Speaking With Many Voices

In 2004, Malaysian actor Anne James joined the cast of Riding The Nice Bus – a bilateral text exchange between artists from Singapore and Malaysia. Returning over a decade later for a revamped production based on the original concept, Anne chats with us about the babel of voices and points of view that make up Another Country.

Tell us about Another Country.

To me, this work is very special and interesting because it’s not one voice. The texts selected represent a babel of voices – the voices of many different people. With so many writers involved, we get a host of differing points of view and messages that come through the texts.

As for the Singapore set of texts, specifically, they go from the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, from the 15th or 16th century, all the way through to the present day. We present the texts chronologically, so there’s a sense of lightness at the beginning, and an increasing pressure-cooker feeling as we move through the times to the present.

What struck you the most as you and the Malaysian cast worked through the Singapore texts?

A lot of issues have come up: language, suppression of freedoms, liberation, gender issues, a yearning for the possibility of a lost union. These are issues we deal with in Malaysia too. The manifestation of them is different – the execution of the forms of suppression, for instance. We may experience different anxieties too. But, fundamentally, the works illuminate how human we are. Historically, Planet Earth was one land mass. Putting down borders is contrary to the very nature of the planet. Borders are placed by political necessity and convenience. That’s why cross-cultural works like Another Country are so important. We need to be reminded, sometimes, to not just navel-gaze, but to cast our eye across the seas and see how we’re part of a larger geography.

What’s it like for you to return to this show almost ten years later?

I’ve worked on all the previous incarnations – from Riding The Nice Bus in 2004 with Krishen Jit, through to Second Link and Connect The Dots with Ivan Heng in 2005 and 2006. I feel privileged to be asked to work on this piece again. It’s fascinating because the set of texts from Singapore are entirely different this time around. Ivan is very prescient – he’s reviving a work and finding new meaning in it, through the voices that need to be heard as our nations move further away from that point of separation in 1965.

Jo Kukathas is the third director I’m working with on this project, and it has been a great experience. Jo knows Singapore on many levels: intellectually, viscerally, intuitively. That ‘knowing’, in both mind and body, is really important in crafting this type of performance. When one is directing a play, the audience is invited to enter a ‘single’ world that is viewed from a particular playwright’s point of view. But, in Another Country, we are working on ‘fragments’ of texts that encompass hundreds of years of Singapore writings; we are engaging with multiple vistas. With each piece, the audience enters a different landscape, a different point of view, thus making the crafting of this work, in a way, more challenging. The audience is going to be taken on an amazing ride.

Anne in rehearsal with Sharifah Amani

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in interpreting the texts?

The interesting thing about these texts is that they’re not texts for performance. Perhaps they’re meant to be read or spoken aloud, like the Malay Annals, but at least 95% of them are not from plays. So that brings different challenges to us as performers. Jo and all of us, we’re going through the process of searching for a unity within the Singapore texts. That journey is interesting, because each piece is different. You are moving through time, through space, through characters and through moods – it’s an interesting journey, especially since the Singapore works will be performed chronologically.

What has it meant for you to work on Another Country, which is so intimately bound up with our personalities and identities?

This production has always served as a platform for Malaysians to learn about Singaporeans and vice versa. It’s so special because of that historical relationship between Malaysia and Singapore: in so many of the texts, there’s a resonance – a sense of something lost. These are some of the things that ring especially true with my generation. Another Country is a lovely reminder of that shared experience and history, both on a personal level and in a political way. I’m just really enjoying the fact that these voices will be heard again.

In the spirit of Another Country, can you share with us a personal anecdote or experience related to Singapore?

What I love about Singapore is that I can wear my gold jewellery on the streets and feel secure! I can carry my handbag without clutching it to my chest – or leave it on the chair next to me and not be worried that somebody’s going to run away with it. I really appreciate that sense of security that I feel as a woman walking on the streets of Singapore. I absolutely don’t feel it in Malaysia! Every day, I have to make sure that I walk facing traffic, that I don’t walk down lanes. When I’m driving, I plant my bag on the floor in my car so that no one can smash the window and take it from the passenger seat. It’s a constant worry.

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