Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young
This review has been one of the hardest I have ever written. Try as I might, I cannot seem to capture the invigorating beauty and devastating pathos of the play. Can a review, no matter how well-written, ever be as good as a truly great play? I’m not sure but I know it is certainly beyond my humble ability in this case where Class Enemy by East West Theatre Company (Bosnia & Herzegovina) is quite possibly the best play I have seen in nearly a decade of theatre reviewing and, in my defence, not a play I believe was meant to be read about but to be seen in all its glory.
Like many great works of art, Enemy not only entertained but also enriched, offering me new ways of seeing the world and helping me experience it much more deeply on an emotional level. Enemy’s greatest triumph, however, is that it reminded me why I love the theatre so much: nothing, you see, can engender that exhilarating, visceral reaction of being in the presence of live performers, especially when, as in this case, they are in constant motion for 110 minutes, jumping on desks and chairs if not flinging them around or smashing them against the floor. The raw anger and anguish felt by these seven students, waiting in a detention room in a school in Sarajevo for the teacher who never arrives, are not things to be imagined from words on a page or things once captured and are now being projected onto a screen for viewing. With Enemy, you feel what the youths feel in real time because it is slamming right up against you at the very moment they feel it. You experience a very real sense of danger being in the presence of this terrifying whirlwind of sex, violence and swear words - you feel as if, at any time, one of the desks being tossed around the stage may suddenly come flying at you - and, at the end of the play, when the surviving students turn towards the audience and stare us down menacingly, you also experience a real sense of fear - and perhaps, guilt.
The word "care" is referred to a few times in the play and Enemy painfully reminds its audience that it means demonstrating compassion and offering protection but also simply paying attention and being aware of something. It is a powerful moment when the deputy headmistress turns to Iron, one of the boys, and says he is the worst of all because, unlike the others, he is actually smart and yet he misbehaves and chooses to remain ignorant. The question she forgets to ask herself, of course, is why. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child but there is blood on all our hands if we do not show these children any care in the first place. Do we really listen to our children? Is it any wonder that these students, choked up with anger and resentment, give themselves codenames (Sky, Cobra, Chick) and refuse to answer when called by the names given to them by adults? - even though deep down, they crave a kind word (just as they secretly yearn for the arrival of the teacher whom, paradoxically, they mock).
Director Haris Pašovic was concerned that there was too much overt violence and aggressive sexuality in Enemy for it to travel well overseas, especially to Singapore. He need not have worried. While our students may not actually bring guns to school or perform stripteases in the classroom (although we would be naïve to think that variations of these do not already occur in Singapore*) and we do not have a civil war as a backdrop, Enemy, nonetheless speaks powerfully to us because of the vivid way it portrays the desperation youths feel when they perceive themselves to be abandoned or having no real future - and these feelings of hopelessness are universal, no matter how they may be expressed. As a secondary school teacher for many years, I have worked with students from difficult backgrounds, and I believe that the absolute worst thing that a teacher can ever say to a student is "I give up on you" – but that is what the students in the play hear every day from their school. When those words are actually spoken on stage by the deputy headmistress, they ring louder than the gunshots that bring the play to its murderous end. The greatest assault performed by Enemy is not on our ears and eyes but on our hearts because we know that at the centre of that storm of anger is a hollowness that these youths are trying so desperately to fill. They are hurting themselves and others because it is the only way they know how to feel alive, to feel that they matter. Are some of our children in Singapore so different?
The play takes potshots at the education system - how knowledge that is learnt in the classroom is rarely the knowledge needed to survive in the world, is another - but it is extremely myopic to see Enemy only as an indictment of schools. As these youths share their stories about shattered family lives and being trapped in a country ravaged by war and ethnic conflict, it is clear that they have been betrayed not only by their teachers but also by their parents, their people, their country. Even if we are not waging wars that diminish the future for our children here in Singapore, we are bystanders to these wars in other countries, and observers in our own country where poverty, discrimination, barriers to education, etc. cannot be said to be completely eradicated. Are any of us truly innocent?
In fact, if we go further, it can be said, these students speak for everyone who is downtrodden, who is waiting for a saviour that will never come. The play reflects how, often, the only defence the disenfranchised have, is offence, in both senses of the word: as acts of aggression as well as acts that will be seen as crude to society. When the school bully Iron teaches his schoolmates self-defence, we are not surprised that his lessons are filled with horrific violence. How can we expect people to play by the rules when the rules are not fair in the first place, when the rules work against them? The great tragedy of this Lord of the Flies scenario, where humans are reduced to savage animals, is that it is not taking place on a deserted island but happening in a school classroom, part of our everyday world. Even when an alternative response to retaliation is sought, the play suggests that things are no better. Sky turns to drugs to shut down, for example, while Chick tells a poignant story about her father who protects his prized flowerpot from stray cats by keeping it under a glass bowl weighed down by a brick. Nothing can get at the flower now but one wonders: can anyone still see the flower’s natural beauty and, more importantly, can the flower still breathe?
British playwright Nigel Williams’ script originally set in an under-funded, inner-city English school is powerful with ideas, here given greater scale and scope by this translation into a Bosnian context, but credit for Enemy’s success as a play must also be accorded to the director and his uniformly excellent cast. Each actor inhabited the character he or she was playing on stage completely for every single moment of the play. It was as if every line, every movement was being intensely lived and not just taken from the page and committed to memory or choreographed to an inch of its life by dancer/choreographer Tamara Curic. I am amazed at how Curic’s mind is even able to encompass the complexity of the physical demands of the play, much less solve it: the students not only hurl furniture around throughout the play but insistently and savagely hurl their bodies around as well, using them against one another as weapons (to strike, to dominate, to simulate rape) or to master their pent-up energies. The students jump, dance and bang their heads against tables as if their frustration is a fuel that needs to be burnt – and the actors make each moment of this intricately choreographed ballet so painfully real for us because they make you believe that that anger is really inside them. I must applaud the sheer force of their kinetic energy, their dedication to their roles and the many bruises they must inevitably have suffered. I must also praise the cast and director for the attention paid not only to the big movements but also the little details: Amar Selimovic, the hulking Iron, is forever grabbing his manhood, the source of the only power the boy feels he has; Maja Izetbegovic’s eyes are always half-closed and glassy with a tint of madness, as one would expect from the ever-stoned Sky; and Maja Zeco’s Cobra nonchalantly paints her nails and poses in her sunglasses in the background while her bullied schoolmate (Nusmir Muharemovic’s Kid) finally opens up and talks about the rejection he feels. In many schools in many countries, you will see the same dazed look that Izetbegovic has on the faces of youths who sniff glue or take drugs; you will see teenage boys engraving penises into their tables with a pen or swiss army knife, displaying the same subconscious obsession with their genitals as Iron does; and you will see girls who, like Cobra, have dead faces and bodies because they use vanity and sex to mask all their emotions.
You will also see that unique nature of rough-housing amongst teenagers that the actors manage to capture so convincingly: one moment, the fight is in jest, the next, it can explode into anger; one moment, there is real intent to cause pain, the next, there is genuine concern that the pain has gone too far. Like Williams, the director and cast understand that with youths like these who have little respect for anyone else or the discipline to pause and think about rationales and consequences, everything is raw and entirely in the present. When the word "breast" pops into Iron’s head, for example, he turns round and grabs a breast. There aren’t any long dialogues that build into a grand moment of breast-grabbing for dramatic effect. It just happens.
Impressively, all of the actors not only work well as an ensemble and individually as characters within that ensemble but also have the stage presence to hold their own when called upon to take the spotlight. The students kill time by taking turns to play the role of the teacher and conduct a lesson and even Amir Muminovic and Samir Karic – neither of whom are actors as such but hip-hop dancers who joined the East West Theatre Company only last year – acquit themselves admirably here as Ca and Ma, who say very little but miraculously transform from scared, mousy schoolboys into thunderous beatmasters for their surprisingly effective hip-hop interludes which punctuate the play, one of which is used for the sex education lesson they conduct. In an embarrassment of riches, I was particularly moved by Irma Alimanovic’s Chick: her wide-eyed, oblivious look of sheer bliss as she uses a piece of chalk to draw a flower on her black t–shirt and talks about how little things of beauty can bring hope was heartbreaking, especially when all around her, no one bothers to listen. Zeco also delivered a compelling turn when Cobra performs a raunchy striptease while making up a recipe for a "guts pie" that would make Sweeny Todd’s Mrs Lovett proud. Williams’ original play consisted only of boys but Pašovic made it a co-ed school because there are no single-sex schools in Bosnia. Scenes like these proved that change to be most fortuitous because of the additional sexual charge it gave a play already electrified by violence, machismo and homoeroticism. What really made her performance so striking, however, was how layered it was: the striptease was not only sexy but playful, vulgar, pathetic, defiant, pleading; ultimately, her only means to deal with all her inner demons.
From my own experience and from what I hear from my Inkpot colleagues,
the Singapore Arts Festival has not been without its disappointments.
However, the spirited applause and standing ovation from some audience
members for Class Enemy will testify that it has also not been
without its resounding successes.
* I was quite taken aback when, during the talkback, a member of the audience said that the play was a lot more sexual than the reality in a country like Singapore. While this is certainly true, we should not under-estimate our local youths either. To cite just one example, at one point in the play, all the students jump, one after another, on top of a student who is lying down, simulating a towering orgy, and this, in fact, happens in some Singapore schools; it even has a local nickname, tau pok. The fact that many of the local audience members did laugh at some of the more outlandish but really rather horrific "pranks" throughout the play made me wonder how in touch we are with the reality of teenage life in Singapore. Bullying, teenage pregnancies, self-harm (e.g. cutting) and sexually transmitted diseases amongst youths, we should remember, are all on the rise in Singapore.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /