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The Gunpowder Trail

September 17, 2011
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Event: “The Gunpowder Trail” by Teater Ekamatra, as part of Esplanade’s ‘The Studios’ series
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Run: 8-10 Sep 2011
Playwright/Director: Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid
Cast: Oniatta Effendi (Oni) & Natasha Thangamany

I’ve not read the full story of Claire Tham’s short story of which this play was derived from, but only a short excerpt of it on NLB’s NORA website. Armed with this and the synopsis, I was to follow the ‘trail’ to discover what it was really all about.

The Gunpowder Trail is a fast-paced discourse where a daughter (Alia) was left behind by a mother (Lina) who had absconded with $50 million dollars. Alia is thrown into a series of questioning by authorities and also by herself, of her mother’s actions. By fast-paced, I meant the constant switching of scenes, which kept the audience working, to switch and identify the scenes and characters as they appeared. With a cast of two people, five roles were played between the two of them, including two interrogators who try to grill Alia about the whereabouts of her mother, of which she didn’t know and also Peter, Lina’s lover and superior.

Was Lina a bad mother? I would say yes and no. She may look the detached and ambitious mother who displays a hard exterior, but there was still a soft undercurrent that shows in the way she backed out of the abortion and provided for her daughter. She also did not reveal much to Alia about her plans, probably to protect her. Well, the lesser Alia knows, the better, especially under interrogation. But she did let on about putting aside part of the siphoned money for Alia in a secret overseas account, which Alia later realises but doesn’t reveal to officials. Maybe as Oni suggested, Lina was a good mother as she realised that if she stayed any longer, she would screw Alia’s life up eventually. Hence she left the care of her daughter to her parents instead, before they died. Sometimes, loving someone means leaving them.

With the constant switching of roles and scenes, I felt that even though it kept things moving, it could seem a bit jumpy and confusing at times, like little snippets. Good thing I was able to follow nonetheless. I believe the confusion was partly due to the small cast, by which was explained that it would keep the audience focused on the mother and daughter. I guess it can be considered true. Despite the slight confusion, I must still admit it was an interesting approach in running the timeline of events leading up to the flight (gunpowder trail?), and the relationship between mother and daughter.

Oni was excellent as Lina. However, I wasn’t able to differentiate between the 2 interrogators that she was playing as well (which was supposed to be differentiated by one standing and one sitting, and maybe the way they spoke). I saw only one more distinct persona, which was the Malay interrogator. As for Natasha, not too bad a performance for her first foray into professional theatre, although I felt she was slightly stiff in her mannerisms.

Flanked by 2 sides of audience seating, the props were minimal but served their purposes. Interestingly, as explained during the post-show dialogue, a stark contrast was made between Alia’s and Lina’s “corner”. Alia’s corner showed a somewhat permanent set-up of dressing-cum-writing table, while Lina’s was plain empty, to represent her transient nature. I guess the centrepiece, and exceptionally long bench (with many uses) could act as a divider between their two worlds.

I was thinking that if the whole thing can be taken as a recounting by Alia, both in her mind and to the officials, then what transpired would be in the eyes of Alia and the belief in her of her mother. But then she wouldn’t know the details between Peter and Lina. Just a random thought.

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(The Gunpowder Trail marks the end of this season’s ‘The Studios’ series, Closer. The next season will run next year from April to May with the theme Prisms)

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