Five Guys Named Ahmad
Noor Effendy Ibrahim's Bilik Ahmad is an exploration of language, sexual power and violence within the local Malay context. Set in a minimalist interior with enigmatic characters whose fragmented but polite exchanges barely conceal the shady, ironic subtext, this Pinteresque play is original and compelling in its interrogation of the darker aspects of our social condition. While the piquantly equivocal lines and stark aesthetics employed were effective in bringing out the play's concerns in a subtle but engaging manner, it is unfortunate that the play had to suffer from some acting inconsistencies that hampered a fuller enjoyment of the play.
It is worth noting that the play is Noor Effendy's reworking of what were originally two different but thematically and stylistically tied plays into two acts of a single play. This might initially seem like a natural thing to do, but having read the script of the original performaces before, this ostensible integration is found to be hardly more than mere felicitous juxtaposition. Disappointingly, neither thematic nor textual links between the original plays, although admittedly substantial in the first place, were significantly reinforced, leaving one wondering what exactly was reworked. True, both acts were performed in the same theatre by the same actors (but in different clothes and as different characters), and some portion of the second act, Ahmad, was spent talking about what happened in the first, but there seems little else that justifies calling the two plays anything more than a doublebill. This might sound like petty quibble about the claim that the plays were "reworked", but when considering also the unequal performance between the acts and their varying levels of artistic success, their disparity is salient.
Bilik, the first act, starts out promisingly but the initially sensitive performance of the actors peters out into a somewhat clumsy articulation of all-hell-breaks-loose. As the play opens, the audience is quickly thrust from a commonplace setting into an absurdly macabre one as we find out that the main characters are a bunch of mass murderers comparing their homicidal exploits through unsettlingly deferential language. Here, the actors shine in their fine rendering of an ironic suppressed violence, the mode by which power relations within the gang's hierarchy are subtly negotiated and challenged by its members.
However, when a female captive is later introduced, the gang's artful hypocrisy is thrown into disarray as underlying tensions break out and, as if unable to handle the chaotic narrative turn, the performance too fizzles out. Although it was already clear that some of the actors were more experienced than the others, the play's turning to focus on the characters played by the weaker actors now made the contrast all the more stark, as we saw more awkward acting and line deliveries that did not do justice to the lines themselves. In the end, what could have been a forceful conclusion turned out unsatisfyingly flat.
Acting was better and of a more consistent quality in Ahmad as the more experienced actors were given more lines, resulting in a tighter performance overall. This second act also brought out similar themes as the first but, in this reviewer's opinion, more artfully. This was done by maintaining the surface appearance of playful but polite exchanges while subtle but significant underlying changes took place. If Bilik was about a feminine disruption of a hermetic masculine system that leads to all round chaos, Ahmad was about that feminine element's ability to sometimes also insinuate itself into such a system and manipulate and control it.
The story is, like Bilik, almost farcical. Five characters, all named Ahmad, live together feeding each other bananas until the intrusion of a neighbour, Dahlia, furtively alters their relations to each other as they are seduced by her alluring but subversive presence. More clearly than Bilik then, this act brings out the double-edged dynamics of gender and sexual power as mediated through the repressive enforced sycophancy of the Malay language that varnishes over conflicts and tensions to keep up the façade of polite civility.
One problem this reviewer had with Ahmad though, was the decision to cast a woman, Gloria Tan, as one of the Ahmads. Even if this were, as could be plausibly posited, simply a strategic casting decision to avoid the presumably conservative audience's disapproval over physical sexual teasing between actors of different sexes on stage (despite the NC16 rating), it still weakened a reading of the play as depicting a social destabilisation caused by a sexually foreign element. However, if it were an attempt to complicate such a reading by introducing a queer dimension to the play, it would be a very half-hearted one at best. Either way, Ahmad's artistic coherence would have benefited from more judicious casting.
On the other hand, Tan's Hokkien-speaking ability was put to good use in Bilik by having her character speak only in Hokkien, a language with a reputation for uncompromising candour. This linguistic disassociation contrasted her position as an outsider who wasn't subordinate to the obsequious demands of the Malay language, with those of the other Malay-speaking characters who were, thus strengthening the social commentary on the Malay language's influence on social custom. The casting of Tan in the play then, like the gender dynamics the play sought to investigate, was double-edged.
Ultimately, it is this sort of ambivalence too that characterizes this review of the play. Although the performance was choppy and direction less than impressive, Bilik Ahmad was still a uniquely provocative and fascinating play, by turns humorous, disturbing and challenging. It is one of its kind, especially within Malay theatre in Singapore, and perhaps it is this boldness that edges over its shortcomings to finally redeem it.
Jabir is a Singaporean studying in a liberal arts college in Minnesota, USA. He is mainly preoccupied with reading and thinking but sometimes this compels him to write. This is his first review of a play.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression (****)
Bilik and Ahmad are two plays by playwright-director Noor Effendy Ibrahim which were developed back in the 1990s but are being presented in 2008 as a double-bill after being reworked by Effendy and the cast. Both present an alternate reality but whereas Bilik's is a dark and disturbing dystopia of mistrust and violence, Ahmad's is humourously surreal. Each play impressed on its own terms but their contrasting tones also worked well together to create an extremely satisfying evening. The plays shared a common theme of exploring how we interact with people in different ways - when we are threatened, when we are faced with the uncertain - but the focus of the first play for me was the tightly wound narrative and how skillfully Effendy (supported by excellent work from lighting designer Anuar Mohd) ratcheted up the tension and suspense to its climatic ending, and for the second, it was the simple pleasure of watching a playfully absurd comedy beautifully executed: I especially liked how Ahmad always skirted tantalizingly on the edge of great profundity without ever quite stepping onto the line. The ensemble cast performed impeccably for both plays, never once slipping, whether in acts of cruelty and perversity in Bilik or while delivering saucy double entendres dripping in sexual innuendo in Ahmad. The intimate and low-key Bilik Ahmad turned out to be one of the most vivid and memorable pieces of theatre I've seen in 2008.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /