Emerging from the darkness, she strutted onto the stage, interrupting the chatter of the audience with her effortless presence. Without a single word spoken, she had already earned herself an uproarious applause.
Our Singaporean sweetheart, Siti Khalijah Zainal, returns to the stage with a reprise of Best Of for this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. At its core, Best Of deals with universal themes, that only director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma can translate into a production that almost anyone can identify with.
A one-woman monologue, the stage was nearly bare—nothing but a chair and a spotlight. You could imagine the sea of expectant eyes, following every move and twitch of the only person on stage. No pressure.
Siti plays a young Malay-Muslim woman who narrates the typical 9 to 5 of her life, which in short, sounds like 60 minutes of incessant yammering. But it was far from a superficial journal entry, and something about Siti’s fiery articulation made you want to sit up and lean forward to catch every word she said.
For a play that relies on minimal movement, the actor’s expression would make or break the production. Lucky for us, Siti was the right minah (Malay woman) for the job.
Broaching subjects like racism, feminism and stereotyping, it gave a good attempt at touching on issues concerning ethnic groups other than the character’s own. However, it is largely skewed towards the Malay-Muslim culture. Laden with emotional burdens so heavy, there was no way anyone could tell Siti’s sprightly entrance would build up to a tearful crescendo.
Her day, spread across a 10-hour (more or less) period, transpired between three locations—the prison, the Syariah court, and the hospital. Though each scenario bore issues of its own, the main narrative revolved around her impossible divorce. According to Islamic law, a Muslim woman cannot leave her husband without his consent. On the other hand, Muslim men don’t have to go to court to seek an official separation. So essentially, Siti’s character is stuck with a man whose ego is getting in the way of her freedom.
Constantly oscillating between reality and reverie, the past and present, her train of thought flowed from her life in ITE with her cousin, to a furniture-shopping spree with her spouse. The drama aside, the remains of the play were fitted with comedic opportunities like matrep (Malay gangsters) impressions and Malay-Muslim references, wherein Siti delivered right on the money time and time again.
Being stripped of the larger-than-life qualities that most would recognise in The Necessary Stage productions, Best Of did seem like a step back from their winning pieces. Nonetheless, it was the simplicity of the play that allowed its authenticity to come through, and it proves that they don’t need elaborate or extravagant arrangements to touch an audience.
With her last few words still echoing through the crowd, she got to her feet, adjusted her skirt, and in quiet confidence, strode back into the shadows from which she came. It didn’t take long for the silence to break midway.
Photo credit: Alan Lim