Actor, Director, and Producer, Faizal Abdullah, graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, in 2005. He’s since also worked within the theatre industry as a playwright, set designer, and primary and secondary drama teacher, and been part of several stage production companies including ACT 3 Theatrics, TheatreWorks, Cake Theatrical Productions, Teater Ekamatra, and currently, Hatch Theatrics – with his newest work, Hawa, premiering in Australia as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.
Abdullah’s productions tend to centre around original stories incorporating current themes and issues, including social diversity, identity, the changing and evolving dynamics within contemporary familial relationships, and modern day ideals and expectations around religion; Through the use of raw and emotive dialogue, and with a narrative lens focusing a very human perspective , the audience is often afforded an opportunity to explore the sometimes taboo topics beyond surface layers.
Peril Arts Editor, Magdalene H., speaks with Faizal Abdullah about his journey in theatre, Hatch Theatric’s and Hawa, and his plans and future projects.
Magdalene H: How did you first start out in directing?
Faizal Abdullah: The first show I ever directed was Lampu Merah, which was part of a double bill with National Memory Project by Johnny Jon Jon (the playwright for Hawa) for Hatch Theatrics. I wrote and directed it, and it was quite accidental, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be in for.
Then when I joined In A Decade – a theatre incubation program by Cake Theatrical Productions – I co-directed the final production, Temple Reconstructed.
These were my first two experiences directing a play. I never really planned any of it, although I’ve always had an interest in becoming a director, I just think circumstances kind of made it happen quicker than I had planned. But I very much enjoyed it, and I’m glad it happened.
M: What first attracted you to directing for Hawa?
F: The gloriously flawed characters. Johnny Jon Jon is great at creating these really bizarre, yet very real, characters. And you have no choice but to get sucked into their world. The characters Ahmad and Zaki especially, are such strange yet extremely real characters that you feel a bit guilty for falling in love with them. And finally, the play makes you question the meaning of Islam, and ask what it is to be a Muslim.
M: The production, which will be premiering in Australia as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival, encompasses a myriad of sensitive, and in some circumstances, taboo topics, including grief and loss, religion, sexuality, and religious and cultural expectations. How did these topics impact the way in which you approached directing it?
F: First of all, we have to understand and acknowledge that these are sensitive topics that we are talking about. Next, and this is the hard bit, we have to tackle these issues honestly, sincerely and with conviction.
Why I say it’s difficult is because it’s very tempting to sensationalise the issues, and dilute its meaning and importance. It’s also not about running away from the sensitive issues because we’re afraid we might offend. With Hawa, I’ve had audience members who have, not so much been offended, rather taken issue with, some of the topics in the play and even the portrayal of the characters. I’m not really bothered by it, because the team and I did not treat the issues frivolously and we took great care in presenting the play, and we never set out to shock, offend, or hurt anyone. We have very good reasons for deciding to present the production in such a way. But sometimes you just can’t please everyone.
M: In what way do you think Hawa will challenge its Australian audience?
F: Obviously, the familiarity with the language will be a challenge. The play will be performed in English and Malay, so I guess the audience will have to rely a lot on the subtitles. As the play is set in Singapore, I think there might also be some cultural references that will be new to the audience.
But the biggest challenge, I feel, will come from being confronted with the play’s elemental questions of ‘what is Islam?’ and ‘what is a Muslim?’.
Hawa offers very flawed Muslim characters, talking about the beauty and perfection of Islam. But where does – in a way – the Islam stop, and the Muslim take over? The actions of Muslims will always be linked to the teachings of Islam, which is fair enough. However, Islam can preach all the good in the world, but Muslims are still human beings after all. Human beings who are imperfect, just like every other person, regardless of race, language or religion.
M: What other projects can we expect to see you working on in the future?
F: Hatch Theatrics is in the final year of our Arts Incubation Residency with the Malay Heritage Centre (Singapore). Alongside Hawa, we are also rehearsing for Malam Puteri-puteri Malang (Night of the Tragic Princesses), which will be presented at the Malay Culture Festival at the end of October. And then we will start work on our final show as part of the residency, Lanang, which is about a teenage boy’s relationship with his mother, after the death of his grandmother. I’m also exploring the possibility of furthering my studies. In these 5 years that I’ve been directing, my desire to learn more about the craft keeps increasing, so I feel that it’s time I go back to school and equip myself to become a better director and theatre practitioner.