Birds of a Feather
In the year 1177, a Persian Sufi named Farid ud-Din Attar composed the great mystic poem The Conference of the Birds. The work describes the quest of a band of birds as they travel unfathomable distances to discover their king, the mythical Simurgh. When they arrive at the Palace of their king, they're directed to a reflecting pool, and realise that the image of the Simurgh - which, in Persian, can mean "thirty birds" - is none other than that of themselves. It's an allegory for the soul's journey to enlightenment: unified, we become the godhead.
Sidang Burung is Teater Ekamatra's dramatic interpretation of this poem, and one of its prime achievements is its bridging of the contemporary human sphere with the world of myth. As the eight-part chorus of birds confers and embarks on their spiritual quest, a more naturalistic sequence plays out in the adjacent space: a little boy named Farid chatting with his grandfather on a visit to the Jurong Bird Park. Themes flow back and forth between the two narratives: leadership, community, folly, vision, culminating in a choreographed moment of spiritual insight. It's a play of beauty, realism, fantasy, epiphany and paradox; a unique distillate of the ideas of its source text, counter-intuitive and yet provokingly profound.
But there's one major problem. Basically, the birds are boring. One would've expected them to be the most colourful and intriguing elements of the production; but instead, they come across badly in the first half of the show: amateurish, under-coordinated and uninspiring.
There's plenty of people to blame for this, and but my first target has to be the costume designer. Clothed in a gaudy mish-mash of cast-offs and tailored smocks, the bird chorus resembles a troupe of low-budget circus clowns - or perhaps the cast of an SYF school production, high on imagination but low on style. Granted, the sartorial decisions are interesting - a brown windbreaker for the owl, white ruffles for the duck, a single red rose in the hair of the bulbul - but collectively they make the production look unprofessional, unsophisticated, even silly.
One could blame the playwright, too. Why has Isa Kamari chosen to devote roughly one half of the play to the dialogue between the birds as they protest the hoopoe's proposal to quest for the Simurgh? This disputation that takes up only about an eighth of the original poem, after all. Yes, it's an important opportunity in the play for the birds to distinguish themselves: the owl with her greed, the eagle with his pride, the parrot with her love of freedom, and the hoopoe with his sense of vision, dismissing every excuse as an obstacle on the path to enlightenment. Yet the exchange is draggy - it's structured as a series of monologues rather than a real argument, and the hoopoe's know-it-all sermons come across as irritatingly preachy and sententious.
(Interestingly, Isa also decided to delete all the lively fables of kings and saints from the hoopoe's rhetoric. This is in spite of the fact that these moralistic tales make up the vast bulk of the source text, and were also key to Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière's 1970's dramatisation of the poem, which generated the script for William Teo's landmark staging of the text in Singapore in 1991.)
It's also possible to blame the director, Sani Hussin. Under his watch, the chorus of birds shifts listlessly around the set, stopping occasionally to make their speeches in exaggerated, pantomime fashion. The actors strike attitudes and perform antics, but none of them manages to shine - even the hoopoe, the great orator, is played by Anwar Hadi Ramli with a nervous, youthful energy that works against his sense of authority. The mood of disorder is probably deliberate: we're meant to observe the condition of the flock before they're convinced to move in unison toward the Palace of the Simurgh. Still, the durational presence of the milling masses is so distracting that it truly damages the play.
I can't help but believe Sani could have found some way for his chorus to move in subtle concert, conveying a sense of confusion while not actively annoying the eyes. After all, his eye for movement as a director becomes fully apparent later: as the birds try and decide on a leader for their pilgrimage, he plunges them into a stylised conflict, and from there on, every gesture they make is choreographed: the battles with each other as they cross the seven valleys of their voyage, the slow pounding of their wings in unison as they approach. These sequences, aesthetic and well executed, suggest the visual impact that the first half of the play could have had if different decisions were made.
As it was, the big stars of the play ended up being Farid and his grandfather, played by child actor Mohd Nazrie Bin Zulkhairi and the senior artist Abdul Rashid Bin Mustajab. Perhaps because of their extreme ages in a theatre scene full of twenty-somethings, perhaps because of their refreshing realism against the backdrop of the lacklustre bird chorus, these two turned in performances that seemed unusually good. Tender, unpretentious and not without humour, theirs was a dialogue that worked.
Special credit must go here to the playwright, for his subtle interweaving of grand themes into this casual banter. Farid's childish ambitions to be king - or president, if kingship is unavailable - play off of the motif of leadership introduced by the appearance of the grandstanding hoopoe and his tales of a feathered monarch. In the same fashion, the hoopoe's mystic visions are paralleled by Farid's ability to see a mysterious bird keeper who's invisible to his grandfather. Even the seven valleys on the way to enlightenment are mirrored when the grandfather mentions a course on The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Everything that's epic, grandiose and poetic ends up strangely diminished in the human realm.
There's a crucial point to all this, made evident when the grandfather reveals the story behind the phantom bird keeper: the spirit of a good-hearted, simple-minded man who used to tend the birds back when the grandfather was in charge of the park. His name was Hud, but people nicknamed him "Hudhud" (Malay for "hoopoe"), and he was a fat man, so he was teased as "Si Gemuk" ("The Fat One" in Malay) or "Simuk". He had a pet white bird, which he believed was capable of speech, and died falling from a tree branch while attempting to reach the bird - though no-one at the time could see the bird there.
Against his various images of temporal power - kings, presidents and bird park bosses - Isa chooses a fool as the image of the true leader, the man whose identity most closely approximates that of the Simurgh as well as the hoopoe who guides us to that divinity. It's an idea that runs contrary to all our Singaporean ideals of meritocracy and rule by the elite, not actually drawn from the text of The Conference of the Birds yet completely harmonious with its Sufi philosophy which glorifies madmen and the act of losing the self.
The play comes to a close with the bird keeper initiating an odd dance, robed in white, chanting a repetitive Muslim chant. Slowly, all other members of the cast - the birds, the grandfather and Farid, join in, clothed the same way, dancing the same dance. I'm big on secularism and diversity, so it's unnerving for me to watch this scene, a demonstration of uniformity driven by religion. But even I can attest that the beauty is there, and the visual and emotional power is there. It's a strong ending.
My knowledge of Teater Ekamatra's oeuvre is limited, and this the first time our site is reviewing a show in Pesta Raya, the Esplanade's festival of Malay arts. Still, I think I can safely state that this play is out of the ordinary, principally because of its integration of naturalism into a work otherwise based in myth - a rather rare strategy in our theatre scene, so often inclined toward the surreal.
What's also important in this case is that the naturalism worked better than the myth, and helped to imbue its ideas with more complexity and relevance than if presented unadorned. It's not always the most dreamlike presentation that moves us most. Sometimes, the key to mysticism lies among the real.
Sidang Burung doesn't start off well. The actors playing the assembled birds are messily choreographed, parleying with each other about avian mysticism in long speeches which are as poetic as they are slow. Rather more intriguing is the naturalistic dialogue intercutting these scenes, between a man and his young son Farid as they visit Jurong Bird Park. It's only when the birds begin their journey to visit the Simurgh, the sacred bird, that things get exciting: the chorus starts moving in aesthetically co-ordinated unison and discord, and the themes of the play's two sections start coming together: ambition, vision, leadership and community; faith and imagination. And it all concludes quite beautifully, a complex weave of ideas, punctuated with a few gemlike visuals. Quite different from Teater Ekamatra's usual fare, but still with ample space for improvement.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /