From a textile centre to a shopfront selling cars, this heritage building has been through a lot; witnessing a big part of Singapore’s collective history. The Theatre Practice, the longest-standing local theatre company now occupying the beautiful heritage building, conceptualised Four Horse Road 四马路 – an immersive theatrical journey along one of the oldest streets in Singapore.
The two hour performance directed by Kuo Jian Hong features a variety of stories inspired by real events from past and present. Mixing up fact with fiction, and placing them in different spaces of the heritage building itself and around it, opens up the audience members’ capacity for imagination – engaging smell, touch and the changes in environment; beyond your usual visual and auditory senses.
You may find yourself walking past The Theatre Practice’s staff desks and into a room of a pregnant woman packing up her belongings to move due to the war. Or through the back alleys, dimly lit by street lights, to discover garlands of flowers laid out on the floor with Chinese joss papers placed next to them. Right outside a hotel’s carpark, no less.
The juxtaposition made it interesting for me: What is past? What is present? And how did this land I stand on become what it is today?
And how what we know of history may be so selective: made obvious by the different trajectories available for the performance.
The travelling between scenes became a space for self-reflection and the digestion of prior scenes; a much needed process to fully appreciate the performance.
Though this may come with some technical difficulties and quite a bit of walking, the overall experience is one spurred by curiosity, novelty and rediscovery of a shared past we might not encounter in our history textbooks. Some scenes go as far back as 1870 and we all know that in national interest, some stories are somehow made more valuable than others though no citizen was really consulted.
One scene that tied the multilingual and multicultural heritage of Singapore seamlessly is May Blossom 1942. The scene portrays the night organised by Major Onishi (Johnny Ng) of the Kempeitai to welcome Major Wortmann (Andrew James Mowatt), a SS officer of the Nazi Party, over a grand dinner. A hostage situation occurs when some servers (Al-Matin Yatim, Yazid Jalil) , a guest (Sharon Sum) and the singer (Ethel Yap) of the restaurant reveal themselves to be resistance members.
Dramatic and dynamic, the cast (including Lim Poey Huang, Ng Mun Poh and Jodi Chan) of this scene waste no time in building the scene to a climax; letting their emotions run high and audiences’ are caught in this situation as helpless onlookers, complicit in the violence of World War II.
The use of languages for this scene left no ethnicity out, different languages ranging from Malay to Japanese used whenever character appropriate, which includes everyone without compromising on the authentic of history in the name of inclusivity.
However, the same cannot be said about some of the other scenes where a majority of the script, written by Jonathan Lim, is performed in Mandarin. Sure, with the costumes and the creative use of space to transport audience members into a different dimension of time, authentic use of language can enhance the reality of the drama itself. But I cannot help but wonder if audiences without the ability to understand Mandarin will be able to get as much out of the performance, or are shortchanged in this bid to retain historical context.
Besides this nagging question that stayed with me, this immersive theatrical performance is a great feat to pull off – running mainly on manpower and a cast of 28 who double up characters as and when the scene calls for it. This is a testimony of passion and an interesting take to question as well as celebrate our nation’s history.
Photo by Tuckys Photography, Courtesy of The Theatre Practice