Teater Ekamatra's Tiger Of Malaya replays WWII film history

(From left) Farez Najid, Rei Kitagawa, Yuya Tanaka, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh in Alfian Sa'at’s Tiger Of Malaya.
(From left) Farez Najid, Rei Kitagawa, Yuya Tanaka, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh in Alfian Sa'at’s Tiger Of Malaya.PHOTO: TEATER EKAMATRA

SINGAPORE - A 1943 propaganda film featuring a Japanese "Robin Hood" in Malaya inspired the new Teater Ekamatra production opening this week.

Written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by Teater Ekamatra's artistic director Mohd Fared Jainal, Tiger Of Malaya features a cast from Singapore and Japan, and runs at the Drama Centre Black Box from Sept 12 till Sept 23.

The term "Tiger Of Malaya" is often associated with Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, who captured Malaya and Singapore during World War II. However, the old film and this week's play are based on the life story of Tani Yutaka, a Japanese bandit who lived in Malaya. He is portrayed as a heroic figure, leading his band against British imperial forces and "evil" Chinese capitalists.

The play re-enacts scenes from the film - with "interruptions, interventions and subversions" according to Alfian. Malay actors play parts that were originally played by a Japanese cast.

The cast includes Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh from Singapore, and Rei Kitagawa and Yuya Tanaka from Japan. Dialogue is in Malay, English, Japanese and Mandarin - Japanese-speaking researcher Shawn Chua is the dramaturg.

Actor Farez, 30, watched the Tiger Of Malaya film even before being cast for the production. "It was with a bunch of boys who were interested in war and it was hilarious," he says.

For him and many of the other performers in their 30s, World War II is too far away to affect the present day. "We consume Japanese media a lot, the culture," he points out. "The war is generations away."

Japanese actor Tanaka, 31, feels equally distant from the war but says: "I'm curious how people will respond to the play."

Alfian, who has written several plays for Teater Ekamatra including political satire GRC (2015), is fascinated by the "mythmaking" aspect of Tiger Of Malaya, where a bandit "was pitched as a symbol of the Japanese providing anti-colonial and nationalist leadership in Asia".

"I've been very interested in exploring historiography - or how history is written - through theatre, and I felt that the movie provided this very rich material," he says.

For the director, Fared, the play brought up similar questions.

"How can we relate back to an event that happened way before this current time? How true is history being recorded?" he asks.

Work began on Tiger Of Malaya well before it was announced that Singapore would commemorate its bicentennial in 2019 - 200 years after Stamford Raffles landed.

Fared says: "We were not particularly aligning it to the whole bicentennial celebrations. But somehow with this work, it questions our very own existence in this part of the world through the lens of history."

  • book it / Tiger of Malaya

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

  • WHEN: Sept 12 to Sept 16; Sept 18 to 23. Tuesdays to Fridays 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays, 3pm and 8pm.

  • ADMISSION: $40 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Selling fast.

  • INFO: In English, Malay, Japanese and Mandarin, with English surtitles