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Teater Ekamatra Presents “Mata Hati”

December 19, 2011

Event: “Mata Hati” by Teater Ekamatra
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Run: 15th Dec – 17th Dec 2011

Do not mistake this play with the “Mata & Hati (Abdul Ghani Hamid)” Exhibition, currently also running at the National Library Building.

It’s hard not to be amused at how extraordinarily similar the titles of the two events are, plus the fact that they are running in the same building at the exact same time, and although the “Mata & Hati’ exhibition features the life and works of a man who has made significant contributions to the development of Malay arts in Singapore, “Mata Hati” the play portrays a snapshot of a fictitious Malay political figure who is held in equally high regard.

“Mata Hati” is singular – and this point has already been sufficiently covered in the press – because of the fact that it is a play which attempts to tackle issues affecting the Malay community through the life and times of a troubled Malay politician, but ironically written by Chinese playwright Dr Robin Loon.

This marks Dr Robin Loon’s latest staged play, the previous one being “DNR”, which was presented at the Esplanade Theatre Studio in April this year.

Most people would tell you that “Mata Hati” stands up to scrutiny on paper, and I completely agree – the play is well-written and is generally sound, although there is the tendency for some of the characters to be unnecessarily verbose or unrealistically articulate at times.

Story-wise, it is rather conventional in its approach, starting when a young female post-graduate student attempts to interview a former high-flying Malay minister, and in the process, the ghosts of his past are slowly but surely resurrected.

The protagonist Dr Amir Mahmood is both a complex and believable character, a true “tragic hero” in the sense of the phrase, and the conflicts which he face in the course of his political career are well-portrayed.

The set design of a cross-shaped elevated runway platform is a curious one, and the jury is still out on whether it was effective in serving the needs of the play or not.

But in my opinion there were two things which sadly worked against the play – weak acting and creaky boards.

I thought Eleanor Tan did a great job in her portrayal of the PM’s aide “Ms Rebecca Tan” in what was probably the most intense scene in the entire play, although I felt that generally the level of acting in the cast seemed to lag slightly behind the calibre of the script.

You had the niggling feeling that more could perhaps have been done to bring out the full richness of the script.

And I don’t know if it was because of the acting or the script, but throughout the play I was left strangely unsympathetic towards the protagonist Dr Amir.

As for the creaky boards, well, they were a tad distracting especially in the opening scene where the actors attempted to quietly tread across the platforms.

Essentially, I felt that “Mata Hati” was more a take on the cold and relentless Singapore government machinery than a true examination of racial issues.

Yes, there was the occasional hard-hitting, gasp-worthy line about how Malays are generally viewed in Singapore, but when you look at it in its totality, “Mata Hati” was in essence a portrayal of a highly-respected Malay minister, who by virture of his outstanding academic qualities has found himself in a position of high leadership carrying the hopes of an entire community on his shoulders (even though he is dangerously out-of-touch with the people on the ground), and because of personal weakness and lapse in judgement has found himself in a deeply conflicted position and been forced to step down in a discreet and well-managed manner, for the greater good of the governing party.

It’s not so much a play about race, as it is about humanity, struggle and redemption.

Kudos to Teater Ekamatra for consistently putting up works which continually challenge us and confront issues which are close to our hearts.

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