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Theatre Review (Singapore): Occupation by Checkpoint Theatre

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Seasoned Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas anchored a tour de force solo performance in Checkpoint Theatre’s Occupation, which played at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore, from September 27th to the 29th 2012.

Occupation, written by Huzir Sulaiman and directed by Claire Wong, tells the true life story of Mrs. Mohamed Siraj, who as Sulaiman explained during the post show discussion, was his grandmother. Occupation was first staged in 2002 to critical acclaim, and Sulaiman took inspiration for his script from real life interview sessions done with his grandparents in the 1990’s.

Driven by a protagonist in the form of a fictional character Sarah, who’s an oral historian given the task of interviewing Mrs. Siraj, Occupation examines Mrs. Siraj’s life from the affluent days when she lived in a huge house full of cooks and servants and when her mother would shop at Robinsons and Whiteways (exclusive upmarket shopping centres that would open their stores just for her) to her post-war years at a time when food was scarce and life was both miserable and unstable as she was sequestered at home during the entire war period. Through it all emerges a love story that is the theme of this play as Mrs. Siraj catches the eye of a Mr. Siraj who moves into her neighbour’s house to give tuition to the children there in exchange for food and lodging. With an overly protective, strict and somewhat unreasonable mother, Mrs. Siraj has to content herself with little peeks at Mr. Siraj as she steals chances to climb up to the roof or sneak by the window.

In time, a mutual friend approaches Mrs. Siraj’s mother to arrange for the marriage between Mr. Siraj and Mrs. Siraj, vouching and guaranteeing that Mr. Siraj is a good man. Whilst it is not delved into, it is implied that Mr. Siraj turned out to be a very good man and husband, who dies later on, leaving his resting place glowing because of his good nature and soul.

Sarah, who is documenting Mrs. Siraj’s life through the whole play, lets the audience in on her own views, monologue style, which range from jealousy, annoyance and even anger that Mrs. Siraj had led an opulent lifestyle, was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and didn’t really suffer during the war years (while many Singaporeans did), to irritation and sadness that Mrs Siraj had what seemed like a very fulfilling and loving relationship with her partner while Sarah herself has a problematic relationship with her boyfriend Tony.

At the end of Sarah’s interview sessions, the play ends with Mrs. Siraj gleefully recalling the first time her fingers brushed against her then-future-husband’s fingers as he handed her some beetle nuts and leaf, and how that was the start to their romance and marriage.

It is never easy for a writer to write a play about his/her own family, without going over board with glorification or being over-indulgent with praise. However, with Occupation, writer Huzir Sulaiman never crossed that line. I didn’t even realise Mrs. Siraj was his flesh and blood until after the show, as the character was written fully fleshed out, but without getting to the level of idolatry. Sulaiman has to be praised for sticking to the facts about his grandmother and staying away from excessive commendation, which was a hard task I imagine given he was writing about his own grandmother.

While Occupation deceptively starts off as a history lesson, mid way through, the play becomes a love story between Mr. and Mrs. Siraj, set within war torn Singapore. Sulaiman’s script is full of beautiful prose such as “she went from pre war prim to post war grim” to reflect Mrs. Siraj’s mother’s condition when the war set, and “gastric juices caressed empty spaces” to show how the family had to go hungry during the Japanese Occupation. Together with Jo Kukathas, who in a proficient performance breathed the right tone, enunciation and delivery of those words, Sulaiman’s already colorful and descriptive dialogue gave the performance layers and nuance that enabled the audience to picture those moments vividly in their heads, despite the almost bare set (except for a few Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chairs).

Deftly directed by Claire Wong, the Louis Ghost chairs served as efficient symbolic props – placed haphazardly around to signify the instability of war and placed tidily in a line as euphemism about the more peaceful times. Used at intermittent times during the play, these transparent chairs caught the light just right from the spotlights, creating an eerie and desolate feel when Mrs. Siraj was explaining her plight during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in the 1940’s.

Jo Kukathas helmed Occupation, playing all four characters – Sarah, Mrs. Siraj, Sarah’s boyfriend Tony and a Japanese official – with varying accents, mannerisms and gestures in what can only be called a virtuoso performance.

As Sarah, Kukathas was duty-bound but resentful of the older lady Mrs. Siraj because of the latter’s wealth (and possibly also because of Mrs. Siraj’s marriage to a good man while Tony wasn‘t quite a catch for Sarah) – at one point, Sarah asks her lover Tony, “Shouldn’t we consciously make ourselves rich?”. Sulaiman’s clever wink at Singapore society’s embarrassing obsession over wealth and competition is weaved within such lines in the dialogue, and Kukathas’ artful portrayal of Sarah and delivery of her lines bring this all the more to light in the play.

When Kukathas was portraying Mrs. Siraj, she played an energetic and personable 80 year old who when reminiscing about her love story turned almost into a giggly and girlish little schoolgirl, thereby giving Mrs. Siraj the character depth and pathos that resonated with the audience. After all, who wouldn’t gush and giggle if you too had met and married your Prince Charming? And that too………. during the tumultuous war!

Kukathas was equally consummate when she played Singlish speaking Tony who seemed uninspired and bored with himself – another nod to how many Singaporeans see themselves as part of the system, yearning for change but yet never having the courage to blaze an unexplored path, only to remain bored and querulous. Kukathas also played a Japanese official, complete with a perfect Japanese accent, who’s caught between feeling shame and guilt over the Japanese invasion, but yet being curtailed and censored from full expression by his government who’s too arrogant to apologise for their misdeeds.

Kukathas anchored the entire show masterfully, and if there’s any justice in the arts scene, Kukathas should win or at least get nominated for Best Actress at the next Life! Theatre Awards for her exquisite portrayal of all the different characters, for her ability to keep them all special and distinct, and for injecting a myriad of varying emotions, accents, expressions and body language into each one of them. This was truly a tour de force performance from Jo Kukathas.

When you see so much of the theatre these days having breath-taking sets and props, and with a cast list filled with famous local celebrities, it’s refreshing that under-the-radar Checkpoint Theatre has proven that this is essentially what great theatre should be about – it’s about excellent writing, skillful directing and a proficient actor to bring it all out to the audience. You don’t need big budgets, flashy sets or glamorous stars as Occupation didn’t have any of that, and it managed to touch the heart of the audience magnificently.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.
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