“Occupation” review: love won in a time of loss

Checkpoint Theatre kicks off its 20th anniversary season with chamber readings of Occupation. The show follows Sarah (Isabella Chiam) a self-professed “charming bureaucrat” tasked with interviewing Mrs. Siraj (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai), an elderly character heavily inspired by playwright Huzir Sulaiman’s grandmother. Sarah listens to Mrs. Siraj’s personal accounts of youth and romance under the Japanese Occupation. Mrs. Siraj recounts waving to her lover every night from her window and eventually getting married in 1944. It is a cloyingly sweet story, as Sarah points out that Mrs. Siraj’s occupation is “loving and being loved”, far from the expected tales of woe and suffering.

Occupation effectively teases out this uneasy tension between our expected notions of a Japanese-occupied Singapore versus a personal retelling. As PJ Thum writes:

History is not a narrative. History is an argument. There is no one version, no objective version, no authoritative version of history. We can only learn from the past by arguing over it, time and time again, reinterpreting it for a new generation to meet new challenges and face new problems.

The Singapore Narrative(s)

Thus, while Mrs. Siraj’s story is at odds with the state-mandated narrative of WWII Singapore, it offers us a chance to revisit the past and rewards us with new ideas. Occupation brings this to light with its two distinct performers: Rebekah and Isabella. 

The original production of Occupation in 2002 was of a one-woman show featuring Claire Wong, whereas this rendition consists of two leads. This gives the performers some breathing space, and more importantly, a real chance to showcase Mrs. Siraj, tenderly portrayed by Rebekah. A good chunk of the play revolves around this steadfast character, and Rebekah, a youthful actress, successfully captures the elderly Mrs. Siraj’s charming grace. 

Isabella is equally alluring with her array of characters. She presents a genuine sense of curiosity and earnestness, such as with Sarah’s poetic monologues, occasionally in rhyming couplets. A few outliers do stick out: Isabella plays Sarah’s 31-year-old Singaporean boyfriend, Tony, who hates Japan…which in a land full of otakus and a return of the Salmon Hokkaido McDonald’s burger, does not feel as culturally relevant in 2022. Isabella also plays Ogawa, a senior Japanese citizen, who is more caricature than character.

Perhaps this could be attributed to the script itself, written by a young Huzir Sulaiman twenty years ago. With this pared down production of Occupation, the script is further pushed into the spotlight, where the characters of Tony and Ogawa’s clunky expedition exploring modern Singapore’s relationship with Japan feel out of place. Nevertheless, Rebekah and Isabella expertly evoke the script’s nuanced emotions on shame and love, which makes for a truly captivating performance.

Claire Wong’s direction is thoughtful and measured, efficiently showcasing the performers’ key strengths and artistry. Musical director Shah Tahir, alongside lighting designer Liu Yong Huay, create an electric atmosphere that takes the audience from war-torn Singapore to an idyllic 5-room Marine Parade HDB flat of present day. Musician Joel Nah, with his skilful accordion playing, makes for a solid accompaniment. Finally, Laichan’s timeless wardrobe is a robust addition for the cast.  

Over the weekend, inspired by Occupation, I asked my paternal Chinese grandmother about her memories of World War II. She was born and raised in Alor Setar, the state capital of Kedah, Malaysia, and was only 5 years old in 1942. Her only memory of that period was of hiding in rice paddy fields from the Japanese. My father added that in Kedah, unlike in Penang and Singapore, there was no Chinese resistance against the Japanese, and hence, the Chinese were treated “nicely”, where they were not harmed. In fact, my grandmother had neighbours and relatives who “worked” with the Japanese to smuggle cigarettes from Thailand.

Here is what Occupation succinctly demonstrates – that we tell stories. Where after time, our stories become a part of a multi-faceted history, perhaps even against the state’s narrative. We tell stories like this: to be seated in a darkened theatre studio, shoulder to shoulder with an audience at full capacity, watching a story unfold and then, creating our own story with loved ones after. This is our own way of continuing the legacy of our owned stories. The stories we tell are more for us, as a way to champion or challenge what we’ve already been told, and to become.

This review is based on the performance on 7 april 2022.  occupation ran from 5 – 7 april 2022 at esplanade recital studio.

Photo Credit: Joseph Nair, courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre