Yusof is a presidential portrait heavy on facts, light on feelings

The cast for Yusof include (from left) Dalifah Shahril, Farah Ong, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Sani Hussin, Erwin Shah Ismail and Najib Soiman.
The cast for Yusof include (from left) Dalifah Shahril, Farah Ong, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Sani Hussin, Erwin Shah Ismail and Najib Soiman.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Siti Khalijah Zainal as Noor Aishah Salim.
Siti Khalijah Zainal as Noor Aishah Salim.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.
Siti Khalijah Zainal and Sani Hussin as Noor Aishah Salim and Yusof Ishak.PHOTO: JACK YAM, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

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

Covering a period of about 40 years, the play flits backwards and forwards in time. It takes us through his 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 worked hard to help the Malay community empower themselves.

Sometimes, he does this to great personal sacrifice. In his 20s, he was 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 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 welcomed. 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. Actor Erwin Shah Ismail, in his debut Malay production, was noteworthy as fiery Samad Ismail, Utusan's chief editor with great personal ambitions.

The costume, set and sound design also work 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 tracks and the seruling, or Malay flute, segue into the clacking 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 developing this idea further, the play glosses over his worry by having his wife ask 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.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg

The show runs till Sunday. Limited tickets for Friday night are available at www.sistic.com.sg.