On love and loss: an interview with Mohd Fared Jainal, director of Malay theatre production Berak

On love and loss: an interview with Mohd Fared Jainal, director of Malay theatre production Berak

A lot happens after a loved one dies. It is often sombre, sometimes traumatising, and usually a rollercoaster ride of emotions – even more so when it involves suicide.

In Berak, a family finds itself dealing with death when a father takes his life. There is grieving, but somehow, there is also laughter when faced with mortality. The play, presented by Malay theatre group Teater Ekamatra, is an adaptation of Chong Tze Chien’s award-winning Poop!.

The production was originally slated to run more than two years ago but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is returning with the same stellar cast featuring Siti Khalijah Zainal, Fir Rahman, Siti Hajar Abdul Gani, and Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit.

The Berak cast features artists like Siti Khalijah Zainal and Siti Hajar Abdul Gani.
The Berak cast features artists like Siti Khalijah Zainal and Siti Hajar Abdul Gani.

The 90-minute play, running at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 1 to 4 Sep, will present its take on family, love, and grief with humour. Through laughs, it is set to speak to audiences in ways they do not see coming, showing them that even in death, there can be laughter, hope, and even magic.

The A List spoke to Berak’s director Mohd Fared Jainal about using theatre as a vehicle to support learnings about issues that remain taboo. He also talks about his hopes for the play in dispelling the stigma about suicide.

Director of Berak, Moha Fared Jainal.
Director of Berak, Moha Fared Jainal.

Death and suicide seem like rather heavy topics, not to mention taboo, to explore in a play. What were the challenges you faced in bringing these subjects across?

One of the main challenges that we faced bringing these subjects across is the very fact that it is in Malay and about a Malay family. It’s difficult to ignore or sidestep that majority of Malays in Singapore are Muslims, and that suicide in the Islamic faith is a sin – the highest degree of sin you can commit. So the question that arose was: how do we present that on stage? I think that our consciousness has to be very clear, that we are not promoting suicide but instead simply presenting the truth that happens in society.

Another challenge is on the topic of death and losing a loved one, which some of us in the team have experienced. It is very delicate but I do appreciate the team and actors’ commitment to the subject matter, despite how difficult it is. Theatre should be a safe space for sharing and I believe it has given us the strength to face it together. We should not be running away from difficult subjects. With enough sensitivity, we ought to face it – together.

With its theme, is this necessarily a dark, heavy, depressing production?

I think Berak is far from a depressing production. We’re glazing it with something whimsical, and we want to make it as fun as possible. That’s why we’ve added songs, dance, and lots of colour. I guess we are taking the liberty of layering things that do make sense and those that don’t, and they co-exist almost seamlessly. It’s like watching the music video of Coldplay’s Scientist. Berak is a very real and tragic story but it’s been treated with lots of love.

The play, originally by Tze Chien, is so well-written and Big (Zulfadli Rashid) transcreated it. The words speak for themselves, so the challenge was to find a way to colour these words, texturise them, and make them all come to life.

How do you think theatre can be used as a vessel to explore less spoken-about topics like death and suicide, and how can that be more helpful or fruitful than imagined?

I think art is a reflection of life and vice versa. I think theatre is the most impactful of all the art forms because it hits your senses almost immediately. Theatre is live, it’s all happening right in front of you, and yet it’s a safe space that allows you to detach from real life by visiting this space that parallels reality. It’s a space that can be very impactful, but still safe for consumption.

We are tackling a heavy play, and we have to be responsible, sensitive, and respectful of the subject matter. There is a lot of trust and faith in the team and everyone we work with. But we also know that once it is presented to the audience, they will receive it in whichever way they do, and (be given) the space to think about it.

What were some messages that you feel are more important that are portrayed or delivered through the production?

The main essence of the piece is hope and love. It’s a sad story. Without giving away too much, I think all the characters, in their own ways, are constantly showing how much they love each other despite the loss and devastation all of them feel. Essentially, this story is about how hope and love will transcend all tragedy.

How gratifying is it to be putting Berak on, after COVID-19 forced a cancellation in 2020? Has that changed anything this time round?

It’s really weird actually, to create something right to the end and have it suddenly stop, and then pick it up again two years later.

There’s a lot of recollection and grappling to hold on to what was done back then. In some ways, 2020 seems like yesterday. Especially when some of the actors can still remember their lines from back then. But at the same time, two years ago feels so far away and it has given me the chance to grow. The space has changed and what I’m doing with the play has altered slightly too. The theme is the same, but after two years, re-reading the script, and going through COVID-19, it opened up new perspectives. I guess that is the beauty of artmaking – constantly struggling between possessing and letting go. So, expect new things!  

On a more macro level, how can the arts help a community heal?

The impact of watching a play is so great. Theatre moves, shakes, and touches people, and it really gives people the chance to reflect on what’s going on in their own lives. Whether they share it out loud or keep it to themselves, it does affect them.

As storytellers, I definitely do not think we are like God, trying to heal everyone. I don’t think we’re saviours in that way. But as humans, I think in general we are already very reactive. We may see something disturbing in the news and then think to ourselves, “I need to be kinder to my family, to my friends”. What more with something as powerful as theatre? I believe in giving the audience the space to think, and if they choose to, they can come to their own conclusions of what to take away from a play.

There will be a post-show dialogue on Fri, 2 Sep, that will offer education on mental health stigma.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photos: Teater Ekamatra)

Follow The A List on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to get updates on local arts and culture happenings on the go.

We can’t wait to share more awesome content with you. This is going to be so much fun.

Give us a heads up on the topics that interest you: