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Hotel is an epic and ambitious five-hour play with multi-layered narratives that cleverly and quietly draw parallels between the past and present.

A five-star Hotel experience

08/07/2016 - 05:50

MAKING time for Hotel, the epic five-hour W!ld Rice production which premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival last year and has returned for a headlining encore season at this year's Singapore Theatre Festival, requires quite a bit of effort.

On weekdays, the audience watches the two-part play on consecutive evenings; while the weekend crowd sits through the whole thing in one marathon session beginning in the afternoon and ending at night (with a dinner break in between).

Daunting as that sounds, it's no different from binge watching a TV series; and you will be rewarded with its lavishly-told narratives, on-point writing and powerhouse performances from the cast of 14 actors taking on the roles of 40 characters.

Singapore theatre has never seen anything like this and Hotel is a five-star production that lives up to its lofty ambition.

That was more than enough to keep everybody in their seats during opening night last Saturday, and for the play to win big at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards where it bagged Production of the Year, Best Ensemble and Best Director for co-directors Glen Goei and Ivan Heng, who also stars in it.

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Playwrights Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten also took home Best Original Script for the masterful way they distilled a century of Singapore history into 11 acts, each taking place one decade apart from 1915 to 2015.

The multi-layered narratives cleverly and quietly draw parallels between the past and present - like how the 2013 Little India riot could be a ghost of the 1915 Sepoy (Indian soldiers) Mutiny, and how an issue like maid abuse reared its head about a century ago and hasn't gone away despite the country's economic and social progress.

The audience is taken on a trip down memory lane but this is no ordinary nostalgic journey. Instead it feels like an alternative history of Singapore unfolding through the lives of Bugis Street drag queens, World War II Japanese army officers and Malay movie stars who have all shaped and changed Singapore in their own way.

With characters like that, it never feels like you're watching the chapters of a school textbook being re-enacted on stage; or worse, sitting through a whitewashed feel-good SG50 play.

Hotel's triumph lies in the way it is unafraid to look at the good, the bad and the ugly side of Singapore; and sometimes even manages to see the funny side of things - the scene with a Chinese bride wanting to wear a sari instead of a cheongsam on her big day draws big laughs but is also thought-provoking as it raises the thorny question whether racial harmony actually exists in Singapore.

The hardworking cast, which includes big theatre names like Heng and Pam Oei alongside upstarts like Yap Yi Kai and Lina Yu, is as impressive as the writing. The actors are not only just rotating characters but also continuously switching languages (including pulling off a whole scene in Japanese) and dialects which aren't always their mother tongues.

Hotel celebrates Singapore in a very unique way through the everyday lives of ordinary people instead of famous historical figures. Don't be put off by its length; once you check in, you'll probably forget the time and enjoy the stay.

  • Hotel runs till July 24 at The Singapore Airlines Theatre, Lasalle College of the Arts. Tickets cost S$110 and $130 and are available from Sistic.