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Review: National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I

August 12, 2006

National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I

National Drama Centre

You walk into the Black Box at the Drama Centre and you’re greeted by a bespectacled, nerdy Chinese kid who tells you, in Mandarin, that she’s going for her national language class. She asks you to translate for the rest of the audience – you have to, or else she doesn’t leave you alone. Then she moves on to the other side, and gets another audience member to do the same. Thus begins National Language Class, a piece about a Chua Mia Tee painting of the same name – the director and the actors have, in this collaborative piece, tried to imagine what this class must have been like. The audience is privy to this exercise in mythmaking, which takes on the flavour of mythmaking at the national level, since Chua is known as, above all, a PAP painter and faithful renderer of national history.

A Malay man walks in. The lesson begins. The audience is invited to join in – ‘assalaamualaikum’, ‘waalaikumsalaam’. Therein lie the seeds of discomfort – why does he teach the religious greetings, rather than the more neutral ‘selamat malam’? Then the requisite ‘Siapa nama kamu?’ ‘Nama saya…’ the audience intones. ‘Dimana awak tinggal?’ Then the naming of the objects in the room ‘pelaja’, ‘kerusi’, ‘tingkap’, ‘buku’, ‘kaca mata’, ‘papan hitam’. With all these words and their Chinese equivalents, so begins the power-play of the two languages. The Malay teacher creates his own narrative – ‘This is national language class. In class there are 9 students. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Here is the blackboard. Here is a round table. Here is a square table. Here is the teacher. Here is the student. She is sitting on a chair. She is wearing spectacles. She is looking at her book…’ The Chinese student gets up, walks around the class and translates everything into Mandarin (presumably a daydream sequence). The teacher coughs. She sits again, embarrassed. Translation after translation, until both fall silent and mime the narrative. The play ends with the Chinese student repeating, in Malay, ‘this is national language class’, and the Malay teacher attempting to translate the items into Chinese. We go full circle.

The silences were particularly instructive. In the absence of words and spoken language, what dominated? How do languages operate? How do we communicate? In that respect, I found National Language Class to be a particularly insightful and intelligent commentary on the human ability to acquire language – the Chinese student finds joy in making a new Malay sound, she tries them on for size, tries to get things right. She translates them into the familiar Chinese, and smiles. In the silences, in the audience’s minds the narrative repeats itself, in whatever language the audience member is most comfortable in. I found myself repeating, in my head, in English, ‘student’, ‘chair’, ‘spectacles’, ‘window’, ‘book’, blackboard’.

Yet the politics of the piece was oppressive. Contextualising it, one could conceivably see it as a policy to linguistically colonise the numerous Chinese – one Malay teacher on so many students. The Chinese students walk in on the teacher praying. The actors try to hijack the narrative for themselves in their respective languages. Where both cannot succeed, an uneasy truce of silence ensues – wovon mann nicht sprechen kann… And yet the play ends with a sort-of hopefulness. The Malay teacher attempts to learn Mandarin, the Chinese student introduces the class in Malay. Or could this be an acceptance of realities, realpolitik at its most insidious, masquerading as linguistic harmony – the Chinese learning because it is in the national syllabus, the Malay learning because of the dominance of the Chinese?

National Language Class succeeds because of its nuances, its subtlety. For a piece about translation, meaning, and narrative, it succeeds because it can itself be translated, a new meaning placed upon it, a narrative imposed. The audience takes away what they will, but coming away with a heightened understanding of, not only language politics, but on a deeper level, how languages operate, and how instructive silences can be.

Utama: Every Name in History Is I was not quite so subtle. Taking the form of a lecture in .ppt form, with a short-film interlude, Utama was aggressively intellectualising and, to its credit, made no bones about it and drew attention to its own intellectualising. Utama incorporated modernist, postmodernist, and Platonic philosophy, Singaporean and Roman mythology, and international ancient history, to come up with a complex and interesting argument that was about so many things at once – about the search for origins and how this was impossible (‘Names and origins multiply, as time washes away all certainty’), about how all origins are the same because we impose our own meaning upon it, about the repeated colonisation of Singapore…

Yet to its credit the lecture never really took itself too seriously. In the short film, his mascots – Utama, the lion, Diana goddess of the hunt, et al – take a trip down to the Merlion at the Esplanade, riding resplendently on trishaws, posing for photographs with tourists. It inflated itself so much only to deflate itself again. However, one increasingly got the nagging feeling that the entire lecture was some gigantic practical joke on the audience played by the creator of the piece, Ho Tzu Nyen. The delicate ‘paintings’ that he created for his exhibition about his theories? No more than photoshopped pictures of his actors. He reveals it – but to what effect? It all felt like some pseudo-Joycean nyeh-nyeh-nyeh, which in my opinion was funny for the moment, but left a rather empty and unsatisfying aftertaste. In short, while it was amusing, it was not quite enriching, and I certainly could have lived without the experience.

National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I cannot be considered, even in its loosest sense, a doublebill. Themes of repetition, mythmaking, national identity, even language, were supposed to bind the two, yet one did not feel as if both could be considered to be truly linked, except in the most arbitrary and tenuous sense. It was not difficult to see which of the two was more rewarding – although one walked out of the theatre asking oneself suspiciously, ‘Did I mind paying 30 dollars for a short play and a PowerPoint Presentation?’

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