Singapore – whether you’ve lived there, visited it, or never been near the place, you’ll want to stay in the Hotel experience at this year’s OzAsia Festival
Hotel is a piece of theatre that works on many levels. Fivehours long, W!ld Rice’s epic production has two parts, and when it has its Australian premiere at this year’s OzAsia Festival you can see either or both. However, if you decide upon just one – the logical being the first – it’s a given you will want to come back for more.
That’s because the storytelling is so engaging. As Alfian Sa’at, who co-wrote the work with Marcia Vanderstraaten, says, it’s an “epic yet intimate journey” through 100 years of Singapore history as experienced by people from all walks of life.
Commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Hotel premiered at Singapore’s Victoria Theatre in 2015, which marked the 50th anniversary of the republic’s independence as a nation-state after separating from Malaysia.
“Throughout the year, there were all these celebrations that took the year 1965 as a foundational moment in Singapore’s history,” Sa’at says. “We wanted to ask whether this kind of history-writing was politically selective, and whether a fuller understanding of our history would need to include that of our colonial as well as Malayan history. Thus we decided to also look at the 50 years that predated Singapore’s independence.”
As OzAsia Festival director Joseph Mitchell, who describes it as being a “masterwork of contemporary theatre” unlike any other production he has seen in the past few years, notes, Hotel was groundbreaking.
“Rarely would a theatre company take on a commission and the realisation of a new work with the task of overseeing 100 years of a nation’s history,” he says. “Before this work was premiered there might have been some scepticism about the ambition and scale ... but there has been nothing but unanimous applause about the scope, scale, epic nature and accessibility of it.”
Workshopped with actors during the writing process which began in 2014, Hotel, staged in Singapore in 2015 and last year, has been a revelation to both visitors and locals.
“I think some audience members from outside Singapore were pleasantly surprised that we were touching on certain things one might not readily associate with ‘strict’ and ‘uptight’ Singapore – these would include drugs, cross-dressing, lampooning of political figures, etc,” Sa’at says, adding: “I think many Singaporeans were quite surprised by some of the lesser-known historical episodes, such as that of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny in 1915.
“We tend to think that anti-colonial sentiments were stirred only after the advent of WWII, when the myth of British invulnerability was punctured by Japanese swords. But what we discovered was that there were always entities that chafed at colonial rule.
“I also think that Singaporean audiences were able to recognise how certain things were recurring. About a century ago Chinese girls from impoverished families were sold into slavery. And in the Singapore of today we find documented cases of modern-day slavery and abuse in the way some families treat their live-in foreign domestic workers.”
Prior knowledge of Singapore’s past and present is not a prerequisite, because the characters and their stories will draw you in.
“You can go in to this epic five-hour twopart theatre production with little knowledge of Singapore or Singapore’s history and essentially just watch an incredible ensemble performance unfold in 11 acts over 100 years that’s full of vibrant heartwarming characters and beautiful stories that are sometimes touching and sad, but overall the show has a great kind of uplifting sense of what it’s like to be human and, on that level alone, the piece is a major success,” Mitchell says.
“It’s a whole series of independent narrative stories set 10 years apart with a vast, exciting array of characters who tell their personal stories ... but at the same time they very much are metaphors for the circumstance of Singapore at the time in which their personal stories are being told.”
As the work’s title suggests, the play is set in a luxury hotel, which has a life of its own. While it is never named, if you know anything about Singapore you will most certainly recognise it. “I think we wanted to explore a space which experiences quite rapid and profound changes and yet can remain structurally ‘intact’,” Sa’at says. “A hotel fit this kind of description perfectly, because even though it experiences a high turnover of guests, and will undergo various renovations and refurbishments, essentially the structure remains. So we saw the hotel as this kind of a canvas where history can play out.
“The question is whether this act alters the quality and the integrity of the canvas. Are there residues that then become not just part of a backdrop but the backdrop itself? ”
Told in a series of vignettes, which stand alone but are also inextricably linked, there’s a brilliant balance of serious moments and comedy – sometimes in the same scene.
“I think because the play is in the form of 11 short plays, we’ve been able to explore different performance styles in each scene,” Sa’at says. “There’s something like a drawing room drama in the opening scene, inspired by a couple of Somerset Maugham’s plays. And then there’s Cantonese melodrama, Noel Coward farce, a Bollywood-Malay musical, an LSD-fuelled hallucination. Each of these genres allowed us to play around with the kinds of comedic or tragic elements that came with the territory.”
Mitchell says he expects Hotel to attract audiences who are not traditional theatregoers because those who experience the work discover it is akin to compulsive viewing and spread the word.
“(Only seeing one part is) like watching a season of your favourite TV show and stopping halfway through. The small-episode narrative might wrap up, but there are so many other things that will tie the whole story together if you watch the two parts together as one big story,” he says.
“I read a review in Singapore that really aligned this show to being something similar to binge watching on Netflix because you’re essentially going to, in one long day, watch 11 independent episodes about life in a luxury hotel in Singapore with interweaving threads, but at the same time each of the stories can be stand-alone, so I think that’s a really lovely compliment in terms of how accessible this play is for the wider audiences of Adelaide.”
And while the title Hotel might lead some to expect an experience of The Best Exotic
Marigold Hotel or The Grand Budapest Hotel kind, Sa’at says that isn’t the case: “I would think the only thing we might have in common is the word ‘hotel’!”
Dunstan Playhouse, Part 1 September 28, 7.30pm, or September 30, 2pm. Part 2 September 29, 7.30pm, or September 30, 7.30pm. Tickets from ozasiafestival.com.au
Some of the characters you’ll meet in Hotel