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Siti Khalijah Zainal (left) will play the titular character in the monologue Rosnah, which has been updated to reflect current sensibilities. She is seen here with Alin Mosbit, who played the role back in 1995.

20 years on, one-woman show still resonates

Jul 29, 2016 5:50 AM

IN 1995, The Necessary Stage staged a modest monologue in a community library that would turn out to be one of its most performed productions.

Rosnah, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, starred Alin Mosbit as the titular character who experiences culture shock when she goes to London to study. Her traditional Malay values jarred with English ones, forcing her to make hard personal choices in order to assimilate with the host culture.

Though the play was first staged at the Tampines Regional Library with audiences seated on the floor, Rosnah instantly resonated with viewers across cultures. The notion of roots and tradition versus modernity and Western ideals was and remains relevant for many Singaporeans.

How do you reconcile the fact that you speak English flawlessly but struggle to communicate in your mother tongue with your parents and relatives? What does it say about you if you readily pay hundreds of dollars to watch Les Miserables but baulk at the idea of seeing a free traditional music concert?

Rosnah was originally performed in English, but has been newly translated into Malay by Alin herself for the Esplanade's Pesta Raya Malay Festival of Arts. The performance will carry English surtitles.

Alin, however, is not performing it. She has passed the torch instead to one of theatre's brightest stars, Siti Khalijah Zainal, who this year won the Best Actress trophy at the Life! Theatre Awards for her role as a schizophrenia patient in Off-Centre.

Alin recalls: "I was 22 years old when we first staged it in 1995. Back then, going overseas to study wasn't as common as it is now. Without social media, SMSes and e-mail, you could feel very alienated in a foreign country. You had no one to turn to to talk about your loneliness, and no Internet to find stories by others who've experienced what you're going through."

To make the monologue more topical, Sharma has updated the text significantly to reflect current sensibilities. Director Tan says: "We've retained much of the core text. But there are new references to topical issues such as Brexit and Islamophobia. And Siti, as the actress, has her own views about being a confident and well-travelled Malay woman in today's globalised context."

The issues of rootedness versus mobility, however, remains a resonant one, argues Siti. As the 31-year-old actress puts it: "You find many types of migration in today's world, rural to urban, short-term or long-term, forced or voluntary. The story of Rosnah struggling to adapt to a new environment and make decisions on whether to stay true to her roots or forget them is more relevant than ever. Perhaps, that's why the play continues to speak to audiences, even though it's had about half a dozen stagings in 20 years."

  • Rosnah plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from Aug 5 to 7. Tickets at S$30 from Sistic.