'Nadirah': Playing powerfully on race and religion

'Nadirah': Playing powerfully on race and religion

Truthful, funny and irreverent, playwright Alfian Sa’at’s ‘Nadirah’ brings this year’s Man Theatre Festival to a strong conclusion
'Nadirah': A chronicle of what happens when a union of love goes against religious laws.

“Ninety-nine point six,” says Farouk, the president of his university’s Muslim society, devout Muslim and friend of [lead character] Nadirah, vice president and equally devout Muslim whose mother is about to marry a Chinese-Christian who won't convert to Islam.

Ninety-nine point six of Malays in Singapore are Muslims. This is a unity that must be preserved, Farouk stresses, outraged at the marriage.

“Ninety-nine point six?” retorts Maznah, their free-spirited friend who champions the right of every person to find their own path to love and happiness.

If you are so obsessed with “ninety-nine point six” why don’t you go start a radio station, she exclaims sarcastically; ninety-nine point six FM, starring DJ Farouk playing religious songs and sermons.

The audience bursts out laughing.

Delving into “Nadirah”

And so go the witty, frank, in-your-face lines of the spare-no-punches play “Nadirah.” Revolving around the personal torment that Nadirah (played by the exemplary Siti Khalijah) faces when she discovers that her mother (the magnificent Neo Swee Lin), a Chinese-Peranakan Muslim convert, has fallen in love with Dr. Robert Goh (the perfectly cast Tony Quek).

"Nadirah" becomes a platform for voicing starkly different perspectives about the marriage, religion and society

This play wrestles with the highly charged issues of race and religion with an honesty that is rarely seen in politically correct Singapore.

Nadirah confronts her dilemma with the serious, earnest Farouk (Hatta Said) and the exuberant, romantic Maznah (Shida Mahadi), and the triangular friendship between these diverse characters becomes a platform for voicing starkly different perspectives about the marriage, religion and society.

Raising more than just race

Written by the irrepressible Alfian Sa’at, whose provocative literary works have won him a series of awards and earned him a reputation for being our enfant terrible.

Directed -- for the second time (the first was in 2009) -- by the deft hand of Teater Ekamatra’s Zizi Azah Abdul Majid -- “Nadirah” uses the centrifugal relationship between Neo and Quek to assert a whole spectrum of race-religion contentions.

That of interfaith marriage, minority races in Singapore, racial stereotypes, differences within the Malay community and what it really means to be an Asian, pluralistic society.

These themes are all forcefully yet smoothly raised in Sa’at’s strongly worded, and very funny, script, Zizi’s refined direction and the cast’s skillful acting.

“I decided to make the play a lot more naturalistic this time round,” says Zizi. “Both in terms of the set and the acting.”

“The first time round, the set was very abstract and the acting more heightened. This time I’m playing with the dynamics of the relationships, and having a little bit more fun with them. We still weight it but we made it more human.”

Playing off each other

Nadirah Neo Swee Lin and Siti Khalijah tread carefully around the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship. The relationship between Khalijah and Neo is emphatically played out, with perfect chemistry between the two actresses, who executed their parts convincingly and portrayed the complexities and nuances of a mother-daughter relationship.

Khalijah is the loving yet independent daughter, while Neo is the devoted, caring mother; who at the same time carries a tidal wave of desires and emotions beneath her composed, maternal surface.

Both actresses got under the skin of their characters and it showed, with Neo switching effortlessly between Malay and English.

Said is pitch-perfect as Farouk, the pontificating, fist-thumping follower, whom you find yourself liking, even though you feel you shouldn’t, because of his sincerity and his fondness for Nadirah that Farouk subtly reveals. Shida is a darling, and had the audience smiling with her zingy delivery and sparkle as Maznah. Quek is a competent Dr. Goh, balancing warmth, grief and maturity.

But it is Khalijah who carries the show with strength and consistency as she peels back the layers to Nadirah’s character.

Humorous and serious, playful and intellectual, obedient daughter and independent thinker, Khalijah seamlessly brings out the different sides to Nadirah’s personality as she grapples with her personal conflict.

Raising race

Race was a pertinent issue in this year’s Man Theatre Festival.

“Charged” by Chong Tze Chien, like “Nadirah,” dealt with Malay-Chinese race relations, played to sold-out audiences, and was also directed by Zizi.

“We need to recognize that different races are indeed different,” she says. “That we are deep and have a complex cultural identity that we need to meld together.”

We all are a little bit ‘racist’ on a very basic level because we see each other by the color of our skin

“We need to stop thinking that each race is pegged with certain identities and be able to talk about race openly. That’s what we need to do to mature society.”

“We all are a little bit ‘racist’ on a very basic level because we see each other by the color of our skin,” says festival director Ivan Heng.

“So how do we get to know each other? I’m Chinese and you’re Malay; can we talk and do we talk beyond our Chinese-ness and Malay-ness and become human beings?”

An answer may well lie in “Nadirah.”

In a well-crafted scene between Robert and Farouk, they talk about the football teams they support. Robert is a die-hard Liverpool fan and Farouk is loyal to Manchester United. They banter about their teams in between struggling with Robert’s refusal to convert from Christianity to Islam.

But don’t you get it, says Robert after an intense exchange -- we’re both playing the same beautiful game in the end.

Elaine Ee writes about Singapore, the city she lives in, covering the arts, events, personalities and social issues. Her stories have appeared in Time Out SingaporeTatler HomesFood & Travel and Jetstar Asia. She’s also an editor at publichouse.sg, a Singapore community-driven website run by socially conscious denizens. When she’s not at her laptop, she practises Bikram yoga, spends time with her three kids and makes it a point to keep trying something new. 

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