Theatre review: Tanah.Air: A Play In Two Parts explores lesser-known histories and the Orang Seletar

All in all, Tanah.Air is a thought-provoking, if rather unmoored, production that will, after three hours, leave its audience with more questions than answers.
All in all, Tanah.Air is a thought-provoking, if rather unmoored, production that will, after three hours, leave its audience with more questions than answers.PHOTO: ZINKIE AW, COURTESY OF DRAMA BOX

TANAH.AIR: A PLAY IN TWO PARTS

Drama Box

Malay Heritage Centre

Wednesday (Oct 16)


SINGAPORE - Drama Box's Tanah.Air: A Play In Two Parts is an intriguing exploration of Singapore's lesser-known histories and the dispossession of the indigenous Orang Seletar. It is performed in Mandarin and Malay and directed by Kok Heng Leun, Koh Wan Ching and Adib Kosnan.

The first part is Tanah ("land" in Malay), a Chinese piece by Neo Hai Bin - who is also the co-writer of Wild Rice's Merdeka, another play that shines a light on neglected histories.

Set in 1819 and inspired by Singaporean novelist's Isa Kamari's Duka Tuan Bertakhta, the narration and abstract movement piece unfolds on the lawn of the Malay Heritage Centre. We listen to the narrator (Koh) recount the tragic tale of Marmah, the foster daughter of silat master Wak Cantuk. Having lost her home on the sea, the indigenous Malay girl is forced to live on the land, where she falls in love with a youth and befriends Tengku Prabu, wife of Sultan Hussein.

Dark, urchin-like human figures creep out of the night while the story is told and complement it with sinuous, energetic movements. Occasionally, they run their fingers through water from a jug.

The actors' movements could have been more purposefully choreographed and those who do not follow the narration (or surtitles) closely enough will end up feeling rather lost. Still, the significance of staging this play in the heart of Kampong Glam will not be lost on audiences. In one of the more memorable scenes, a procession approaches from a distance, near the street, giving us the momentary illusion of being spectators to scenes from the past, ghostly figures we look at through a glass darkly.

 

Zulfadli Rashid's Malay verbatim play Air ("water") runs in the heritage centre's small auditorium and is as illuminating as Neo's is murky. The four actors (Roslan Kemat, Farez Najid, Suhaili Safari and Dalifah Shahril) do a good job playing the Orang Seletar sea nomads, an indigenous group who left Singapore and moved to Johor. The characters speak of their way of life, touching on topics such as animism, childbirth and a desire to have their children take part in formal education. There are also some clever resonances and chiasmi between Tanah and Air, and both benefit from Bani Haykal's evocative soundscape.

  • BOOK IT/TANAH.AIR: A PLAY IN TWO PARTS

  • Where: Malay Heritage Centre, 85 Sultan Gate (enter via the Kandahar Street entrance) When: Till Sunday (Oct 20), from 8.15pm to 11.15pm (with 15-min interval)

    Admission: $68 (standard ticket) at tanah-air.eventbrite.sg

    Info: Performed in Malay and Mandarin, with Malay, Chinese and English surtitles. The play is part of the Malay Culturefest and is jointly organised with the Malay Heritage Centre. Visit www.dramabox.org or www.facebook.com/dramabox

The set for Air is fraught with suggestion. Much of the action happens around a rectangular border of light-green blocks and transparent display cases containing a fishing net, a beverage in a glass and other objects. These are often taken out and handled by the actors, a judicious move that plays on the boundary between living culture and museum artefact. At what point, one wonders, might the Orang Seletar's way of life become history?

The threat of rapid land development is highlighted when a chalky, substance - reminiscent of sand - falls over one of the actors, perhaps alluding to land reclamation as well as the idea of being buried alive.

All in all, Tanah.Air is a thought-provoking, if rather unmoored, production that will, after three hours, leave its audience with more questions than answers.