OzAsia,

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

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - UPFRONT - WORDS ANNA VLACH

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

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