Mind Over Matter
There are a hundred reasons to dislike Huzir Sulaiman's Cogito. It's a cold and intellectual play, quite different from the playwright's more popular comedies, Atomic Jaya and Hip-Hopera. It's possessed of little dramatic action, lacking even dynamic movement and spectacle in its minimalist staging. Worse yet, it employs such a sophisticated level of vocabulary and cultural reference that some of my friends have called it "masturbatory".
Nonetheless, I like this play.
Granted, I'm not crazy about the premise - in the year 2026, two women, both named Katherine Lee, discover that they are duplicates of one another: they share the same memories, the same personality, and the same recently deceased husband, Tony Seetoh. It transpires that Tony used technology to electronically record the mind of his wife, so that a copy of her could be made after her severe injury in an Algiers bomb attack - but in the wake of his death, it's impossible to ascertain which woman is the original and which the copy.
It's a plot worthy of a sci-fi B-movie, and not terribly original, either - the implications of digital consciousness have been explored similarly in The Twilight Zone, Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories, Greg Pak's Robot Stories... you name it. Yet Huzir's skill as a writer elevates the piece beyond its science fiction origins. He deliberately chooses to reveal the predicament of the two Katherines towards the beginning of the piece rather than as a final twist (a device of which his characters are self-consciously aware), robbing the story of any sense of cheap sensationalism. His characters are all too rational, too self-controlled to break down in tears after they know they've been betrayed - for it is their minds, not their hearts, that he wants the audience to attend to.
Huzir's intrigued by how Descartes's famed aphorism, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am) is invalidated in the face of the probable fact that a human mind will at some point be replicable, stored in the form of pure information. He shows his two Katherines disoriented by the erosion of the uniqueness of their dearly-held identities, chilled when they discover their fondest moments of nostalgia doubled in another person's brain, and further provides a third Katherine, a disembodied mind, existing only in electronic form, lost in an agony of limbo where she is alive and yet is not alive; where she wants to die and does not want to die.
Not being a big fan of epistemology, I'd have rejected these ideas as solipsistic babble - were it not for the seductiveness of the playwright's language, delivered with precise eloquence by Claire Wong, Neo Swee Lin and Noorlinah Mohamed. Huzir's crisp poetic verbiage, manifesting itself in the spartan monologues and dialogues of the play, kept my eyes glued to the bare, darkened stage for almost the whole of the 70-minute performance.
Also fascinating was the nature of society in the playwright's speculative vision of the future. By the first quarter of the 21st century, Southeast Asia has fallen under the jurisdiction of the ASEAN Union, which follows the commercially pragmatic systems of Singapore law. Shuttling between Nassim Road and New York state, Robert Seetoh and the Katherine Lees exist as hyper-cosmopolitan elites, making casual references to holidays in Italy and Russia and Greece, attended by bodyguards and specialist doctors. Yet for all their wealth and worldliness, these characters are abjectly alone - vulnerable to the loss of love through death and treachery, distanced from even their friends who tell their children that their business practices would make Jesus cry. Their closest confidante is Lex, a young lawyer played by James Shubert who speaks only in staccato, terse legalese and loves his clients in terms of billable hours. Even the costumes of the Katherines - stiff black-and-white floral cheongsams with 1930s bunned hair - reflect the psychic repression of this new aristocracy.
It's a wry comment from a Malaysian playwright on the culture of Singapore - a country with a widening income gap and the world's highest proportion of millionaires - and it's probably no coincidence that the story describes two women whose lives were manipulated by an unseen old man in whom they placed absolute trust. There's a suggestion that even if the Singapore financial miracle persists the money will make us no happier as a people, no less likely to be duped by the powerful for their own private purposes.
I do not wish to overstate the success of this play. For me, it was a piece I appreciated intensely but did not love, and I'm aware that it simply did not work for many in the audience: its iciness and stark, uncompromising intellect came across as alienating, distanced, unfriendly. It was difficult to feel for such lofty characters, and the one explosion of emotion - by the digital Katherine, at the moment of her deletion - felt unnatural, unearned, out of place in a wintry universe.
Yet if Cogito is cold, that is because it describes a world where emotions are cold. And if it is difficult, that is because it is conceptually ambitious. The work achieves what it sets out to do: to illuminate ideas.
In fact, a survey of Huzir's work shows that he is principally a playwright of ideas – the hilarious political caricatures of Atomic Jaya, the dramas of the heart in Election Day and the affable sleaziness of Notes on Life and Love and Painting all distract from the fact that each of these plays are narrated by cool, cogent thinkers ruled by the heads and not their hearts. Traces of the playwright's erstwhile earthiness are, nonetheless, visible in Cogito – the women's heavy and casual use of the word "fuck", for example, and their grumpy remarks about their ennui with tourism – hints of life in a palace of frost.
Naturally, I do want Huzir to write another play dominated by warm, hearty characters - let it not be said that Singapore has spoiled him! - a less intimidating, more lively play that wins over the hearts of theatregoers long enough to open their minds to new ideas. And let's have some of the fire of his strident criticisms of Malaysian governance directed at our own sociopolitical system - right now, his satire is subtle; too subtle, a drop of vanilla in a vase of chocolate.
For now, however, it seems urgent to reiterate that there must be a space in our scene to accommodate cerebral theatre; that there must be a portion of our critical community that rewards not just entertainment value, but also the courage to tackle big ideas.
So many of our plays are feasts of the senses, glorying in concrete, physical matters. Do not deny the relevance of the theatre of the mind.
Huzir Sulaiman’s latest play is based on what could be a B-movie sci-fi plot: in the mid-21st century, two women, both named Katherine Lee, discover they are duplicates of one another, the fruit of the technology of their recently deceased husband Tony Seetoh. However, Huzir’s writing brings the work to a new conceptual level – this is a meditation on the epistemology of identity, conceived in monologues and spartan dialogues of crisp poetic language. Some audience members are sure to be alienated by the prose-like narrative, the lack of dramatic action and the sheer minimalism of this piece, yet it exerts a subtle power – not emotional, but intellectual – which marks Huzir out as a definitive voice in our theatre scene. Oh yes; and some beautifully controlled acting from Neo Swee Lin, Claire Wong, Noorlinah Mohamed and James Shubert.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /