Play about everything and more

The energetic cast of Ma'ma Yong dance, sing, spar and jest in multiple languages and forms.
The energetic cast of Ma'ma Yong dance, sing, spar and jest in multiple languages and forms. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

Playwright-director Najib Soiman pulls out all the stops in this production 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 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 also Najib's loveletter to the forgotten Malay artform of mak yong, a type of dance-drama said to be from Kelantan.



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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 the 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, Hokkien and the Jamaican patois.

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 energetic cast, from the 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 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 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 lighthearted mood throughout.

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

The team of five musicians held court at centre stage, banging out genre-bending music and switching between instruments that included the rebab (a two- stringed instrument), accordion and violin with ease.

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

It also makes us wonder what else Najib, an award-winning actor and art educator, has up his directorial sleeves.

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.

• The show is sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Play about everything and more'. Print Edition | Subscribe