There are three distinct “voices” in Sarong Party, each representing something different. The first one the audience will experience is that of the trumpet, followed by that of the chorus, and eventually the band. At various times, these characters complement each other, and at others, they contradict, not unlike the competing narratives in any society.
The show itself is divided into 3 main parts: 1) the “reception”, 2) the first half of the “party”, and 3) the second half of the “party”. In each of these sections, the relationship between the audience and the performer evolves, as power relationships do in society.
In the pre-show “reception” section, the audience takes on the role of the pre-colonised peoples of Southeast Asia. Before Western colonisation brought the concept of national borders (as we understand them today), the political system could mainly be understood as governing through spheres of influence or, as some scholars would term it, a mandala political model.
The hastily gives way to the start of the “party”, where the audience is introduced to a clearly marked out space, indicating the introduction of both borders and, in the Singaporean context, the Westminster political system. In this half, the tone is sarcastically celebratory as the band leads the commemoration of Singapore’s “founding”. Here the audience/performer relationship has transformed into one that mimics the subject/crown dynamic that existed throughout the colonial period. This is further elaborated through the collaboration of audience members in this celebration, and often, as happened in history, blurs the line between a coerced and/or a voluntary participation.
The second half of the “party” works backwards thematically, (scene 6 responds to scene 5; 7 to 4, and so on.) As the audience now becomes post-colonial citizens, each of these scenes looks at the consequence of the previously mentioned colonial legacies and how they continue to have power to shape our lives. Although an individual is subject to the workings of fate, this half tries to show how they still have the agency to shape their own fortunes, and by extension, shape the course of history.
The chorus, singing in this concert within a concert, sings two pieces from the British composer Edward Elgar: “My Love Dwelt In A Northern Land” and “Ave Verum”. Elgar is also heard in the trumpet’s rendition of the famous melody from “Pomp and Circumstance”. Elgar’s music is chosen not simply because his nationality and obvious genius. Although “Pomp and Circumstance” has morphed into one of the British patriotic pieces (as well as a common choice for graduation ceremonies), Elgar is an uneasy fit as a representation of imperial music not least because he was a Roman Catholic in Anglican England (Ave Verum is a Catholic Eucharistic text). When you hear the chorus sing praises of colonialism and colonial figures then, can you be entirely sure you are hearing what you think you are hearing?
The band plays in the musical style that has slowly come to define The MadHatter Project, with the interchanging genres reflecting a frame of mind wherein one is struggling to deal with the reality of how colonial legacies have created inequality, yet knowing that the band members have all benefited from these. As is eventually sung, “look at me: beneficiary of the things I rail about today”.