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The Singapore Theatre Scene: ‘Four Horse Road’ Spans 160 Years of Local Culture & History

four horse road play
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Four Horse Road provides fascinating theatre, with a unique Singapore twist!

For all you Sassy Mamas out there who enjoy culture, the theatre offerings at the moment are plentiful and we’re enjoying feeling a little spoilt for choice! But there’s one that has particularly caught our attention this month: Four Horse Road.

It’s an ambitious and exciting show by the renowned Singapore company, The Theatre Practice. Not only is it a newly written work that offers a fascinating insight into parts of Singapore’s culture and history via through a multitude of intriguing characters spanning 160 years, but it’s particularly unique in that it’s set ON the actual street the show takes its name from. Sounds like immersive theatre at its best!

Sassy Mama theatre critic Shona Benson (SB) was lucky enough to learn a little bit more about it all from Kuo Jian Hong (KJB), the Director of the piece as well as the artistic director of the company, and the playwright, Jonathan Lim (JL).

four horse road play

SB: Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for this piece and your connection with Four Horse Road? 

KJH: The Theatre Practice has spent almost 30 years on Waterloo Street (also known as “Si Ma Lu” in Mandarin, which literally translates as Four Horse Road). But the history of the area goes far beyond that.  When we relocated to our present location, we thought it would be great to excavate the many overlooked stories of the area. Along the way, we discovered wonderful characters, intriguing stories, and many unanswered mysteries. Our playwright, Jonathan, went to school and spent much of his youth in the area as well, so when I asked him to collaborate on the project, he was also very excited to come on board.

JL: Having grown up in this area I’ve always had a soft spot for the place and love the mix of cultures and faiths in this neighbourhood — it embodies the unpredictable and ever-shifting multi-culturalism that shaped Singapore, and that we seem to have lost the hang of. With this play, I really wanted to recapture some of that – in the form of encounters between cultures, at different points in history! Every scene is a collision of cultures, a fracas of faith, a “langah” of languages — and they celebrate the true diversity of this island.

SB: Can you tell us why you decided to make this immersive and set it in the street, not in a traditional theatre space? 

KJH: Theatre spaces are effective as a neutral and blank canvas that stories can be constructed within.  However, with Four Horse Road, we wanted to dialogue with these stories in the spaces that they took place in. How often do you get to look at history come alive, let alone in heritage buildings?  And not just one, but three! At the same time, we are not hiding the existence of now – as you travel through time in these stories, you will be fully aware that we are in 2018. This contrast, mis-alignment and the juxtaposing of past and present is what I would like the audience to experience and reflect on.

theatre practice four horse road review

SB: Given the show’s setting, has it posed any particular challenges during the rehearsal period for the actors and the creatives involved behind the scenes? 

KJH: With stories taking place over 160 years and characters of such diverse backgrounds, we have been working with over 10 languages and accents in the show.  To be authentic is difficult enough, to make sure that audiences of different language abilities can follow the scenes is even more challenging.

Logistically, I can’t even begin to tell you how crazy it has been! In theme parks, what we are attempting to do would be done by computers, through automation. But here, it’s all human coordination!

JL:  We don’t do much historical theatre in Singapore, so most actors are new to playing ‘old’ characters. It’s been thrilling watching them tackle the roles with such passion and absorb the research with such diligence!

Choosing the ideal language for each character was also exciting! Folks had to be much more multilingual in early Singapore than they do today – so many actors had to draw upon new languages to flesh out their characters and give the scenes their colour! It’s so much fun listening to them!

SB: With over 40 characters in the play, are there any that are your favourite? And, if so, can you tell us a little about why? 

KJH: It is very difficult to choose a favourite! However, I do have a fondness for the dialect-speaking characters because it is rare these days to hear the sounds. Language is more than just words. As sounds, it also evokes many memories.  Hearing these different sounds takes me back to a more colourful time in Singapore.

JL: For me, it has to be the Orang Minyak — the legendary Oily Man! Is he myth, or is he real… who knows? But he made the news many times – in the 1930s, the 1950s and on through the decades. He doesn’t appear directly in the play – we preserve his mystery – but he touches the lives of several of our characters in very surprising ways — so look out for him!

I’m also really fascinated by the boy who was suspected of stealing an SBS bus in 1978 and crashing it into a wall along Bras Basah Road. Very little is recorded about him, and his motives are a mystery. So I crafted a unique and chilling reason for him to do what he did… (no spoilers though!).

four horse road review

SB: You’ve described the show as an intimate piece on an epic scale. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by this?   

KJH: Intimate because these are all human stories that we can relate to, each character experiences and questions moments that are familiar to us in one way or another. Intimate also because of how close and personal the audiences will get to the actors.  And intimate because the audience size each night is no more than 180 people.

Epic because we are dealing with such breadth and depth. Being one of the earliest streets in Singapore, Waterloo Street and its surroundings have seen most of Singapore’s growth over more than 200 years.  And many of the stories take place at significant moments in our history. Epic also because Jonathan has chosen to zoom in on the critical moments of many of these characters’ lives. Epic because each night, we have 26 actors bringing you these moving stories, supported by a ninja crew of over 30 that makes sure the show goes on seamlessly.

JL: The tapestry of stories is epic: it covers 160 years, from colonial times, through both World Wars and right up to the present day. The cast of characters stretches from Indian convicts and French missionaries to resistance fighters and mamasans to Kempeitai to convent girls.  The scope of the play is broad and layered – and yet almost all the scenes are intensely intimate conflicts, vulnerable souls in crises – and the action draws you into the room with them (sometimes literally!).

four horse road play review tikam scene

SB: It sounds like a show of wonderful experiences, what would you most like audiences to take away with them? 

KJH: I would like them to care about the characters’ plights, to be entertained, to discover that we have such wonderful histories in our past, and to leave with more curiosities so that they will continue to excavate more stories about Singapore.

JL:  I think there are a few ‘takeaways’ I’d like them to have. One is a sense of history — how far we’ve come and yet how little we’ve changed. And how richly complex our society really is, if we take the trouble to look around us. The second is an empathy for those who suffered before us so that we can learn from their lives. And finally, a fascination with what they didn’t know about our history – and a desire to go find out more!

Four Horse Road is on until the end of the month, 28 April, but with only 180 tickets available each night it’s likely to sell out soon so we’d recommend all culture-loving Sassy Mamas get their tickets fast! For more information visit www.practice.org.sg or purchase tickets through Sistic!

All the details!
What: Four Horse Road
When: 7:30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, through 28 April 2018
Where: The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187953
How Much: Purchase through Sistic!$68 (no assigned seating).

www.practice.org.sg

All images by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of The Theatre Practice

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