Stirring look at comfort women in Singapore

Hayat Hayatie featured excellent performances from the cast that included (from far left) Amirah Yahya, Norain Mohd Aksan and Shahril Wahid.
Hayat Hayatie featured excellent performances from the cast that included (from far left) Amirah Yahya, Norain Mohd Aksan and Shahril Wahid.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

REVIEW / THEATRE

HAYAT HAYATIE

Teater Kami

Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium Last Friday

Teater Kami's Hayat Hayatie is a fascinating historical drama. Excellent performances and the use of archived photos and text give viewers a ringside seat into life here during World War II and beyond.

Dalifah Shahril plays the Hayatie of the title - Hayat Hayatie translates to Hayatie's Life - a Malay girl forced into the life of a comfort woman during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Her family and friends are played by Shahril Wahid, Amirah Yahya and Norain Mohd Aksan, who convincingly take on and discard multiple roles.

To aid their parts, director and playwright Khairi Razaai has images of old Singapore projected onto the surtitle screen. These are startling. The audience knows of the brutal treatment meted out to these women. Juxtaposed against this knowledge are prosaic vegetable gardens the women tended to feed themselves and innocuous buildings that were their torture chambers.

Singapore's World War II history haunts playwrights. Kuo Pao Kun raised its ghosts in The Spirits Play (1998); Checkpoint Theatre's Occupation (2012) found humour in stories of daily life during those times. Wild Rice's epic look at a century of life in Singapore, Hotel (2015, restaged last year), also included sketches about a Malay comfort woman's experience in the 1940s and how she kept it secret from her family in the 1980s.

Similarly, Teater Kami's Khairi devised and staged Hayat Hayatie in 2002, after reading an article in Berita Harian about former comfort women and how they lived now. It is not just a play about wartime atrocities, but it is also an encapsulation of how the Malayan region evolved in the 20th century.

It asks the question of whether social mores here have done the same. 1945 meant freedom from the Japanese for Hayatie and her cohorts. They and their daughters remained vulnerable to domestic abuse which, if not sanctioned by society, was often overlooked.

The arena staging works well for this production, which ran last Friday and Saturday. The audience surrounds the actors, creating an intimacy that puts viewers in the heart of the action.

Sound includes songs appropriate to the period and very appropriate for lighter scenes, such as Hayatie and her friends cycling to freedom or later sketches of courtship. The relentless beat accompanying the rapes is effective. Later scenes such as the dissolution of the marriage of Hayatie's daughter would have been better served with silence.

Amirah does a good job of playing Norita, an educated woman who expects gender equality and does not receive it.

For viewers in the know, the fact that the current Hayatie, Dalifah, played Norita when the play was first staged, lends ominous overtones to this character's fictional fate. The similarities between the experiences of mother and daughter are poignant. It would have offered a ray of hope to also see more of the differences.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Stirring look at comfort women in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe