'Rival' directors explore family ties together

Salif Hardie plays the teenage son of Farah Ong (both left) in Potong, which is written by Johnny Jon Jon and directed by Irfan Kasban.
Salif Hardie plays the teenage son of Farah Ong in Potong, which is written by Johnny Jon Jon and directed by Irfan Kasban.PHOTO: IRFAN KASBAN

For 12 years, theatre-makers Irfan Kasban and Johnny Jon Jon have been known as rivals, starting with competing productions at a student theatre contest organised by Teater Ekamatra in 2006.

Now, they collaborate on a new work for the theatre troupe, staged at the Malay Heritage Centre from tomorrow to Sunday. Potong, a play about identity and family ties, is written by Johnny and directed by Irfan.

It came from Johnny's experience of speaking to his grandfather for over five minutes before the older man asked the 31-year-old to introduce himself.

The play is about a family coping with dementia in various ways.

Farah Ong plays a woman who left Singapore for Australia and avoids speaking with her mother.

Salif Hardie plays her teenage son who returns to Singapore for national service and meets his grandmother and uncle. The uncle, played by Mohd Fared Jainal, identifies as a woman and now dresses in his sister's clothes to care for his mother.

"He completely takes on the role of his sister," says Irfan. "It's the concept of identity within circumstance. We are who we are forced to be."

  • BOOK IT / POTONG

  • WHERE: Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium, 85 Sultan Gate

    WHEN: Wednesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25. Book online at potong.eventbrite.sg or e-mail tix@ekamatra.org.sg with the preferred show date and time, number of tickets and your contact details

    INFO: Performed in English and Malay, with English surtitles

In a real-world parallel, the director and playwright had a rivalry jokingly imposed on them by others in the theatre scene.

Their actual relationship has involved encouraging and pushing each other to do better.

Irfan says: "When I was writing one of my first plays, W.C., he pushed me to make it what it is now. He felt I was censoring myself."

He adds: "It was more like we were sending secret messages to each other in our plays."

For example, W.C., performed in 2010 and 2012, and Johnny's play Hawa, staged in 2015 and 2016, both explored religion and inter-personal relationships at various levels.

Johnny's National Memory Project and Irfan's Trees, A Crowd were about preserving heritage and the fallibility of national memory.

The theatre-makers wrote and directed both works for The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival in 2016.

Their collaboration on Potong "has been surprisingly easy", says Irfan. In fact, Johnny is unable to do interviews and asks that Irfan speak for him.

The director says: "There's a lot of synergy. It just worked. I've never said this for any other production, but this is the one production I'm emotionally and professionally invested in. Everything is coming together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline ''Rival' directors explore family ties together'. Print Edition | Subscribe