History will almost always be a triumphal account. To historicise is to create meaning and identity from the mute facticity of the universe and the “national history” that emerges will usually be one that serves the political and economic imperatives of the nascent government. The originaries of the history of Singapore, in particular, have been shifting over the years in an almost arbitrary fashion. Official accounts of history are apparently delving deeper into the pre-Raffles Singapore, almost in anticipation of uncovering new mythical connections to the economic powerhouses of today. But whether Singapore emerged singularly from that sanctified landing site of Stamford Raffles or from more distant lands across the seas, it seems that a particular thread of communal history would be perpetually obscured. The Orang Laut community occupies this obliterated historical space, often either mentioned as the pre-historical “sleepy fishing village” or forgotten altogether. Perhaps they were far too nomadic for their tracks to be traced. But it is more plausible to conclude that they simply had no place within the scripted narrative of our national history.
Yes, Epic Poem of Malaya is a work about the Orang Lauts. It really has very little to do with the Chua Mia Tee painting it takes its title from, or the leftist, nationalist ideologies espoused by the Equator Art Society where Chua was from. The directors, spell#7’s Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan do attempt to justify their decisions, claiming that they are presenting a history alternative to that which is articulated by the central character in the painting, or in other words, reinventing the “epic poem” of Malaya. But still, it is hard not to feel disappointed by the tokenistic use of such an iconic piece of Singapore art history. It could really have been any other painting. But what is perhaps most problematic in the use of Chua’s painting for a narrative about Orang Lauts is the foregrounding of a particular alternative history at the expense of another. The production runs the risk of taking for granted the fact that Chua’s painting itself is the embodiment of an unfulfilled history, that of a collective Malayan identity. This forsaking of one alternative for another is arguably inimical to the play’s original aspirations.
Perhaps it is really just the gag reflex of the art student in me acting up. If you take away this rather troubling premise of the play, the material on offer covers astounding thematic and emotional breadth and depth, compellingly delivered by a competent cast.
The play unfolds like a dramatised reading of a story put together by Zai Kuning based on his travels around the Riau Archipelago. It is accompanied by an evocative soundscape created and performed live by Zai himself. We hear the life story of a young Chinese man from mainland Singapore who marries into the Orang Laut community. We witness his initial culture shock, his attempts at assimilation, his discovery of his parentage (which reveals his birth mother as an Orang Laut) and eventually his transformation into the communal leader that defends his community. But the survival of his community is threatened by the shifting currents of social and political change. The various nationalist movements within the region and the subsequent demarcations of national territorial boundaries eventually led to the eviction of the Orang Lauts, also known as sea people, from the sea that is their home. Their crisis is existential: What does it mean to be an Orang Laut? Are we nothing more than “sea monkeys” to be banished? Where is our place within this brave new world of nation-states?
There is a poignant and nostalgic authenticity to the story as much as there is urgency. The later parts of the play are particularly gripping, as current issues of cultural displacement, community, identity, memory and place begin to surface.
The standout sequences of the play are the moments of reckoning, when the Orang Lauts and the mainlanders collide head on and the disparities between them take on an ontological nature. They are confused by the notion of religion, befuddled by its dogma and the necessity of identifying one as “Christian” or “Muslim”. They are similarly shocked when they realise they have unknowingly intruded into foreign territorial borders. What does it mean to be a citizen of Singapore? What does it mean to be a citizen? Such official markers of identity are incomprehensible to the Orang Lauts whose identity is tied more to a sense of place than to a prescribed label. In fact, they candidly confess to use the Singaporean identity only as a passport that enables them to go anywhere. The construct of the nation-state, as an artifice governed by constitutional laws and geographical demarcations is a phantom to a community of nomads who inhabit a world without rules, institutions or borders. Their only faith is towards nature which is based upon intuition instead of dogma.
The range of issues tackled by the play is undeniably very broad, but the two and a half hour long play could have been shorter with tighter writing. In fact, the first hour of the play is particularly tedious to go through. For a work that essentially involves reading, reading and more reading, the only indicators of movement from one narrative beat to the next are the subtle shifts in the speaking tone and the music. It is undeniably a performance that demands a lot from its audience as everything can easily become an indiscernible drone when one unconsciously drifts away from the stage.
But perhaps this drifting and the subsequent attempt at bringing ourselves back into the narrative adds another layer of meaning and charm to the work. The play is really storytelling at its most rustic and primitive. It invokes the age-old tradition of the oral narrative, transmitted from individual to individual in a manner that often involves an element of mutual trust. It demands reciprocity between the storyteller and his listener.
I used to have very little appreciation for the genre of dramatised reading (which the work, strictly speaking, does not fall within), but Epic Poem did make me realise that such works are more than just redundant attempts at theatricalising the relatively banal act of reading. What they create is a relationship that needs to be actively sustained within the communal space of the theatre. Furthermore, the abstract nature of images that are transmitted aurally frees up room for the audience’s imaginations to wander as we delve within our personal repository of images in response to these aural stimuli.
For this, much credit has to go to the excellent performances and generally engaging and purposeful sound design. The varied dispositions of the four performers, as well as their diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, impart a vivid texture and fluidity to the narrative. Janice Koh’s more assertive persona lends the story a certain feisty energy. Meanwhile, K. Rajagopal’s smooth, effortless and polished style works brilliantly in bringing out the lyricism of Zai’s prose. The most satisfying performances come from Siti K. Zainal and Tony Yeow. Zainal, who is the youngest in the cast, speaks her words with a raw and moving authenticity. As for Yeow, I must really say that no one can triumph over an old man when it comes to playing narrator. Yeow, who is largely seated throughout the play, delivers his lines with a steady, measured pace, with each word always carefully loaded with meaning and emotion. Towards the second half of the play, as the number of characters and contesting viewpoints multiplies, the performers gradually move from narration towards role-play, creating a new form of dynamism in their interactions.
All these are enhanced by the atmospheric and diaphanous sound by Zai, which moves across a diverse range of musical styles. The rueful and rustic quality of the music created by the strings succinctly conveys melancholia and wanderlust. The percussion instruments are often used in unorthodox ways to create an otherworldly sound that uncovers a whole new terrain of tension. This tension arises from the fear towards the alien, reflecting the fundamental incomprehension that the Orang Lauts had to grapple with amidst the sweeping changes of the regional landscape. Unfortunately, Zai’s unorthodoxy can get quite out of hand. For one, I certainly did not appreciate the incessant and disruptive slamming of the cymbals which felt like a gratuitous demonstration of postmodern angst. Not only was it awfully painful on the ears, it also appeared out-of-place with the more restrained aesthetics of the play.
Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the production is the poor visuality, which is particularly strange for a play putatively based on a painting. In fact, the visual elements appear so much like sporadic insertions that they seem to reflect a critical indecision on the part of the directors in choosing between minimalism and theatricality. Consequently, the stage movements and props often appear arbitrary and distracting. The lighting is similarly anemic, lacking the audacity and distinctiveness to match up with Zai’s soundscape.
The only visible attempt at maintaining a visual connection to the painting also comes across as rather pointless. It is delivered in the form of Kaylene Tan assuming the various positions and postures of the fourteen characters depicted in the painting throughout the play. As one who has just recently seen the original work, I must admit that this was actually done in quite an intriguing and clever way. (For instance, Tan brushes her shoulder repeatedly in a reference to the fly that is seen rested upon one of the listeners’ shoulder.) But essentially, there is very little purpose for her presence on the set. Most of the time, she appears like a meaningless ceremonial object or even a stage hand whose there to move the props!
While Epic Poem can hardly qualify as an outstanding piece of theatre, it is the emotional resonance and thematic depth of the material on offer that eventually persuade me of the production’s worth. The work is more valuable when seen as an immersive cultural experience. While the play may be unbearably overstretched for some, it is perhaps the very duration of the encounter that creates this sense of a journey that is at once epic and intimate.
Epic Poem of Malaya played at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 22 to 24 April 2010. An edited version of this essay was first published on The Flying Inkpot.