The Theological Thorniness of Instant Café Theatre’s CMCO Nadirah
Review by Ellen Lee

Religion is arguably the theatre of the most apocalyptic and anguished showdowns between family members across both sides of the Causeway. In Nadirah, a play written by Singaporean writer Alfian Sa’at and directed by Malaysian dramaturg Jo Kukathas, the characters confront the oldest questions of any religion in all their theological heaviness and subtlety. Oh, and the kids are actually alright in this one: in Nadirah, it’s the parent who’s “rebelling”.

Nadirah has a lasting impact. It was first staged in 2009, and later performed at the Festival Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan, in 2016. The recording of this latter performance was recently brought out of the archives for a limited streaming run on CloudTheatre. With minimal action and set design, the play works well as a recording, and possibly could have worked even better as a radio play. All the tension and drama are contained within the philosophical head-butting between characters.

The play tells the story of religious conflict between a single mother and her daughter when the former announces that she intends to enter into a civil marriage with a new man. It’s not remarriage that’s the problem – it’s that the new man, Robert (Patrick Teoh) is a Christian, while both mother (Neo Swee Lin) and daughter, the titular character Nadirah (Sharifah Amani), are devout Muslims. Supporting and at times terrorising Nadirah are her closest friends, liberal Muslim Maznah (Farah Rani) and hardline Muslim Farouk (Iedil Dzhurie Alaudin). Notwithstanding religious differences, all the characters are lovable in their own individual ways; even Farouk, the straw-man evangelical.

Everyone comes into their faith for a different reason, and all of them get their preconceptions challenged throughout the play. At times though, the play’s attempt at “validating” all kinds of religious journeys felt as heavy-handed as Farouk’s evangelising, especially when the previously shrill and strident Maznah emerges in a headscarf at the end. This sudden transformation (up till then, she wore 6-inch heels that looked too outrageous for anyone, regardless of religion, at a university) along with the goody-goody field trip to Israel, also at the end, created this double rainbow of saccharine unlikeliness. Nevertheless, the central drama between Nadirah and her mum, as they both grapple with the full complexities of their faith, is pulled off brilliantly.

In her role as Nadirah, Sharifah Amani brings an ebullience and naivety that perfectly complements Neo’s gentle, nagging sadness and middle-aged exhaustion in her role as mother. Just as we see the pair exchanging caustic, teasing back-and-forths in their domestic evening conversations earlier in the play, so the same causticity allows them to wring each other out at the play’s climax.

It all comes out: how Nadirah’s mother raised her a devout Muslim because she was scared Malaysian religious authorities would take custody away from her; how lonely she’s been since Nadirah started university; how she suffers insomnia over whether she made the right decisions as a mother. Nadirah has an extremely loving relationship with her mother, even when they’re fighting, even when she’s threatening to leave and move in with her father and his other wife in Malaysia. At the climax, Nadirah breaks down in tears, telling her mother, “When we die, I want to be able to meet you in Heaven.” She’s scared that if her mother becomes overly-enamoured with Robert and apostates to Christianity, then she might end up in a different Heaven… or otherwise be sent down to Hell. Ah, so this is what it’s been about all along.

The play’s biggest strength is its bighearted recognition of the love that underlies so much religious conflict within families. When Nadirah worries about her mother, it’s not necessarily out of hatred for Robert or their union, but out of genuine love confused by a universal, theological fear of what happens to us after we die.

For his sake, Farouk also has a point in his view (which Maznah accuses as being “tyrannical”) of religion as spiritual reinforcement against the slings and arrows of minority status in Chinese-majority Singapore, and generally within a globalised world that subsumes regional identities. In a rapidly developing and increasingly cynical age, many parents probably view religion, a moral and spiritual compass, as one of the few lasting things they can pass on to their children.

Nadirah successfully dramatises the thorny theological questions that, from the play’s first performance until the present day, many of us still fear to voice out loud. Sometimes, the fear isn’t even a fear of persecution, but a fear that the implications of the questions and their answers might be too terrifying. On-stage, none of the characters actually reach a peaceful resolution; by the play’s end, it’s simply implied that a greater level of universal understanding and tolerance between the characters has happened over time. This is also why its saccharine ending feels a little bit like a cop-out.

Death and faith are two abysses, two eternities that reinforce each other. Historically, this has made for great theatre, and Alfian knows it too. He shouldn’t have downplayed their terror.

CMCO Nadirah, a stage-play written by Alfian Sa’at and directed by Jo Kukathas, streamed from Nov 19 – 22, 2020 on CloudTheatre.

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Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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