Hip-hopping angels and philanthropic vampires matchmaking humans in a hospital – ‘Ring-a Ring-o Rosie’ sounds like the stuff of crazed dreams, and indeed it is.
It is a dream born from the heads of ambitious actors in Japan and Singapore.
“Everything started off by chance,” actor Ghazali Muzakhir, 28.
“If we hadn't seen (Japanese company) Theatre Gumbo's show ‘Mindeaters’here in 2012, and if before that, they hadn't seen Gloria Tan and Mishaal Syed Nasar (members of Singapore's Hatch Theatrics) performing in the M1 Fringe Festival, we wouldn't have hung out for supper and talked about collaborating.
“I thought it was a joke... these award-winning Japanese artistes want to collaborate with us? Sure. But then they kept sending us messages to check on our progress, and I realised, ‘This is serious!’”
Many Singapore-Osaka flights later, what emerged was the joint brainchild of artistes from young Singaporean Malay theatre company Hatch Theatrics and award-winning Japanese company Theatre Gumbo.
‘Ring-a Ring-o Rosie’, starring Ghazali and Tan alongside seven Japanese Gumbo members, has played to rave reviews in Osaka, Japan and Hong Kong, and will now premiere in Singapore on 11 and 12 July 2014 at the Substation Theatre.
Typical of a Gumbo Theatre production, the show is packed with dark humour and off-the-wall fantasy.
A group of vampires and one undercover angel run a hospital, supposedly to improve the declining quality of human blood. One day, two unique patients arrive, throwing the precarious status quo into chaos. If that wasn't crazy enough, the script features an utterly unapologetic mix of English, Japanese and Malay text and music.
Ghazali revealed: “We brainstormed over Facebook and email before Gumbo's artistic director wrote the script, then we flew over to rehearse for three or four weeks before going straight into show.”
He said with a chuckle: “I translated parts of the script, even songs, into Malay. My character became very mat (slang for unsophisticated Malay boy).”
Faizal Abdullah, celebrated actor-artistic director of company Hatch Theatrics, joined the castfor its Singapore run. He said: “The show's very wacky, very different to what we usually get in Singapore. It's almost like watching those Japanese gameshows – you don't know what is going on but you can't take your eyes off it. I personally find it hilarious.”
While the show features Japanese and Malay languages, Ghazali and Faizal agree that the two cultures couldn't be more different.
“There was definitely culture shock,” Ghazali said. “I've worked with several of the supposedly more serious Singapore theatre companies where everyone is completely professional. At Gumbo, most of them have full-time jobs and do theatre in the evenings after work. But they put as much quality into it as any professional theatre group, maybe more, because theatre is so precious to them. It's their passion, so they hurry to rehearsals, driving two hours to the venue without having dinner. And from the first day of rehearsal, they give 100-per-cent all the way.
“Sometimes, they look at me strangely if I tell them I am trying to pace myself, or ask if there's time for a meal break. They are much more kancheong (Cantonese for “anxious”). I have to laugh because I am super laidback and believe everything will fall into place.
Faizal agreed: “I definitely think our contrast in pace is largely due to race: Malay culture is just so different from Japanese culture, so when you have the two races collaborate... I'm really looking forward to the contrast onstage though, I think it will make the show very fun to watch.”
Thankfully, the Singaporeans and Japanese have learnt from each other. “We meet in the middle,” Ghazali said. “After doing full-on flips and acrobatics every single rehearsal, one Japanese actor hurt his ligament hours before the premiere. Somebody else jumped in and we pulled it off, but after that, I think they realised why I wanted to pace myself. Of course, I also work extra hard to meet their expectations, and have been made an honorary member of Theatre Gumbo!”
‘Rosie’addresses the search for happiness, which bears fruit following the union of two unlikely characters. Likewise, the marriage of Singaporean and Japanese artistes for this show has resulted in a surprise other than ‘Rosie’itself: Ghazali has set up a new theatre company to produce his own unconventional works.
He said: “‘Rosie’has shown me that anything's possible. How do you manage to do a show in Japan, how do you get the money? You think it would be hard. But it's as simple as talking over supper and just deciding that we are going to do it.
“The Singaporeans kept applying for grants, getting enough to cover our airfare to Japan. Everybody worked to make the props ourselves by recycling older things. Gumbo designed and made the costumes. Someone from Gumbo got a university friend to come down to teach us stage combat, another to teach us magic tricks.
“None of us got paid, and the Japanese even put in money from their own pockets. But somehow, when they put their intention out there to do a production, people rallied round, as they always have.”
‘Ring-a Ring-o Rosie’ | Date: 11, 12 July 2014 | Time: 8pm (Fri, Sat), 3pm (Sat) | Venue: The Substation Theatre, 45 Armenian Street | Tickets: $20 at the Substation box office