You never quite want to check out of this Hotel
A grand, prestigious hotel, welcomes its guests from all over, to help tell a story spanning a century. People come and go but it is the traces they leave behind that adds charm to the hotel’s history. And it all unfolds in room 308.
Welcome to the epic Hotel, a Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2015 commission, by W!ld Rice.
Unfolding in two parts, Hotel is a series of 11 short plays lasting almost 5 hours long. Co-directed by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, and co-written by award-winning playwright Alfian Sa’at with Marcia Vanderstraaten, Hotel navigates through Singapore’s history, fifty years before and after independence.
We see a pair of long-lost cousins reuniting in Room 308 in 1925: one a laundry room staff in the hotel, and the other a servant who’s followed her employers to Singapore. Their story is no different from the lonely and abused maids today.
In 1965, a room service manager has an affair with the television repairman. They are embroiled in a relationship that is filled with love and hate, and ends with the declaration of Singapore’s independence.
It is especially heart-warming, or maybe heartbreaking, to see certain characters that reappear over time. There is the bellboy Daut, who rises through the ranks in the hotel. Then there are the two Malay women, Sharifah, who is forced to part with her Japanese lover and son at the end of the Japanese occupation, and then meets her son forty years later in a bittersweet reunion.
That said, it is Part 2 that is more palatable to this reviewer, perhaps due to the fact that the scenes in this installment are more light-hearted. The stories in Part 1 appear as independent and disparate vignettes and as such, lack the coherence of a performance entity.
It is also in part 2 that we see a bunch of larger-than-life, over-the-top characters dealing with contemporary issues that, because of their historical currency, feel more real. In 1975, near the end of Bugis Street’s heydays, we meet a drag queen negotiating his identity with his mother. In 1995, we witness the on-goings in the bride’s room as a multiracial couple prepares for their second banquet entrance.
The wow-factor of this production lies in the use of languages, especially the colloquial languages of the time. We hear the characters speaking in rather impressive Japanese in 1945, and very fluent Cantonese conversed between the two Chinese maids in 1925. Weirdly, there was a wave of gasps and wows from the audience when actor Dwayne Lau, who plays the Indian groom in 1995, spoke in clear Mandarin.
At the end of the evening, one may feel drained by the Hotel experience, but because it is such a unique and epic Singapore experience, you never quite feel like checking out.