The Studios

The Studios: Haresh Sharma's iconic plays retold

Five theatre-makers present their versions of Haresh Sharma's iconic plays as part of Esplanade's annual The Studios season

Actress Janice Koh is designing her own funeral to restage the words of a dead man.

Director Nelson Chia of Nine Years Theatre is trying to translate Singlish into Mandarin without losing the earthy essence of a text about race and inter-personal relations in Singapore.

From March 16 to April 14, they and others will present their takes on plays written by Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Sharma's works are usually directed by his long-time collaborator Alvin Tan at The Necessary Stage.

However, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay invited five other artists to retell these plays, as part of this year's The Studios season, themed Margins.


Raw: Precise Purpose Of Being Broken is a collaborative all-female performance based on eight to 10 texts written by Haresh Sharma. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

The Studios is the Esplanade's annual platform for new and experimental works and it focuses on a single playwright for the first time.

The programming booklet explains why: Sharma's work "finds a place for those standing in the margins". The nuanced characters evoke a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

Ms Joyce Yao, producer at The Esplanade Co, adds: "Haresh's plays are known for their incisive commentary and are deeply rooted in the fabric of Singapore. There are no easy answers in his plays, but they pave the way for empathy and the bridging of differences. These are urgent and important for the times we live in."

Sharma is excited about the season, saying the artists "can breathe new life into the plays to reach out to new audiences".

From March 16 to 19, Chia's troupe will stage a Mandarin version of the play Fundamentally Happy. When staged in 2006, that critically acclaimed two-hander featured a male Chinese character interacting with a Malay woman. Both speak in Singlish or Malay.

From March 23 to 26, Koh performs a version of Completely With/Out Character, a monologue which talks about living with HIV in Singapore. It was devised with and performed by the late Paddy Chew in 1999. This version, With/Out, is reworked and directed by artist Loo Zihan.

From March 30 to April 2, actor and rising director Timothy Nga presents This Chord And Others (1991), a comedy about friendship, race and religion.

From April 6 to 9, Malay troupe Teater Ekamatra presents Hope (Harap), a version of the 1994 play about the hopes of Singaporeans.

Also featured is a work-inprogress directed by Koh Wan Ching, devised with actresses Chelsea Crothers, Chng Xin Xuan, Grace Kalaiselvi, Lina Yu and Wendi Wee Hian. Titled Precise Purpose Of Being Broken, this is a collaborative all-female performance based on eight to 10 texts written by Sharma. Some of these have never been performed in public. The work is part of The Studios' developmental platform Raw.

Koh, 37, says: "I often feel there aren't enough roles for women. The question I'm asking is: How do I work with these women and make a new piece out of writing that belongs to all of us?"

Sharma gave her complete freedom to pick and choose from his texts. Koh says: "When Haresh said, 'These are the texts, pick what you like, you can also reconstruct them if you like,' it was a blessing. There's no precedent or expectation."

There are several precedents for This Chord And Others, which was last performed in 2000.

Director Nga, 43, wondered whether to rework the script to reflect newer fissures in Singaporean society. For example, the play features the friendship among three men of different races: One character, played by Pavan J. Singh, is Sikh; another, played by Neo Hai Bin is Chinese; while Thomas Pang plays a Eurasian.

Should their relationships be updated to reflect a conflict between Singaporean Chinese and newcomers from China?

Then Nga saw subtler shades in the text. "It's not a racial play. It's identity and friendship politics and culture and class. There is race politics in there, but it's not the overarching issue. It's about three boys trying to be men."

•Raw: Precise Purpose Of Being Broken is fully registered.



Janice Koh performs in With/Out, a version of Completely With/Out Character, a monologue which talks about living with HIV in Singapore. It was devised with and performed by the late Paddy Chew in 1999. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Preparing with a coffin

Recently, performer Janice Koh went to a funeral parlour to choose her own coffin.

She did this to prepare for With/Out, her and Loo Zihan's take on late actor Paddy Chew's monologue on living with Aids here. It will be staged this month as part of The Studios, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's annual season of new and experimental theatre.

It is a reworking of Completely With/Out Character, a docu-theatre piece devised by Chew in collaboration with playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage in 1999.

Chew died a few months after the production. He was the first person in Singapore to publicly come out as being HIV-positive.

Loo, 34, did a version of With/Out in 2015. He re-enacted Chew's monologue, lip-syncing to the text against multimedia projections of the original show.

He had other readers speak the words, hesitant to completely render the autobiographical work.

Then he realised Sharma's text had a life beyond that of the performer it was written for. He invited Koh, 43, to develop a new interpretation of the show with him.

The task is challenging for both, especially since Koh saw the original. She was then a volunteer with the charity, Action For Aids. "It's hard to erase the image of him from the text," she said. Yet she feels it is important to look at the work objectively, away from the "position of sympathy" the audience occupied when Chew performed.

Recordings show that Chew deviated from Sharma's text, which Loo finds fascinating and potent. He says: "When Paddy performed, he used camp and humour a lot to shield the text. When you remove that, how much bitterness exists underneath."

During Chew's performance, he spoke about choosing a coffin and memorial photo for his funeral.

Koh learnt two things from her funeral parlour experience. One, that funeral parlours are heavily booked and one cannot walk in without an appointment.

Two, she said, "I realised his desperation to want to take control of something that you have no control over".


Challenge translating Singlish


Lok Meng Chue and Timothy Wan star in Nelson Chia’s version of Fundamentally Happy. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Translating a Singlish play into Mandarin is one of the biggest challenges director Nelson Chia has faced in more than 20 years of making theatre.

His Mandarin adaptation of Fundamentally Happy runs from March 16 to 19 and kicks off the experimental The Studios season programmed this year by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

Chia's troupe Nine Years Theatre gained prominence here with Mandarin adaptations of Western plays, such as 2013's Twelve Angry Men, an adaptation of American writer Reginald Rose's teleplay. It won Chia Best Director at the 2014 Life Theatre Awards.

However, translating Singlish for this co-production with the Esplanade poses a special challenge.

"We're not moving from English into Chinese, out of the Singapore context, we're moving more into the Singapore context, moving more into a kind of language that's rooted in our culture," says Chia, 45.

"I had to find a local brand of language that's suitable for the stage that can carry the drama Haresh has written."

Fundamentally Happy is among the best-known and best-loved of the plays written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage.

It is a two-hander, originally staged in 2006, featuring the relationship between a Chinese man (then played by Chua Enlai) and his Malay neighbour (then played by Aidli "Alin" Mosbit), who was like a mother to him. The man's past relationship with her husband, though, was more disturbing.

Fundamentally Happy won Best Production and Best Original Script at the 2007 Life Theatre Awards. It was adapted into a film directed by Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin, which was shown at sold-out screenings during the 2015 Southeast Asian Film Festival at the Singapore Art Museum.

Chia has never seen the play, so he has no hang-ups about putting his stamp on the work.

He did have to do some thinking about the context. This time, Lok Meng Chue plays a Chinese woman, married to a Malay man, who converted to Islam. Timothy Wan is Eric, her former neighbour.

Chia said: "When I read it, there were layers and layers, switches in the actors' positions, in the actors' actions, a lot of little turns and twists in between the lines Haresh has written. The tension he has created between the two characters is what attracted me.

"I was telling the actors in rehearsal that I don't know if Haresh even knows what he has written. It's a play about paedophilia. It's a play about homosexuality. It's a play about Islam. It's ultimately a play about happiness."



Hope (Harap) stars (clockwise from top left) Siti Hajar Abdul Gani, Sani Hussin, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Fir Rahman and (centre) Nur Zakiah. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

  • BOOK IT / THE STUDIOS - HOPE (HARAP)

  • Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: April 6 to 9, 8pm (Thursday to Saturday), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic

    INFO: In Malay with English surtitles. Go to www.esplanade.com/festivals-and-series/the-studios/2017

Tackling taboos

Suicide, homosexuality and drinking alcohol are taboo topics for Malay Muslim audiences.

However, these issues feature in Haresh Sharma's 1994 play Hope, a character-driven drama about ordinary Singaporeans.

Teater Ekamatra's Mohd Fared Jainal did not want to ignore them in his take on the play for Esplanade's The Studios season.

"These are real issues," says the 43-year-old director. "It's a good opportunity that a script like this is proposed to us and allows us to reflect them to our community."

Teater Ekamatra is co-producing Hope (Harap), which will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from April 6 to 9.

The cast includes veteran actors Sani Hussin and Siti Hajar Abdul Gani, YouTube star Hirzi Zulkiflie, television actor Fir Rahman, who has been appearing in more theatrical work this year, and Fared's sevenyear-old daughter Nur Zakiah.

"I was too tired to look for people and I just asked her," says the director with a laugh. "It's a struggle because she's trying to cope with Primary 1 and can't be at all rehearsals."

Other challenges include making the script relevant to the Malay audiences Teater Ekamatra reaches out to. The text is being adapted to Malay by Zulfadli Rashid. Some references have been changed, such as a character going to a mosque instead of a temple.

Sharma did not see the 1994 staging of Hope, but has given Teater Ekamatra free rein over his script.

"What's nice about Haresh is that the first time I met him and discussed that I'm doing this work, he said, 'You just take ownership of it. You do whatever you want to do and how it best fits with what you want to say,'" says Fared. "It feels good. There are a lot of things I want to bring out."

The issues explored in the play remain relevant 23 years after it was written: broken families, loneliness and the rapidly changing city, which Fared plans to reflect through sets and multimedia projections of the landscape.

"I hope the audience will enjoy the play. It's a true reflection of what's out there," he says. "We are all just trying to survive in this city, Singapore, where everything is moving so fast."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'New takes on classics'. Print Edition | Subscribe