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“Sisters – The Untold Stories of the Sisters Islands” by Jean Tay

March 18, 2013

Sisters1Event: “Sisters – The Untold Stories of the Sisters Islands” by Jean Tay
Venue: Play Den @ The Arts House
Run: 13th – 19th March 2013

Divine Secrets of the Mythical Sisterhood

Jean Tay seems to be on a roll lately, with “Boom” being restaged by Sight Lines mid-last year, her new work-in-progress play “Senang” being read at the Goodman Arts Centre two months back, and her play “Sisters” being finally given its first full production this month.

This production is part of The Arts House’s “Literally 9” festival being held this month, which features a whole slew of plays, exhibitions and workshops all based on the theme “Writers Party”.

Some of you might also recall that a very developmental version of “Sisters” was first given a dramatised reading under the auspices of the Esplanade Studios’ RAW series in July 2011, and was also directed by Jeffrey Tan as it is in this current iteration.

(The 2011 version was titled “Between Us – The Untold Stories of Sisters Island”.)

The play juxtaposes two stories in close parallel – one being that of the sisters Mina and Lina upon which the myth of the Sisters Islands is supposedly based on, and the other being the story of the infamous real-life 1960’s murder case involving Sunny Ang and Jenny Cheok, as well as her half-sister Irene.

All roles were handled by Amanda Tee and Cassandra Spykerman, with Amanda playing Jenny, Lina and the Orang Laut, while Cassandra played Irene, Mina, Sunny Ang and Yusuf.

Both actresses were commendable in the way they juggled the various roles, although it was apparent that there were certain roles which they seemed to be more adept in than others.

The way in which the actresses played out the puppet scenes using nothing more than large pieces of cloth with knots tied at one end, bringing the characters vividly to life, was a sight to behold.

The Sunny Ang story seemed to take awhile to get going, as the early stages of the play seemed to dwell mainly on the Mina and Lina myth, but towards the midway point, we began to see both stories hitting their strides while pacing towards their inevitable tragic endings.

For those who may have caught the 2011 RAW version of this play, you may have this slight niggling feeling that this current finished production seems to be a watered down version of the developmental version.

My recollections are hazy at best, but it seems to me that in this version, the bonds of sisterhood between Mina/Lina and Jenny/Irene weren’t as distinctly brought out as compared to the 2011 one.

The 2011 version seemed to be a much more lengthy production, and while this production comes up trumps in terms of concision, you can’t help but wonder if the themes of sisterhood, love and sacrifice may have been somewhat diluted as a result of the streamlining.

I do remember being much more drawn into the tragic tale of sisterly sacrifice at the hands of the evil pirate, as well as the disturbing case involving the incredibly charming but scheming Sunny Ang in the 2011 version.

Also, I was pondering over the parallels between the two stories – apart from the obvious common strain of sibling relations and the fatal conclusions, were the two stories really that similar?

Were there true parallels to be drawn between the two stories, or could they just have easily been stand-alone tales?

It is heartening to see that Jean, whom I regard as one of Singapore’s brightest playwrights under the age of 40, is so passionate about telling stories about our heritage and our past through her new plays.

(“Senang” is also inspired by a forgotten tale from Singapore’s past, about the bloody prison riots that took place on Pulau Senang in the 1960’s.)

Indeed, as director Jeffrey Tan says in the programme notes: “I have learnt that if we ourselves don’t tell our stories, nobody else will.”

I truly think that there is great potential in “Sisters”, if only the right mix can be found in balancing concision with bringing out the full beauty and strength of this most intriguing of bonds known as Sisterhood.

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