I shall now enumerate the flaws of H is for Hantu:
- Mediocre singing.
- Clumsy-looking dance sequences.
- Bad tech: ear-pounding slip-ups with sound, minor puppetry malfunction.
- My seat was fairly central, and already I could see the actors in the wings.
- Disappointment at how Ghazali Muzakir has been given yet another stereotyped “earthy Malay boy” role when his performances in Mad Forest and The Hypochondriac prove he’s capable of so much more.
- Extremely juvenile performance style – i.e., this is children’s theatre. The titular song is set to the tune of Sesame Street‘s C is For Cookie, and the entire audience was forced to sing it – with actions! Mortifying. Why didn’t MDA warn us about that, instead of insisting on its first-ever “Supernatural Content” advisory (based on the premise that not everyone knows that “hantu” is Malay for “ghost”)?
Phew. Now we’ve got all that settled, I can get to the meat of this review. Despite all these problems (and many are forgivable, given that I went for a matinee performance on the very first day), this show really, really rocks.
The bulk of the publicity centres on the ghosts – and sure, I’m impressed at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of director / playwright Jonathan Lim and puppet designer Frankie Malachi for bringing the stuff of Malay horror stories to life with the help of a little felt and plastic. The ginormity of the hantu galah (a gangly, giant spirit) is a sight to behold, the hantu batu (a walking stone) is adorable with its little moving legs, and the Chinese little girl ghost Swee Choo is actually really chilling.
However, what truly wows me in this play is Lim’s masterful storytelling. The show is a children’s comedy musical, but it contains real heart, and involves a serious, well thought-out treatment of the politics of Singapore’s continuous urban development to boot.
Our hero Sazali (played by Ghazali), is a schoolboy with the ability to see ghosts, living in Singapore’s last kampung. When a woman from the Housing Development Board comes to tear the place down, he decides to fight back on behalf of the community of spirits who live nearby.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Given Lim’s history of creating thigh-slapping populist anti-authoritarian sketches, we’re fully expecting an epic haunting of the HDB official, torturing her with ghastly visions until she caves in to their demands.
But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, the official in question, Angie Seah (played movingly by Koh Wan Ching), turns out to be a victim herself. She’s already possessed by an unspeaking ghost who drives her to scrabble through the jungle at night, searching for something in the ground. Sazali investigates, and finds out that she used to live in the kampung as a child, and Swee Choo was her best friend, a mute girl who died soon after her departure for city life.
Angie isn’t the bad guy – in fact, she fought hard to get put in charge of the kampung’s relocation, so that she could ensure that the residents were treated right. It’s a far more insightful and moving picture of the situation of many Singaporeans -we’re sentimental, but we know we can’t defeat the government once it’s made up its mind about something. So we’re pragmatic. We do what we can, and try to sleep at night.
But sometimes, we can’t sleep. The earth calls to us. So when Angie finally meets Swee Choo face to face and presents her with the token of their friendship she’s been searching for – well, that’s the moment when tears sprang to my eyes.
I also appreciate Lim’s intelligent portrayal of the kampung folk. Rather than being passive victims, they’re smart, modern Singaporeans with their own minds, sick of boiling their own hot water and having power cuts while watching The Little Nyonya. When Angie offers them attractive new apartments, they’re happy to move – and they ultimately keep their community together using a Facebook group. (There’s a special bounty of laughs to be had from the character of Cik Mariam, a 60-something-year-old auntie who relies on Twitter and Blackberry, played by Gene Sharudyn in tudung drag.)
And of course, all this wit and insight is bundled up in a busload of fun. Once you get used to the fact that you’re going to be treated like a seven year-old, you’re willing to clap along to the songs and groan at the corny jokes and scream when the shrouded body of the hantu bungkus nearly jumps into the stalls. You lap up the fascinating nuggets of Malay folklore thrown out at us, and marvel at the little flourishes of the puppetry and set design: the lighted windows of an MRT train rushing across the horizon, a wayang kulit performance featuring shadow puppets of hantu battling the rising city, the way a clothesline instantly becomes a little neighbourhood of doors.
Of course, the play might have been better if my above complaints had been addressed: Koh Wan Ching should not have been given a tearful solo when she patently can’t sing, and everyone could have improved their diction (Jo Tan suffered from this particularly in her Malay language number as Cik Pon the pontianak).
Nonetheless, I’m extremely happy with this show. For years, we’ve seen Jonathan Lim as an accomplished bilingual actor, comedian, director and humorous lyricist. With H is for Hantu, we now have proof beyond doubt that he should also be recognised as an excellent playwright.
Note: The reviewer has previously worked with actors Jo Tan and Candice de Rozario in W!ld Rice’s The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles. Curiously, Jo also played a pontianak in that one.