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OzAsia review: Hotel

Festivals

With its beautiful juxtaposition of comedy and drama, this epic Singaporean play celebrates cultural and gender diversity in a wonderful performance full of colour, surprise, tenderness and community.

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At almost five hours in length, Hotel was presented by Wild Rice Theatre across two parts at the OzAsia Festival, with an ensemble cast including, among others, Chinese, Malay and Indian actors.

Part 1 spans the five decades from 1915 until 1965 through the experiences of the occupants of a Singapore hotel room. The talented actors, who are cleverly choreographed at the beginning of scenes to establish the bellboys and maids of the hotel, each play multiple significant and demanding roles throughout the performance.

The history of Singapore reflects the changing world and, because of the multicultural nature of the cast, we gain insights into the racial conflicts and dilemmas that have impacted on the country since World War I. Playwrights Marcia Vanderstraaten and Alfian Sa’at, with the cast, have created a fascinating range of characters, and their writing displays a deep understanding of many cultures.

There is hysterical comedy and satire in most scenes, such as the time of British occupation where Henry, a British businessman (played by Daniel Jenkins), displays classic chauvinistic attitudes of the era to his younger, very attractive wife (Julie Wee), while at the same time we are hit with the politics and horror of public executions being viewed as a kind of entertainment.

There is rich sensitivity and poignancy in the portrayal of Japanese Captain Matsuda (Moo Siew Keh), who has a son with a Singapore woman, Sharifah (Sharda Harrison), and his genuine concern for her welfare if she cannot be taken by a Japanese ship to Japan.

The diverse cast with their various languages allows for comic scenes of misinterpretation and misunderstanding, as in the case of a Malayan film director, Mr P Ramlee (Ghafir Akbar), wanting to create a genuinely Malayan film with a Malayan female lead (Siti Khalijah Zainal), while film producer Mr Shaw (Ivan Heng) insists on a Eurasian starlet.

Pam Oei is superb as Loy Dai, the hotel laundry worker who is reunited with her friend, Ah Ying (Yap Yi Kai), and they – a little like Genet’s The Maids – dress in the mistress’s clothing, until Ah Ying’s back reveals she has been beaten by her mistress.

Directors Ivan Heng (who performs in various roles) and Glen Goei have a wonderful sense of theatricality. Their combination of elements of naturalism, music theatre and the absurd is complemented by intelligent use of video and media projections on the hotel room’s walls.

The entire cast of Hotel Part 1 is superb and the storyline is fascinating, resonating with racial conflict and misunderstanding, but always providing hope for a better future.

Hotel Part 2 tells the story of a Singapore hotel in the decades from 1975 to 2015, covering major social issues and conflicts in a very personal, humane, humorous and compassionate manner.

The history begins with a Vietnam vet (Daniel Jenkins) wanting to do cocaine in his room with a couple of gorgeous local girls (Brendon Fernandez and Dwayne Lau), unaware of their actual gender. The drug influence allows the directors to introduce some madcap footage and absurd characterisations to highlight that era and create terrific entertainment.

In the second scene we witness another moving, sensitive portrayal by Moo Siew Keh as Natsuo, a 40-year-old Japanese man who has returned to Singapore to find the Singaporean mother (Sharda Harrison) he has never seen. The tension between them, and the hurt and pain of rekindling the memory of a wartime affair with an enemy officer, is a powerful, dramatic experience.

We often think of racial prejudice coming from a white supremacist view, but Hotel reminds us it can occur between any races, as we don’t always celebrate difference. This theme is explored in a riotous scene where a young bride (Julie Wee) of Chinese descent is marrying into an Indian family and chooses to wear a sari rather than a traditional Chinese outfit.

Hotel Part 2 addresses the very current issue of Islamophobia when Hakim (Ghafir Akbar), his mother and son are interrogated by local police. Wild Rice Theatre excels at examining situations from the perspective of people of a minority culture, potentially creating more understanding in us all.

The final scene has a grumpy, dying Chinese man, Mr Yao, wishing to die in his hotel room, much to the concern of hotel management. As he is dying, he speaks freely and honestly about his life experiences, reminding the audience that just like guests in a hotel, we are visitors to this world and should be making the most of our stay.

Hotel is a wonderful piece of theatre which documents a turbulent and changing world. Singapore’s location means it has experienced the effects of two world wars and, being such an international port and city, it reflects global transformation.

The compelling play shows the difficulties in races understanding each other but also the possibilities of people coming together. The conservative forces who recently condemned Craigburn Primary over its fundraising efforts for the education of girls in Sierra Leone and Uganda could learn something from it about the progress being made internationally in understanding gender, sexuality and race.

Hotel was presented at the Dunstan Playhouse as part of the OzAsia Festival, which continues until October 8. Read more OzAsia interviews and review here.

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