I watched Wild Rice's Hotel for the second time over the weekend, and spent the next two days wondering what to write about it. You may have read my delighted review of it here, where I gave it five stars; you may also have read Ng Yi-Sheng's excellent thematic/literary analysis of it last year, or his more recent (and equally excellent) take on its political significance.
For this year's edition of Hotel, I bought tickets – the moment they went on sale – for most of my immediate family, and convinced another two good friends to come along (one of them brought her brother). Last year, I'd watched Hotel utterly alone, wearing my "Straits Times Critic" hat, spending my 4.5 hours laughing and crying solo; this year, I spent an entire week prior to the show assaulted by insomnia because I was simply too excited about what would now be a communal experience.
Hotel premiered at the Singapore International Festival of Arts last year over a single weekend. It fit perfectly into the festival's Post-Empires theme, a sprawling, ambitious production that takes place over 100 years in a single hotel room in Singapore, marking the time with one scene per decade from 1915 to 2015. From colonialism to the Japanese occupation to the country's economic boom to the present day, Hotel's guests range from plantation owners to amahs to Japanese soldiers to famed auteur P. Ramlee to Bugis Street trans folk to an entire wedding party – the list goes on. It was a staggering, astonishing achievement with uniformly excellent performance from its tireless cast (speaking a multitude of languages), turning the tables on the 'official' narrative of Singapore's birth and rise as a nation, fleshing it out with characters so convincing I'm assured they existed in some form or another and whose descendants we are today.
And I think the reason for my sleeplessness and excitement was because I was so desperate to share this history with others. We've been marked so often as "cultural orphans", as immigrants who have discarded our "native cultures" for a shallower faux hybridity, for a "one-size-fits-all" attempt at multiculturalism that sands away complexity instead of encouraging diversity. Hotel mourns what we have lost, but celebrates what we've held on to and ponders what we may yet become. And theatre, like history, flourishes where there are a spectrum of views. Some of the best theatre experiences I've had were enriched by fierce, excited debate after, where friends and colleagues pointed out moments and shared insights that I'd missed from my narrow vantage point. Hotel, I'd argue, does the same for Singapore history. Who does history belong to? Which side of the story you tell depends on where you're standing when you look back. And how you respond to history depends on the baggage you bring with you.
In-between Parts 1 & 2, and after the show concluded, my friends, family and I dissected each scene and pored over connections we interpreted and reinterpreted; some scenes (particularly 2005 and 2015) resonated much more strongly with me this year, a year of police brutality, deeply heightened Islamophobia, and jagged fault lines between "the immigrant" and "the native". Hotel has proved to be as fresh and relevant in SG51 as it was in SG50, because it trumps everything with its SG100. With its longer arc of history, in which history then repeats itself, Hotel reminds us that we cannot take the myopic, short-term view of our past. 4.5 hours, as does 100 years, sounds dreadfully long. But I assure you that Hotel, and history itself, will sprint and pass you by – before you even realise it.
- Ivan Heng, Lee Chee Keng and Lina Yu replace Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin in several roles for this year's edition, with Julie Wee and Pam Oei (from the original cast) chipping in with some reshuffling of the roles. I loved Ivan's caustic Henry Yao from 2015, an acid-tongued old man reflecting on his final days; Chee Keng did well as a gruff general from 1945; and Lina's bubbly Keiko-san, also from 1945, was very endearing.
- I'm going to go ahead and cite every single cast member, because they were absolutely stunning: Jo Kukathas, Ghafir Akbar, Brendon Fernandez, Moo Siew Keh, Dwayne Lau, Yap Yi Kai, Sharda Harrison, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Ben Cutler.
- Of course, direction by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, script by Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten. You floored me last year, you floored me again this year.
- I went home that night and had the most wonderful, deep sleep.