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Siti Khalijah Zainal holds her own in The Necessary Stage's revival of Rosnah.

Classic monologue marks the turn of an era

Aug 12, 2016 5:50 AM

ROSNAH in 2016 feels like a crucial time capsule of a pre-Internet era. There are so many fears and anxieties experienced by the character in Haresh Sharma's 1995 monologue, it might have some audiences today scratching their heads.

"Why is this Singaporean girl so afraid of going to London for her studies? Why does she see the West as some big, bad wolf? Wouldn't anyone be excited to face the world head-on?" they might ask.

Of course, globalisation has changed the way we think, travel and interact. Social media lets you befriend someone from the other side of the world with just one click of a button. Free text messaging keeps you connected to family members in a different time zone. The Internet lets you discover the world from your home.

Back in 1995 when Sharma wrote Rosnah, the world was a different place. The Internet was a new invention and everyone was just starting to use e-mail. It was easy to believe Rosnah as an academically bright but culturally diffident girl struggling to assimilate into English society.

In this new 2016 production directed by Alvin Tan, Rosnah has been reworked by Sharma and translated into Malay by Alin Mosbit to reflect contemporary mores and sensibilities.

Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal, one of theatre's hottest names, plays the role of Rosnah as well as herself, "the actress Siti". Throughout the play, Siti provides a running critique of the character she's playing - a device that helps bridge any gap of understanding between the contemporary audience and the 1995 Rosnah.

The set by Wong Chee Wai is an airport lounge, a metaphor for the impermanence of place and identity, while the live music by Bani Haykal gorgeously blends sounds from classic Malay ballads to more contemporary post-rock songs. Taken together, Rosnah offers an eloquent study of our continuous state of transit. It suggests, more than anything, that our current attitudes and perspectives will not last.

If Rosnah in 1995 was about roots versus mobility, Rosnah in 2016 is about the inevitability of change. If the 1995 version was a portrait of a young woman caught between two cultures, the 2016 version renders the argument almost moot. We will change, regardless of how much we think we wouldn't.

In a way, the new Rosnah holds a pertinent message for Singapore as a country. Here, the government talks of retaining conservative values, but its highly-educated, well-travelled and wired population has already changed because of exposure to global perspectives, now as real and potent as national ones.

Change is unavoidable and perhaps imminent - and the splicing of the 1995 Rosnah and the 2016 Rosnah captures this vividly.