Delineations and demarcations
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

I plugged the HDMI cable to my laptop, connecting it to the TV, wondering if I would have to change my sound settings. As I was preparing my breakfast, I scrambled across the living room, tea in one hand, banana cake in the other, and settled on my sofa, at home in my pyjamas, to watch Nadirah, a play by Alfian Sa’at, produced by Instant Cafe Theatre.

In between the never-ending loading screen, curtains, pre-rolls and online conversations on the digital screening platform Cloud Theatre, the show began on the digital stage. I felt like I was talking to the main characters, as if the performance had become an extension of my domestic space. With the collapsing walls of the theatre and home, I fell into the story, headfirst.

Set in Singapore, Nadirah is the tale of a mixed-race woman, Nadirah, the vice-president of her university’s Muslim society. She advocates and arranges for inter-faith meetings and creates spaces of conversation between differing opinions. She lives with her single mother, Sahirah, a Nyonya who converted into Islam long ago. Nadirah’s Malay father lives in Kuala Lumpur with his other family.

In the play, her mother falls in love with a Christian man, Robert, and she tells Nadirah she’s going to remarry, in a civil marriage.

Nadirah is joined by her all-loving, free-thinking best friend, Maznah, and her senior, Farouk, from the Muslim society, on a journey traversing through intersections of love, religion and ethnic tensions.

This play transcends many borders and iterations. Initially written in 2009 by Alfian, and first performed in Kuala Lumpur in 2012, this particular showing is a recording of a performance in Tokyo, Japan back in 2016 directed by Jo Kukathas, and starring a critically acclaimed cast of Sharifah Amani (Nadirah), Neo Swee Lin (Sahirah), Patrick Teoh (Robert), Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin (Farouk) and Farah Rani (Maznah).

“Mummy and Nadirah is family” – Nadirah

I wasn’t prepared for such expansiveness of the many themes ranging from love, faith, religion and ethnic minority issues, in so few lines of delivery. The stage design echoed the minimal approach, the extent demarcated by four pillars at the corners of a bareboned stage set, illuminated shadows on the stage floor in between scenes. Only the ornate wooden sofa, armchair and table depicting flowers and plants motifs and traditional malay wood carvings decorated the scenography of the home, where Nadirah’s family, comprising just her and ‘mummy’ reside.

“Abih, your private and public views lain-lain?” – Maznah

The private realm is when the tudung is removed, where intimacy with family happens, where food and relationships flourish with maximal engagement and minimal restraint. The public realm – decorated with minimal plastic chairs and high contrast spotlights – on the other hand is where an articulate and careful Nadirah is presented. The distinction between the two was first introduced by philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book the Human Condition, where contemporaneity demands a confusing and disenchanted melding of the two – the social realm. Maznah expands on this confusion of the distinction between the two realms. It begs the question of the performative action of mediation we conduct every day and why such boundaries still require attention.

“Malays in Singapore are 99.6% Muslim…. What if we all go extinct?’’ – Farouk

Moving back to Malaysia, I attuned to the boundaries of society, laws and religion which we overlay upon ourselves. It is intimately linked with the histories between the two nations depicted in the play – Malaysia and Singapore, but slippages of discrepancies begin to emerge from the majority-minority ethnic tensions. The almost ubiquitous coupling of Muslim with Malay relations is new and confounding. Learning about the rituals, rules and regulations set in stone, is also distinctly tied to responsibility, family and love. Decoupling and decentering such notions result in difficult conversations, mediating between love, marriage and religion, which Sahira has to overcome.

“Civil marriages are wrong, Mummy! Muslims don’t go into civil marriages!” – Nadirah

Nadirah is an emblem of these delineated boundaries, sitting on the crossroads between her faith and race, and the melding of the two. The shades of grey of this boundary are expressed when Nadirah expresses her need to cultivate conversations between religions but refuses to acknowledge her own mother’s wishes to marry a Christian. The theme then shifts from a conversation about religion to the relationship between mother and daughter, and the complicating implications of another figure in their small family.

The theme of religion continues in a conversation between Robert and Farouk. It begins with arguments elaborating on the differences between Christianity and Islam, before moving onto how Islam is embedded in ethnic Malays. Unexpectedly, the two connect over their love of football, demarcating the beginnings of a friendship and connection. A clear resolution is not found, but a meandering notion of simply needing to connect, and time, which is experienced universally, is navigated expertly by Teoh’s character.

Although the context is set in Singapore, the majority of the cast and crew in this production were Malaysian. The thematic power of family, friendship and love emerges as what drives the collective humanity of the show as it traverses through many cultural nuances.

Much like how 2020 has panned out, the needed spaces for reconciliation lie beyond borders. The theatre is an expanded digital platform of discussion, much like the Cloud Theatre chatroom. It continues to live on the smooth screens of our devices, in our domestic spaces, and the crowd reactions are the uncanny emojis that appear in the chat box.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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