By Anandhi Gopinath
In the days prior to meeting Datuk Faridah Merican, the KL Performing Arts Centre celebrated its 18th birthday. I remember quite well the pomp and ceremony when the late Tun Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood launched the arts centre together with YTL Group Executive Chairman Tan Sri Francis Yeoh as an anchor of sorts for the sprawling Sentul Park development. In the intervening years, klpac has seen innumerable productions staged in its many spaces, its Artistic Director Joe Hasham and Executive Producer Datuk Faridah witnessing multiple generations of children come and go from its academy. Actors, directors and playwrights found their voice, and continued their journey in the arts both locally and abroad.
The constant has been the physical building, of course, an architectural wonder that saw a century-old brick building, left behind from Sentul’s rich railway heritage, combined with a modern façade that was welcoming to any and all patrons of the arts. The other constant is Faridah and Hasham, the power couple of the performing arts scene, and arguably its most vocal. Theatre has been their entire life’s work, their twilight years spent in the sun-drenched halls of klpac: there have been good days and bad times, even through the harrowing months of the pandemic.
Hasham has lost some weight over the years, it must be said, and Faridah’s gait is a little less sprightly these days. Scaling back is not an option, though, as Faridah is proving by headlining klpac’s upcoming show, Mama Looking For Her Cat, which is jointly supported by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat. Written by celebrated Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun in 1988, the piece tackles the communication differences and the estranged relationship between a mother and her children. The first multi-racial, multi-lingual play ever presented in the island republic, Mama Looking For Her Cat remains one of Singapore’s most poignant and emotionally hard-hitting theatre productions. As Asia grapples with a growing aging population whose children have sought greener pastures overseas, it also painfully relevant – even more so now than in the period in which it was written.
The story is fairly self-explanatory. Ah Tao, affectionately known in her neighbourhood as Mama, loses her cat and when her children refuse to help, she looks for the prized feline herself. What is a simple enough search on the surface delves into deeper issues such as loneliness, displacement and the loss of connection to one’s roots. Mama’s journey becomes a metaphor for the larger societal changes occurring in Singapore, with the cat symbolising a gradually eroding sense of home and belonging. But its not only Mama’s journey that comes under the spotlight. As the police interrogate her children about their missing mother, they become increasingly frustrated as they realise that not only do they not know their mother very well anymore, but also that she seems to love her cat more than she does them.
Faridah, whose impressive quaff has morphed into an elegant silvery grey halo of curls, plays the part of the mother, while a multi-racial, multi-lingual list of actors and actresses fill in various other roles. She was last on stage in 2022 and is eager to return to it. “Its easier to be an actor than a director, let me tell you that,” Faridah laughs as she sips a cold matcha latte. “At my age, though, acting is both easy and not. There are some things that come naturally, some things are so easy… but my failing memory makes some things incredibly difficult. But working with a young director with such different experiences from my own has been very uplifting. It is why when the offer to present Mama Looking For Her Cat came to us, my immediate answer was yes.”
In the director’s seat is acclaimed Singaporean puppeteer and educator Benjamin Ho, who recalls first watching Mama Looking For Her Cat during one of its earliest performances. As the pandemic settled, he reached out to theatre companies in Malaysia for opportunities to stage his version of the play – Ho has rescripted it to a modern audience. “We jumped at the chance,” Faridah recalls. “Of course, we know of Pao Kun’s work and the opportunity to work with a director like Ben was simply too good a chance to pass up.”
It is easy to see why Faridah would have been so taken up by Mama Looking For Her Cat. Throughout this masterfully written piece, Kuo masterfully blends humour, tenderness and social commentary. He explores the tension between tradition and progress, the struggles faced by the older generation in a modernising city, and the increasing disconnection between individuals and their communities. Mama’s interactions with various characters she encounters during her search provide glimpses into the lives of diverse Singaporeans – transpose this to any city in Asia, why don’t you – each grappling with their own challenges and desires.
“This play really focuses on aging and what that experience is like for some of us,” Faridah puts in. “We don’t often know, or want to acknowledge, what senior citizens face on a day-to-day basis or the challenges that they face that are unique to them. Its very scary to grow old and feel left behind, and this play is a good reminder that aging is something everyone has to grapple with at some point, and we should approach this journey with compassion – for others, and for ourselves.”
Ho remembers Mama Looking For Her Cat wasn’t staged very frequently over the years owing to the complex way in which the original playwright wrote it – for those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, interpreting was a challenge. “I had seen it before and decided to re-present it for the 10th anniversary of Pau Kun’s passing in 2012,” Ho shares. “After the pandemic, I was getting antsy and I really wanted to see this play on stage again. Because Singapore and Malaysia have so much in common and so much shared history, staging it here was the obvious choice.”
Ho has designed the show to go back and forth in time to tell the story, and refuses to rely on surtitles as the actors break into a combination of English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and other dialects. He isn’t concerned about a lack of comprehension because “Communication is a function of desire. If you want to understand something, you will. These are not unfamiliar languages to the average Malaysian audience member, and I do not anticipate the lack or surtitles as being a problem, because in the past it hasn’t been.”
Mama Looking For Her Cat encourages the audience to reflect on their own lives, the changing nature of their communities, and the importance of maintaining connections to one’s roots and heritage. Incidentally, this is what the performing arts aims to achieve, what Faridah and Hasham seek to do every day with their work in theatre. This play might be one of Faridah’s most personal, and meaningful yet.
Mama Looking For Her Cat will run from May 19 to 21 at Pentas 2, klpac, Sentul Park, KL. For tickets, visit cloudjoi.com