ma Yong. PHOTO: ESPLANADE THEATRES ON THE BAY

Ma'ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do

Esplanade Presents: Pentas

Esplanade Theatre Studio | Thursday

In Ma'ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do, playwright-director Najib Soiman pulls out all the stops to create a delicious mix of cultures and pop cultural references, mashing-up Shakespeare with K-pop, and the sacred with the silly.

He manages to do so much without losing control, quite literally, of the plot.

Ostensibly, it is a play-within-a-play and a local take on the Bard's classic romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. It is situated in a modern-day mental asylum, where literature teacher Fatimah (Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit) is believed to be possessed by the spirit of a mak yong performer.

The play is thus also Najib's loveletter to the forgotten Malay artform of mak yong, a type of dance-drama said to be from Kelantan.

Ma'ma Yong is a uniquely Singaporean product in a way the Singapore Tourism Board should take note of - mixing languages, customs and traditions with ease, even tipping its hat to different time periods, from the animist roots of Islam to our colonial past and the selfie-obsessed present.

The multiracial and multinational cast (who play mental patients as well as Shakespearean characters) speak in both formal and colloquial Malay, as well as Tamil, Mandarin, Jamaican and Hokkien.

Najib, who staged an earlier version of the show in 2008, deftly managed to rein in this larger-scale production, which is no mean feat given the blink-or-you'll-miss-it platter of cross-cultural artforms and references by the multi-talented, energetic cast - from the highly recognisable collective clapping and singing of dikir barat, to K-pop, Tamil melodrama and reggae music, among many others.

In one dreamlike sequence, the characters wear Victorian masks and perform a court dance while actress April Kong, dressed as a bearded man, hits the high notes on Malay singer Ziana Zain's power pop ballad, Anggapanmu.

But the audience is never allowed to feel lost.

The story is told in chapters, and improving upon its predecessor, Najib wisely chose to retain the original names of Shakespeare's characters in this version, to help the audience find their bearings. Main character Fatimah, also known as Ma'ma Yong, helped to serve as narrator.

Another risk that Najib took was adopting the format of "theatre rakyat" or folk theatre, where the actors can break the fourth wall by teasing one another as well as the audience.

These moments can be hit or miss. Thankfully, the actors manage to hit the right notes with their moments of spontaneity - such as openly reading the subtitles when they did not understand what was being said - drawing raucous laughter from the audience and sustaining a light-hearted mood throughout.

There were, however, some saggy moments in the middle where the Shakespearean tale dragged, but injections of colour - think lewd wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) - helped to re-ignite interest.

Also moving the action along was the team of five musicians who held court at centrestage, banging out genre-bending music and switching between instruments that included the rebab (a two-stringed instrument), accordion and violin with ease.

Najib, an award-winning actor and art educator, has not been in the director's chair for five years, and one cannot fault him for wanting to be ambitious with this production.

His efforts paid off handsomely.

Ma'ma Yong, with its underdog nature, off-the-cuff vibe and motley crue ensemble, manages to come off as gritty yet grand - an opus of the people.

It also makes us wonder what else Najib has up his directorial sleeves. As a testament to this, the audience hesitated from leaving after the curtain call, expecting more surprises.

One left the theatre feeling as mad as the characters, laughing to oneself and yet feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

About Nothing Much? On the contrary, this show had almost everything, and more.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg

Limited seats left for shows on Saturday, 8pm. Go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555 for information.