Last tango in Pulau Sekudu (Frog Island)

(photo credit: Irfan Kasban)

What is it about water these days that is finding itself an element in theatre shows? Movement in water. It is as if we are suddenly recalling that we are an island and that bodies move slower, in a more pronounced way than on land. Maybe we are all coming into a second wave(or third wave or 5000th wave) of theatre making that is more an ekphrasis of existing images that have haunted us for so long: of creatures male, female, and everything in between existing in unnatural states of floating, moving and creating… in water.

For the first part this tour took me pleasantly by surprise. The size of my group was small at 10 people, travelling on the tiniest boat from changi ferry point. The sleepy atmosphere at the ferry point is notable, because another group was headed for a wedding at Pulau Ubin too! So many performances man!

Ever since I returned from Japan, I made a mental note to appreciate my home a bit more. Singapore is indeed a strange place for a foreign soul but today I was re-acquainted with the island in a different way. Sea and more sea, and seafoam (little mermaid are you here), and trees and trees and lush foresty greens and rocks undisturbed and muddy sand and impoverished restaurants and dirty kelongs and throwback villages that were untouched… we watched two clips of the films featured: Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, ironically the later was in black and white. Cathay keris and Shaw clamouring it out over two famous Malay legends.

The films interested me in so far as to acknowledge that this was an important piece of history. I was not familiar with this folklore (as much as I should have being a Singaporean and all that) but today I really wondered about a few things:

1. What is it about Malay heroes fighting bloody wars in songket that makes them really look gorgeous even in black and white?
2. The films are so gory! stab wounds with bloody hands, and men dying all over the place after being stabbed repeatedly by a seemingly insane Hang Jebat
3. What is wrong with Hang Tuah? the bloody king sent you to your death. And then he hired you to stab your sworn brother who only wanted to avenge you. What. the. flying.
4. What is it about two men torn between the state and brotherhood makes this story so poignant to our community today?
5. Were there any women in this story who had a say in how shit went down?
6. What is it about incorporating water into a performance that makes it even more powerful?
7. The beauty of a site-specific work like this that spits on arts spaces designed to create an atmosphere. there isn’t a better set design than nature itself.
8. The body under duress, the bodies of male Malay heroes, existing in a constant state of conflict between community and country, as an ode to a troubling history of colonisation and marginalisation.
9. The whole point of making more artworks that are responses to old art works (despite being of different mediums i.e. film and theatre, dance and music) as a way of keeping things alive. reinstating them in the timeline of creations, memorialising by recreating and remembering them as way of re-inserting them into communal and institutional history especially something like this that is set in motion by a body like Asian Films Archive.

Two men torn between brotherhood, and obligations to the state and by extension their status as warriors. The sultan seemed to be such a bastard to be honest. Fucking with his men like that. But isn’t it kinda true? People in power have the right to fuck with you and fuck with your brothers and make you cancel each other out. What better way to take out the competition.

We arrived at the performance space by van, and Norisham and KayKay performed in the water and at the tiny column of beach. Homoerotic? Romantic? Torturous more like. Cold. Sand in your sarong, with torture/pleasure devices meant to subdue, expose, make vulnerable the body of the wearer. There were many moments I tried to place Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah on either of them. And at some point they melded into one item or both. I was being too linear with my perception.

They didn’t have to be one or the other right? Why was I subconsciously so consumed to give them a character each.  Some points:  one of them was the nasty Sultan and the other was the poor handmaid, forgotten along the way. The openness was what gave me so much to guess.

The audio clip on the mp3 was offered in two languages but I preferred the English one not being familiar with Malay. The piece was slightly jarring with the syair from the film (very nice and upbeat at the end very much like a “dabang kuttu” song not bad) but the dialogue turned me off. I zoned out from the text choosing to focus on the movements. What if there was live music, a lone violinist in the forest or half drowned in the waters, slightly drowned out by the elements? A flautist sitting on a tree branch (ha!)

The last few moments were quite powerful with one character walking off into the sunset (I had taken the last slot of the tour slots) and the other just floating (bubbling sarong threatening to expose) and mouth still gaping open unable to close despite the threat of sea water choking him. We were ushered back to the van quickly.

There were many mix motions of tenderness, more motherly at times, and at some moments, cheeky like a lover (I saw the twinged nipple!). I kept thinking about how space was being redefined. While we still need black boxes and theatre studios, these performances were also nice additions to diversify the experiences audiences can get. I enjoyed the setting a lot more.

Can we have a piece about the handmaiden please? Poor woman didn’t even know what hit her. The man she loved sent away to die, returning to the man who sent him away to die. She must be so pissed.

photo credit: Farah OngPhoto credit : Akulah Bimbo SaktiPhoto credit : Akulah Bimbo Sakti

Photo credit : Farah Ong

Photo credit: Irfan Kasban

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