Teater Ekamatra's Tiger Of Malaya presents perils of oversimplifying history

(From left) Rei Poh, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Farez Najid in Tiger Of Malaya, presented by Teater Ekamatra.
(From left) Rei Poh, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Farez Najid in Tiger Of Malaya, presented by Teater Ekamatra.PHOTO: MONOSPECTRUM PHOTOGRAPHY

TIGER OF MALAYA

Teater Ekamatra/Drama Centre Black Box/ Sept 19

The perils of oversimplifying history are presented comically and thoughtfully in Teater Ekamatra's Tiger Of Malaya.

The play written by Alfian Sa'at - with dramaturgy by Shawn Chua, and directed by Mohd Fared Jainal - starts with the Japanese propaganda film Marai No Tora (Japanase for "tiger of Malaya"), released in 1943. The film recast the tale of the bandit Tani Yutaka, a Japanese native of South-east Asia, as a Robin Hood figure leading a band of Malays against the British during the Second World War.

The original film featured a Japanese cast, some in brown-face to represent Malays. The action on stage begins with a Singaporean cast tasked to recreate the film in a more politically sensitive way.

For the project, local actors (played by Siti Khalijah Zainal, Farez Najid and Rei Poh) pull in Japanese performers Yudai (played by Yuya Tanaka) and Saiko (Rei Kitagawa).

They recreate film scenes on stage against the original footage from 1943. The whirring of a film reel is heard in the background (sound by James Lye). Sometimes the black-and-white characters on the screens behind the cast (multimedia by Eric Lee, lighting by Adrian Tan and set by Akbar Syadiq) seem to merge into the actual figures of the black-clad cast.

The spell is always broken as one or another actor questions, for example, whether it is appropriate to have a Chinese actor play the part of a Japanese character; whether the dialogue should or should not switch between Japanese and Malay and - a personal favourite - whether or not characters should be given depth when using a cardboard cut-out would help the project finish on time.

Yes, the film is being re-shot because the original hurts contemporary cultural sensitivities - but how sensitive do we really need to be?

Tiger Of Malaya stalks the audience's prejudices, tosses these up into the spotlight and rends them to shreds with roars of laughter. The play-within-the-play device sets the stage for multiple misunderstandings between cast members because of their different cultural and ethnic experiences.

The characters played by Poh and Farez are old school friends who have not worked together for 14 years because of the invisible lines between Mandarin theatre and Malay theatre. ("Just say 'Singapore theatre'," pleads Siti's character, who does not want to confuse the Japanese guests with such divisions.)

Do exponents of Chinese theatre wipe down the floor before every rehearsal?

Do exponents of Malay theatre over-act?

It is only confirmed that the Japanese performers would indeed prefer to avoid conflict, as stereotyped. Kitagawa's character assures the rest that she can go away to visit Merlion Park if the Singaporean cast need to thrash things out.

Amid the madcap misunderstandings, a complex question arises. How would the original Tani Yutaka have wanted himself to be portrayed? As a good Japanese citizen? As a Malayan Muslim? The complexity of his identity leads the audience to similar self-reflection about their own.

In the end, the Japanese cast faces a Singaporean tribunal which forces them to take full responsibility for an ill-researched film - and all of World War II. Yudai also asks the tribunal whether they are seeking to establish the truth or just to establish guilt.

Indeed, if we oversimplify history to fit only one narrative, too much has to be cut off from our understanding of the past to allow growth in the future.

Tiger Of Malaya is sold out.