From the day we were born into this multicultural bubble known as Singapore, we have been conditioned to define who we are based on the age-old trifecta of gender, race and faith, while still finding enough of a common ground to identify ourselves as one united people.
What then does it mean to be a progressive Malay Muslim in this world that we’re inhabiting today? “Rosnah” tenderly explores this subject matter in this brilliant production that’s restaged by The Necessary Stage for Pesta Raya as the Malay Festival of Arts celebrates its 15th year at The Esplanade.
Directed by Alvin Tan and written by Haresh Sharma, “Rosnah” revolves around a young and conservative Malay woman – played by Siti Khalijah Zainal – who leaves Singapore for the very first time to study in London. Mind you, this was set in the 1990s, making the prospect of ethnic minorities from the city-state advancing their education overseas a non-ubiquitous affair.
Away from the comforts and familiarity of home, Rosnah finds her temple of traditionalist beliefs and ideologies challenged and distorted with the sudden introduction of new people in her life. The question then lies in her ability to stay rooted to her authentic self or get swept away by the strong currents of Western modernity and liberalism.
What the audience would appreciate the most – apart from the contagious singalong interludes – is how relatable Rosnah is, and language plays a huge role in making her personable. This production has been staged five times since 1995, but this marks the first time that the script has been translated to Malay. Of course, who better to have done this than the established Aidli Mosbit, the very first actor to ever play Rosnah.
Instead of alienating audience members with overly proper Malay throughout the course of the hour-long monologue, Haresh and Aidli have done a fantastic job in bringing the linguistic tone down to earth, punctuating the script with conversational Malay that’s been laced with nuances, street slangs and perfect comedic timing.
But what use is a strong material if there is no actor to give it wings and lift it off its pages? The stellar performance by Siti is quite a wonderful sight to behold. “Rosnah” is essentially a one-woman show that sees the actor trucking through an hour-long monologue without intermission, and Siti accomplished this amazing feat with admirable zest.
Her transitions between different characters are seamless, and her actual embodiment of these different characters – be it the perpetually-conflicted Rosnah or the pretentious friend with a horrendous yet hilarious fake English accent – is a true showcase of talent.
Complementing her vocal performances is of course the skilful guitar strumming courtesy of sound artist Bani Haykal, whom some may recognise as a member of alternative rock band B-Quartet. In all seriousness though, diehard fans of “Fantasia Bulan Madu” by Search are in for a real treat.
All in all, “Rosnah” is a richly-layered production that will resonate with anyone who has ever questioned their place in the world, regardless of the colour of their skin or the language that they speak. This play is as relevant today as it was over 20 years ago, and it will probably be as relevant 20 years from today.
Feature image taken from The Esplanade website.