Mind: Your Language
The truth is, I've always hated the "Uniquely Singapore" slogan. How can we claim our country's hybrid culture is unique when, just across the Causeway, there's the same blend of cultures at work on a way larger scale? Malaysia, with its massive tribal, religious and political enclaves, boasts a cultural diversity far richer than our own; one that's profoundly real, complex and problematic.
Break-ing Ji Po Ka Si Pe Cah showcases this diversity: it's born out of the Pentas Collaboration Project, which biannually commissions three directors to each create a half-hour piece on a particular theme. In the case of 2006, the theme was "Language": transcendent, subjective, politically divisive in Malaysia, and inescapabably dramatic. While quality varies, each director in this edition succeeds in delivering something resonant, relevant and powerful.
Let's break it down. First off, there's Silence, Please (****1/2), directed and written by Jo Kukathas. It's a middle-class Indian woman's account of events surrounding her mother's death, given a bizarre directorial twist. Almost the entirety of the text is spoken as a voiceover, against a subtle background of rhythmic music. The five actors (three Indian women and two Chinese men) initially perform naturalistic actions against the set of a middle-class living-room, but soon find themselves abstracted: their movements may bear no direct relation to the text, forming intriguing counterpoints to the narrative, shifting books and furniture across the set, occasionally breaking into prayer chants or laughter.
It all sounds terribly lofty and conceptual, but trust me, it wasn't. In the midst of the strangeness, Kukathas never loses sight of the human emotion at the heart of the drama: the grief of losing a mother, the shock and confusion of having one's identity taken away from oneself. The voiceover tenderly traces a family history of a grandmother who played favourites based on skin colour, a mother who scolded trees into bearing fruit, a country that betrayed its citizens. And - oddest of all, yet fitting into the dream-logic of families - a set of disappeared uncles and aunts and an ancient grandmother who appear at the funeral to reclaim their mother's body, an odd suggestion that she was not the mother she said she was.
In her director's message, Kukathas explains how she was inspired by her studies in Japan of traditional theatre forms, where speech and action may often be separated. She seems to have studied the forms well: though I couldn't always grasp the symbolic connection between the spoken text and the choreography, I was completely won over by the clean aesthetics; it felt, in a word, classical.
The theme of language operates on several levels here: there's the presentation, where speech is isolated from image, allowing a separate fetishisation of both, then there's the detailing of how difficult speech becomes in the context of suffering: the mother unable to speak during illness, her children finding themselves similarly speechless, even frightened of speech, as they first wait out her illness then mourn her death. The idea of silence pervades this piece, both in form and content.
And yet the crucial moment of the play involves breaking this silence, with a return to concrete reality. When the siblings visit the temple after their mother's body is taken away, they meet a young Indian man who shouts at them in Tamil, a language which they cannot understand, scolding them for using English in a sacred Hindu place, as if they are ashamed of their roots. This is a key to reading the entire piece: the English language is a mother tongue for her characters, but the grandmother tongue - Tamil - nonetheless exerts a undying claim on them, one that can strip them of their speech, rendering them silent.
All in all, it's an excellent piece, with the cast of actors and dancers demonstrating beautiful physical awareness amidst the quiet. The most jarring moments, in fact, came when the youngest woman, played by Anitha Abdul Hamid, had to speak: the brittle uncertainty of her voice jarred with the mellifluous beauty of the voiceover, feeling out of place. And true, the ending is a little abrupt - the siblings approach a civil servant for help in reclaiming their mother's body, but are told all he can do is launch a report - but this loose end is so accurately reflective of the human condition in real life that it ultimately works. It helps, of course, that the set designers leave us with a final, stunning image: the central wall turns, and inside, stacked on shelves, are all the furniture items of the living room, housing small papier-mâché dolls: the home as an altar.
The second play, the devised work Repot [Mind + Mine] (****), is arguably just as good, because what it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for with sheer energy and entertainment value. Coming after a piece about silence, this piece is instead about noise, language as noise, politics as noise, performance as noise, noise that is glorious, chaotic and alive.
It begins with actress Gan Hui Yee alone onstage, delivering a Mandarin monologue defining the parameters of language, while the recorded clack-clack-clack of a typewriter assaults our ears; she teases those of us who are reading the surtitles that we must be experiencing a cognitive lag - and truly, as a person semi-fluent in the language, I'm lost amidst her technical terms, disoriented by the clash between spoken text, projected text and clackety-clack-clack; disturbed in the best way possible.
Director Loh Lok Man's interested in investigating the strange relationship between Chinese Malaysians and language diversity: many are raised speaking a Chinese dialect at home, then go to schools where Mandarin is taught as a first language together with Malay (the national language) as well as English (the international language of trade). The show thus emerges as a series of experimental projects exploring this cacophony of diversity, hence the name Repot, which means "report" in Malay.
The first sequence, Repot 1, centres on a video recording of the four actors during the workshop process, discussing and experimenting with these very themes of language in their lives, speaking in a mix of Mandarin and occasional English, breaking into Malay for the Malaysian pledge. Cute enough, you'd think - but the four actors themselves are on-stage, speaking the same lines in sync with their recorded selves, even hurriedly shifting positions from jump-cut to jump-cut so that what you see on stage mimics their image on video.
Repot 2 involves the re-enactment of a survey: actors pair up in different combinations, one playing the interviewer and the other the interviewee, answering stock questions about mother tongue vs. national language. The answers are pretty repetitive, and we don't learn much from the content: English is more important to them than dialects, yadda yadda. What keeps the act alive - and makes it hilariously watchable - is the variety of interviewees portrayed: speakers of Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka; professors, hawkers, émigrés, even a thuggish martial arts teacher played by the petite Tan Chai Chen and an Indian man who learned Mandarin from an ex-girlfriend, strongly performed by the extremely solid Chua Teck Yee.
Repot 3, however, is the perhaps most rib-tickling scene of the lot: actors re-enact scenes projected on the video screen behind them once again, but this time, the scenes are from the 1960 Malay film Antara Dua Darjat by director P. Ramlee. Displaying their talents for the Malay language (hitherto given meagre exposure), they subvert this artefact from one of the progenitors of modern Malay culture, hijacking, no, maybe simply pirating this classic, turning its overblown melodrama into farce merely by duplicating it to the best of their ability.
One could write a whole essay about this last act - is it possible, the director seems to be asking, for Chinese Malaysians to embrace, to assimilate themselves into Malay culture without incongruity? But as a whole, Repot seems to be celebrating this incongruity, revelling in the manifold ironies of being a minority culture. There isn't a clear thesis being shaped, but on the whole, there's an upbeat sense of joy in the mania of language, overriding any practical impulses of nation-building or clear communication. Content, here, is less important than style and vigour.
There is an odd coda to this piece, however: a video that tracks the actors as they boisterously go backstage into the Esplanade dressing rooms, down the lift and out into the open, just as the rain starts to fall. Is there a hidden meaning here? A hint that while language complexity may be all laughs in the theatre, outside life needs must be more problematic?
In any case, it makes for a good transition into the final piece for the night, WIP(***), which stands for "work in progress". Written and directed by Nam Ron and performed completely in Malay, this work follows the relationship between an imprisoned blogger on Islamic issues and his torturer, seeking to shine a light into the way language is policed and used against people - the opposite of communication, as the director says in the programme.
Sadly, this is the weakest piece of the lot. It's definitely hurt by the fact that it's a naturalistic play with a minimalist set, all of which seems a trifle boring after the acrobatics of form that we've witnessed with the previous two plays. But the fact is that there's something fundamentally problematic with the script: throughout the process of incarceration and torture, the prisoner maintains his dignity, calling for a lawyer, insisting on his rights. There is no sense of development of character or action, not really even enough human detail to enable us to sympathise with this martyr for free speech. And while the two actors play the roles adequately, there is nothing luminous in them that shines out with conviction, that supplies the oomph the lines to become transcendent.
What is important here is the topic: we're seeing a play in which a self-proclaimed moderate Muslim is being persecuted by the government of a Muslim country, not for liberal ideas but for what's viewed as dangerous, extremist beliefs. The blogger has written that believers worldwide should unite against the West - not in arms, he adds, but in ideology, to fight back against their misrepresentations and abuses of Islam and the Muslim nations. For the government, that's a statement that comes too close to terrorist ideology and could damage trade relations, hence the justification for arrest. It's a scenario that strikes close to home for many Muslim members of the audience: even here in Asia, it's not safe to profess too much devotion to your faith.
I've been told that this incarnation of WIP is completely different from the one that premiered at Break-ing's first run in KL. The subject of bloggers being arrested for sedition is too dangerous for legal performance in Malaysia; a few of my friends were amazed that it was permitted here, impressed by the director's bravery. Surprisingly, though, the show's ultimately rather empathetic towards the figure of the government: after the torturer shoots his prisoner in the head, he begins to mourn him, recalling how as a child he once killed his pet bird for daring to fly away. It's the perfect analogy for the paternalist government, which believes it is acting as a benevolent caregiver when it oppresses its own people, when in reality it's exhibiting the patterns of a childish tantrum. Unfortunately, this final monologue isn't performed to best effect - but if the show is a work in progress, as the title suggests, then there's definitely motivation and capacity for improvement.
At the end of the night, it's hard to make a statement about language based on its treatment in these three plays. But what's clear is the importance of initiatives like Pentas Collaboration Project. Under what other circumstances could one be treated to such a range of theatre in a single evening, gaining exposure to the perspectives of three completely different sectors of a city's theatre community? It's practically an ambassadorial event, showcasing difference, not attempting to sweep its problematic facets under the table - for remember, this is an event curated by artists, not government employees.
We've had a long history of multilingual and multicultural plays here. We've even had a number of inter-company, inter-linguistic collaboration projects: The Necessary Stage has worked with Teater Kami on Pillars with The Theatre Practice on 100 Years in Waiting, while last year's Trick or Threat involved both Mandarin-based artists from Dramabox as well as Malay-based ones from Teater Ekamatra.
Collaborations like Break-ing, however, seem deeply important, because they not only bring different audiences together, but they allow directors to each assert the integrity of their individual pieces. Projects like that in Singapore have been rather rare - there was an English and a Mandarin play in last year's Full Frontal, and the year before that there was a Malay and a Tamil play in Projek Suitcase, but that's more or less it.
We don't have the same kind of diversity as Malaysia -
here, English is obviously, undeniably hegemonic, in the theatre world
as well as in the world of commerce - but that doesn't mean
they can't teach us a lesson. Break-ing demonstrates
how exciting, and how dramatic it can be to juxtapose different visions
within the same playing space. Rather than harmony, it displays polyphony;
and more than perfection, it displays passion, in every single on of
its plays. Let's learn from Malaysia. That kind of spirit shouldn't
Two excellent productions and one kinda mediocre piece are included in this Malaysian triple-bill of plays about language. First off, Silence, Please (****1/2) works beautifully with its oblique, sophisticated approach to contemporary theatre: five actors move in a combination of naturalistic and abstract movements as a brilliantly performed English-language voiceover describes a Hindu family's experience of their mother's death. Poetic, moving, and politically resonant too - splendid. Next, Repot [Mind + Mine] (****) features a madcap series of scenes where four Chinese-language actors re-enact the interrogation of language: they mimic their own monologues and movements as a pre-recorded video of their improvisations plays in the background, then re-enact interviews with a range of Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka-speaking citizens, then there's the P. Ramlee movie - though the text gets a wee bit repetitive, be assured, it's too inventive and funny for you to care. Finally, there's WIP (***), a Malay-language duologue between a prison interrogator and a detained Islamist blogger. It's a great premise, stepping out to explore trenchant issues still taboo in Malaysia, but the script's too straightforward and the conservative, naturalistic direction suffers when juxtaposed with the exciting experiments of the previous two plays. All in all, a remarkable evening, displaying the vibrant diversity of the KL theatre scene - a solid item in this year's Esplanade Theatre Studios Season.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /