Personal portrait of Yusof Ishak

Sani Hussin and Siti Khalijah Zainal (both above) played out a sweet and realistic relationship between Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah Salim.
Sani Hussin and Siti Khalijah Zainal (both above) played out a sweet and realistic relationship between Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah Salim.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

The humanity behind Singapore's first president is played out well here, giving a peek into his struggles

REVIEW / THEATRE

YUSOF

Esplanade's Pesta Raya

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Thursday

In this season of biopics, with multiple productions about Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and one on Tamil Murasu founder G. Sarangapani, it seems fitting that local playwright and director Zizi Azah Abdul Majid is turning the spotlight on Singapore's first president, Mr Yusof Ishak.

He is the face that many of us see every day - his visage adorns our modern currency - yet we know little about him.

Commissioned for Esplanade's Malay arts festival Pesta Raya, the play provides an entry point into the life of Mr Yusof, from his contributions to society, to his relationship with his family and wife, Madam Noor Aishah Salim.

The play works best when it explores the humanity behind Yusof the man and gives us glimpses into his private struggles.

Seasoned actor Sani Hussin holds the fort with gravitas and elegance, but one still feels as if Yusof, the character, has his guard up the whole time.

The production is also overwhelmed with historical information.

As if anxious to pack as many facts in as possible, it backgrounds the nascent beginnings of Umno, the People's Action Party and the Nadrah riots, among others.

History buffs will rejoice, but these details obscure the more interesting emotional elements of the play.

The play covers a period of about 40 years, flitting backwards and forwards in time.

It takes us through Yusof's troubled formative years in the 1930s to his appointment as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore in 1959, and also covers the years in between, when he managed the Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu.

Throughout, he is depicted as a wilful idealist who works hard to help the Malay community empower itself.

Sometimes, he does this to great personal sacrifice. In his 20s, he is expelled from the police academy after daring to oppose the son of a royal.

Sani and actress Siti Khalijah Zainal delivered a sweet and realistic portrayal of Yusof's relationship with his younger Penangite wife, which acts as the calm centre to the sometimes tumultuous narrative.

When she discovers that Yusof keeps his Jalan Eunos house poorly lit, she is flummoxed, thinking that all Singapore houses are like that.

It turns out that he deliberately keeps his house in the dark to show solidarity with his less well-off neighbours who live in rented homes with no electricity.

Her visiting in-laws then bid farewell to her with a cheery "Welcome to married life!".

These elements of humour in an otherwise heavy play are much welcome.

In particular, Farah Ong was a crowd favourite with her antics as Sri, a gossipy reporter from Utusan Melayu.

The able six-person cast worked hard to pull off multiple roles, mastering accents that range from Perakian to Penangite with aplomb.

Actor Erwin Shah Ismail, in his debut Malay production, was also noteworthy as fiery Samad Ismail, Utusan's chief editor with large personal ambitions.

The costume, set and sound design also worked well in evoking the past. The colourful kebayas and set, comprising pleasing archways and wooden interiors, hark back to yesteryear.

At the same time, the soundtrack of joget music and the seruling, or Malay flute, segue into the clackety of typewriters and sonorous jazzy beats playing from a gramophone, transporting the audience into an old world that is slowly finding its feet in a new one.

But beyond world-building, Zizi's script could have pushed more to give us a deeper insight into Yusof's insecurities, fears and vulnerabilities.

In a brief scene, Yusof confesses that he feels that he had more influence as the managing director of Utusan compared to his limited presidential powers.

"I feel like a lion with its fangs pulled out," he laments.

Instead of developing this idea further, the play glosses over his worry by having his wife asking him to consider his situation more objectively - putting a lid on an opportunity for a more critical analysis of his role in politics at that time.

But despite its shortcomings, this production serves as a good starting point to examine our local heroes more critically - to borrow one of the key lines of the play - to put their "flesh and blood" on display, so that we can start to appreciate them even more.

•Tickets to all shows are sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Personal portrait of Yusof Ishak'. Print Edition | Subscribe