Esplanade Recital Studio, April 5
Revisiting an old favourite carries both risks and rewards. And so it is for Occupation, the first of a series of chamber readings that is part of Checkpoint Theatre’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
Claire Wong, who performed the play at its world premiere 20 years ago at the then Singapore Arts Festival, directs this reading with care and spare elegance.
The tale, commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Japanese Occupation, is inspired by playwright Huzir Sulaiman’s grandmother, Mrs Mohamed Siraj nee Khatijah Dawood. A pioneering feminist, Mrs Siraj’s wartime experiences do not fit in the usual mould of historic accounts of pain, suffering and starvation.
Instead, it is a tale of “loving and being loved”, as the 18-year-old Khatijah, cloistered in her wealthy family’s rambling mansion for the duration of the occupation, meets her future husband and conducts a chaste, if clandestine, romance through scribbled notes smuggled by the family’s assistant cook.
To mangle Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s famous line, happy stories are all alike. So the playwright has introduced dramatic counterpoints to Khatijah’s charmed life in the form of historian Sarah, her boyfriend Tony and Ogawa, a rather random Japanese character.
Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai reads Mrs Siraj with tender warmth, navigating the age leaps from pampered teenager to puckish grandmother with understated grace. Isabella Chiam takes on the other three roles with gusto, channelling characters with changes of timbre and accent.
Both actresses are imminently capable and watchable, but the shadow of Wong’s tour de force solo performance looms large in the mind of this reviewer.
In this stripped-down setting, with only two actresses and musician Joel Nah’s live accompaniment on the accordion and piano, the focus is on Huzir’s script, which is that of a young playwright whose facility and talent are undeniable, but who is still figuring out how to wrangle narratives. Poetic passages show his love of language, but some structural devices, such as Ogawa, are clunky.
Yet the play is still engaging. Even in the weakest spots there are flashes of strength. Huzir writes a moving section for Tony and Ogawa, where their speeches about Japan’s role in World War II demonstrate cultural differences as well as a deep chasm of misunderstanding.
Themes such as the shock of war and the power of competing narratives are still relevant today. The need to decolonise wartime narratives is still unmet, 20 years after this script raised the issue.
Occupation marked the beginning of Checkpoint Theatre’s journey. It planted a flag for scripted stories at a time when Singapore’s theatre landscape was dominated by workshopped productions.
Revisiting stories is another critical way of championing Singapore’s growing theatre canon, and this staging proves the play has staked out a place in that body of work.