I sat in on the first iteration of The Necessary Stage's Orange Playground laboratory series about two years ago as an 'observer'; the lab was meant to give artists an open space to experiment with new material. I signed up to follow Alin Mosbit and Siti Khalijah as they created their own work over the course of several months, culminating in a sort of work-in-progress performance lecture. It was very new and exciting to me, to be there in the rehearsal room, that intimate, boundless space, with two powerful actors. About halfway into their creative process, Alin and Siti embarked on a segment they nicknamed "Haresh's Heroines", a revisitation of various characters from Haresh Sharma's plays in new contexts and new pairings.
There was one improvisation in particular that has stayed with me. The Necessary Stage artistic director Alvin Tan, with a measure of glee, told Siti to perform two characters in conversation – Saloma from The Necessary Stage's seminal Off Centre (1993), who struggles with schizophrenia, and a new character Siti had just devised, a feisty fashion entrepreneur running her own plus-sized clothing label. Siti paused to think for about fifteen seconds. And then she stepped into the playing area and did just that. Those magical ten minutes where she embodied two wildly different characters – having a real time conversation, each with their own physical and verbal tics, lexicon and emotional landscapes – proved to me that she is truly one of the most gifted actors of her generation.
The Necessary Stage's revisitation of Rosnah (1995) at the Esplanade's Pesta Raya festival was a loud echo of "Haresh's Heroines". (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.) Rosnah (2016) really isn't a "restaging" by any means. It's an interrogation, deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of a defining monodrama. Siti sweeps onto the stage with a pink suitcase and red coat – ah, here's Rosnah, I think to myself – and then she immediately proceeds to tear away at that illusion. I'm Siti K, she says, after a selfie and some banter with a delighted audience, and I'll be playing Rosnah.
And this take on Rosnah is really hers to own. It's a thoughtful look at what it means to be a modern Malay-Muslim woman in today's world, a world of Brexit and Islamophobia, as Siti reflects on the original text of a young woman's journey to London and the deep cultural differences she encounters, and how she might have responded in the same situations as the character she's playing. (She is accompanied by the consistently excellent sound artist-musician-extraordinaire Bani Haykal, who has the ability to both blend into the audience and be the centre of attention all at once, through a few soaring musical interludes that give that extra tenderness and emotional heft to the main narrative.)
A friend of mine, who was weighing if she ought to watch this incarnation of Rosnah, had admitted that she'd found the original script dated and prescriptive. Rosnah of the mid-1990s inhabited a largely different world, where the term "brain drain" had only just entered the national lexicon and Dick Lee's national day anthem Home (1998) cajoled overseas Singaporeans into returning to, or at the very least thinking nostalgically of, their island home. Singapore's cosmopolitan, globalised identity was not yet in full bloom, and Siti, in this version and as "herself", comments strongly on the insularity and parochialism that deters Rosnah as the fictional character makes hesitant decisions on interracial relationships and slut-shames a fellow Malay Singaporean in London. "Siti" makes some solid insights about the work, but I found myself craving more depth to her commentary instead of her short, pithy statements, even if they were sharp and well-observed. Rosnah's character is achingly vulnerable, unburdening herself to the audience to the point of melodrama, but endearing nonetheless; in contrast, Siti's on-stage character seemed to always have her guard up, only letting slip glimpses of her personal life that allow the audience in at arm's length, often by way of comedy rather than tragedy.
There is a breath-taking scene in which Siti inserts herself into two characters' ongoing conversation with perfect clarity, an even trickier three-way permutation of her Orange Playground feat. But I paused to wonder – are we marvelling at the way in which these characters interlock, and the self-reflexivity that The Necessary Stage is able to bring to its rich canon of work; or are we distracted by the loud statement of Siti's technical virtuosity? I suppose either could work, depending on what you're more intrigued by as an audience member, but I wonder if anything might be lost in choosing to focus on one over the other.
But there is absolutely no doubt as to Siti's ability to pull off the conceit of this deconstructed Rosnah. She's had some superb monodrama showings in Best Of (2013), Rosnah (2006), and How Did The Cat Get So Fat (2006), but this meta-monodrama takes it a step further in giving the performer the agency to be a sort of revisionist theatre historian. The Necessary Stage, as it approaches its 30th anniversary next year, has been putting the magnifying glass to its previous works, whether it's Best Of (His Story) (a new male-centered version of the original female-led monodrama to be staged later this year) or untitled women (which revised Haresh's abstract short plays untitled cow and untitled women) or Ghost Writer (a reincarnation of Gitanjali). As the company has evolved artistically over the years, its remakes, revivals and reconstructions of productions reflect a deep awareness of how its works fit into Singapore's artistic trajectory, but also how the ephemera of past work can continue to live and grow today.
- You can download the programme for Rosnah here.
- Incidentally, Alin Mosbit – the original Rosnah – translated this version into Malay.
- Before the show, I asked how long it would be. 1 hour and 10 minutes, one of the TNS staff told me. I checked my watch the moment I stepped out of the theatre – 1 hour and 9 minutes. Siti's timing is that impeccable.