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SIFA 2015: Checking into Wild Rice’s five-star Hotel

SINGAPORE — A hotel, like an airport, is a space with impermanence written all over it, playing host to a constant stream of tourist and travelers. If its walls could speak, what stories would it tell?

SIFA 2015: Checking into Wild Rice’s five-star Hotel

Wild Rice's Hotel is a sweeping epic production over two parts at SIFA 2015. Photo: Wild Rice /Albert Lim KS

SINGAPORE — A hotel, like an airport, is a space with impermanence written all over it, playing host to a constant stream of tourist and travelers. If its walls could speak, what stories would it tell?

Well, in Wild Rice’s own Hotel, lots of interesting ones. So much so that we were very reluctant to check out of its magnificent premises.

Commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, it’s the theatre company’s most ambitious work yet. Perhaps the best SG50 type of theatre production we’ve seen this year, it’s a sweeping, two-part epic experience that stretches nearly five hours long and spans a full century of Singapore history, all told through the lives of colourful characters who have stayed in a certain grand, unnamed hotel (that’s presumably a stand-in for the iconic Raffles Hotel).

Playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, co-directors Glen Goei and Ivan Heng and an outstanding powerhouse ensemble of 13 bring to life 11 mini-plays, each of which representing a decade beginning from 1915.

Like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel rolled out as a TV or radio serial drama, the line between historical fact and fiction blurs in Hotel. And as episode after episode rolls out, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, from the hilarious to the hysterical, the melodramatic to the heartbreaking.

You encounter British newlyweds arriving on the day of the Sepoy Mutiny mass public execution; are privy to an illicit Malay-Japanese love affair at the end of World War II; and watch a Singaporean hotel staff’s ambiguous relationship with a Malaysian TV service repairman during that confusing month of August in 1965.

But here, also, is P Ramlee planning his directorial debut Penarek Becha with one of the Shaw brothers, interrupted by an ardent fan; a Bugis Street transgender denizen having an outrageous acid trip involving his “Virgin Mary” mother, giant penises and a cross-dressing Prime Minister; and an over-the-top confrontation over a saree between families on an interracial wedding day. (It really isn’t hard to imagine Hotel as a bestselling book, too, come to think of it.)

Each episode is distinct even as familiar characters and storylines thread many of these together (there is a delight in seeing a bellhop rise up the ranks years later as much as there is utter sadness in witnessing a reunion decades too late). But aside from building a solid narrative structure — that nevertheless allows the piece to embrace its sprawling and, therefore, potentially random nature — the playwrights have managed to effortlessly marry the personal and the bigger picture — in Singapore and the world, and across time.

Yes, markers abound in the short choreographed segments in-between decades and Brian Gothong Tan’s backdrop video collages. But the sense of time — as a linear and cyclical phenomenon — is embedded in the stories themselves. It can come in the form of a nudge-wink during a seance in the 1930s, where one of the participants jokes about asking the long-deceased Stamford Raffles what he thought of his statue being moved to the front of the Victoria Memorial Hall (as the play’s being staged in Victoria Theatre). Or it can be seen in the recurring themes of prejudice within the play (whether it’s colonials’ thoughts on Indians and Malays, or the relationship between Indian and Chinese families or between Singaporeans and Malaysians). And these themes extend outside of the play, too like how maid abuse from the 1920s still resonate today.

And then there’s Hotel’s biggest wow factor: Its use of language. One of the delights throughout those five hours is opening one’s ears to a stream of languages beyond English: Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Japanese, Urdu, Tamil, Mandarin, Tagalog, which collectively highlight just how culturally diverse Singapore was and is.

But Hotel’s creators are also aware of the political and social power of language and they play with these as well. Subtitles disappear and only reappear when someone speaks Mandarin. We see a complicated Chinese whispers game of translation go laughably wrong, or the smooth linguistic code-switching between colleagues to assuage fears about tensions between Chinese and Malay post-Separation.

Hotel is a story of peoples but it is obviously also a story about the hotel itself, an easily justifiable allegory of Singapore, with its reputation of being a hub for people passing through, for business or pleasure.

In its final scene, an old man on his deathbed describes the hotel as an illusion of home. That’s a given. But Hotel leaves behind a more important souvenir for us transient theatregoers: It reveals what, across 100 years, people have done within this illusory space of a home, this construct of a nation. We hope this Hotel opens its doors again post-SIFA — it deserves a longer run.

Hotel runs until Aug 30 (Sunday), 3pm (part 1) and 8pm (part 2), at Victoria Theatre. Tickets from SISTIC. For more information on SIFA, visit https://sifa.sg/sifa/

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