Faizal Abdullah had a minor existential crisis when he first encountered Hawa. Johnny Jon Jon’s smart, complex play, in which faith, love and sexuality collide when death comes calling, appealed to him at once… as a performer.
“My first thought when I read the script was: why am I directing this play?” Faizal laughs. “I want to act in it!”
He was immediately taken by the three characters whose lives and worlds converge in Hawa: Siti, a Muslim convert who is trying to make funeral arrangements for her ‘best friend’, Sarah; Ahmad, the veteran funeral director who is flummoxed by the circumstances; and Zaki, a mysterious stranger who turns up at Siti’s doorstep.
“All three characters are very compelling,” says Faizal. “They all have issues and flaws, which is always very attractive to me. Ahmad, for instance, is an authority figure – the one you think can help you. But it turns out that he needs help as well.”
The significance – and potential controversy – of the relationship at the heart of Hawa is not lost on Faizal. “There are people in Singapore who are living in the same situation as Siti and Sarah,” he points out. “Whatever label people want to put on their relationship, I treated it as a simple love story between two people. Siti has just lost someone she loved, someone very dear to her – that’s something everyone can relate to.”
With its complex themes and potentially morbid setting, Hawa could be difficult to stage, even for a seasoned director. Faizal confesses that one of his biggest challenges in staging it for Hatch Theatrics last year was to take a step back and let the play and its characters breathe.
“As a young director, you want to put your stamp on the play,” he explains. In his previous directorial outings, Faizal had frequently had a hand in “dismantling” scripts – breaking up scenes and putting everything back together to uncover surprises that were not on the page.
For Hawa, he had to remind himself and his team to exercise a great deal of restraint. “We just had to let the characters be alive in the way the writer intended them to be,” he says. “I realised that the play needed to be directed in the simplest manner possible.”
There’s nothing simple about the profound effect Hawa has had on its director, however. The blackly comic play may treat the grim subject of mortality with a lighter touch, but issues of life and death still came up all the time in the rehearsal room.
Together with his cast and crew, Faizal recreated certain elements of the Muslim funeral for research purposes. “At first, we were just laughing as we tried it out for ourselves,” he recalls. “But then, it got freaky. I felt very scared. It made me think: ‘I really am going to die one day.’”
But it’s not all doom and gloom as Faizal and his team prepare to restage Hawa at the Singapore Theatre Festival. He is particularly keen to unearth more layers in the script and characters with the help of actress Koh Wan Ching, who will be replacing Isabella Chiam in the pivotal role of Siti.
“Wan Ching actually watched the play when we first staged it, and asked if we wanted to stick with the character that had already been created,” explains Faizal. “But I’m not really a big fan of that. I want to work with her to create her own version of Siti. I’m very excited to work with Wan Ching – I absolutely adore what she brings to the table as an actor!”
Directing a play for W!LD RICE’s Singapore Theatre Festival represents a homecoming, of sorts, for Faizal. He was part of the second cohort of young & W!LD, our youth development division.
“I have very fond memories of being in young & W!LD, which taught me a lot about becoming an actor and an artist,” he smiles. “It’s always nice to return to where you were a student, and to get the opportunity to work professionally. It’s great to be involved in the Festival!”
Hawa, directed by Faizal Abdullah, plays as part of a double-bill with Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 30 June to 3 July 2016. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!
All images courtesy of Hatch Theatrics.