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Production

Above Us Only Sky

Company

Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

26/01/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

Esplanade Recital Studio

Rating

***1/2

Nothing to Kill or Die For

Playwright-director Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid's follow-up to her 2006 breakthrough How Did The Cat Get So Fat? is the story of three young sisters who are struggling to eke out a simple existence in the fictitious country of Nowits. Nowits has been taken over by a group of invaders called the Hafits who have stripped the Nowitians of their territory, their rights and their freedom, restricting them to a barren stretch of land surrounded by a specially constructed wall. Eventually, one of the sisters decides to join a protest against the Hafits and is imprisoned. Her two sisters crawl under the long stretch of wall to free her and at one point, the eldest tries to comfort the youngest by reminding her that if she looks up, she will see that "above us", there is "always sky".

It was a moment that rang with such promise and hope that I had to check my programme to see that I had not misremembered the title of the play. Indeed, the actual title, which states not that there is always sky, but that there is only sky, is a truer representation of the sisters' situation: they manage to return to Nowits in one piece but grow mad from starvation, finally hallucinating that a magic bean they have found will be able to produce food to sustain them. One member of the audience expressed confusion during the post-show talk over whether planting this miracle bean does, in fact, go on to save them - but to me the ending is clear: when hope is all you have, sometimes it just isn't enough.

Zizi adopts a very austere approach to recreating this stark dystopia onstage: there are no props (everything is mimed) and the set by Dennis Cheok consists only of a series of giant metal cages that can be reconfigured to form, for example, the sisters' home, a deserted marketplace or a jail cell. Moving around panels of metal mesh to cover different sides of the cages and physically shifting the cages about do sometimes slow the action down. However, the cold, hard steel of the rectangular cages works very effectively as a symbol of the girls' physical imprisonment and loss of individuality, and the barren condition of the country they now find themselves living in. The overall effect is complemented by suitably moody music by sound designer Amran Khamis (of the instrumental collective I Am David Sparkle), by all three actors wearing costumes made out of the same black-and-white checkered material, and by a lighting design from Fita Helmi that punctuates the blue-tinged darkness with the occasional pulse of ominous red.

This intimate and focused staging draws you into the play but, more importantly, when set against this bleak backdrop of hopelessness and a constant threat of danger, Zizi's motifs develop greater poignancy. Metal cages, magic beans, a giant wall surrounding the city, three sisters played by three actors of different races... more discerning audience members may criticise these elements for being trite or blatant. However, they struck a chord with me because their simplicity - the way they harked back to childhood fairytales - reminded me that what is most at stake in a war are innocence and hope. At one point, one of the sisters says she would rather die than continue living the way she does and that is the harsh dilemma of those who are exiled, internally displaced or made to become refugees in their own homes, whether in a once-divided Germany or a war-torn Gaza Strip.

A friend argued that Sky does not offer any fresh insight to the complexities of such conflicts and while I agree, I would also counter that we should judge a work by its creator's intentions. As with Cat, I do not believe that Zizi meant for Sky to serve as incisive political commentary or to offer solutions to complicated social problems. Zizi speaks less from the head than from the heart: in Sky, she is simply trying to present the different perspectives and stories of everyday people so that we, the audience, may continue to remember, may continue to care and may be led into action of some form - and there is great value in such work. The measure of success for her works should be the authenticity and truth that she can bring to the emotions of her narratives and here, as an audience member, I was convinced.

Having said that, I cannot recommend Sky unreservedly either. While the narrative arc is nicely structured and the story is engaging, the dialogue is inconsistent, slipping into mawkish territory in a few places. There are also problems with how the lines are distributed between the three actors such that the rhythm is sometimes disjointed most distractingly when the sisters converse. For the most part, the actors are solid but none of them delivers a truly inspired performance either. To be fair, this is perhaps due to the constraints of the stock characters they have to play. There simply isn't much for Grace Kalaiselvi d/o Piramayan to do other than stand around and look stoic and noble as the sensible eldest sister. Josephine Tan throws herself into her difficult role as the dreamy youngest sister who has a series of twitchy, nervous breakdowns throughout the play - but this began to wear on me after a while and the character was not well-defined beyond that. Siti Khalijah has the most to work with as the middle sister who is at first defiant but finally cowers, humiliated and alone, before her oppressors. Siti handles the journey of her character well and is wholly convincing but there is nothing here that she has not done before.

For an emerging playwright, a massive success like Cat can be a blessing or a burden and Sky certainly invites comparisons as there are clear similarities between the two pieces. In the end, though, I think Zizi acquits herself quite nicely. While I would argue that Cat has the stronger and steadier voice of the two, Sky is nonetheless effective as a meditation (rather than a thesis) on the effects of war and terrorism and is, indeed, occasionally quite moving. It is also heartening to see Zizi not only tackling a much larger canvas but also having the confidence in her narrative to stay focused instead of freefalling into unnecessary abstraction (yes, I remain unconvinced by the talking eye and ear in Cat). Sky has certainly kept me looking forward to Zizi's next work.


"The intimate and focused staging draws you into the play but, more importantly, when set against the bleak backdrop of hopelessness and the constant threat of danger, Zizi's motifs develop great poignancy"

Credits

Playwright and Director: Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid

Production Stage Manager: Izmir Ickbal

Lighting Designer: Fita Helmi

Set Designer: Dennis Cheok

Sound Designer: Amran Khamis / I Am David Sparkle

Cast: Siti Khalijah, Grace Kalaiselvi d/o Piramayan and Josephine Tan

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.