Usually it's a promising sign when a play gets in trouble with the MDA. Showbiz in the city is still haunted by taboos - even if we're blasé about sex, we've still got race, religion, and government to dance around. Consequently, if you give a rat's ass about freedom of speech, you've gotta give kudos to any theatre group ballsy enough to test the limits of the unspeakable.
But then consider Teater Ekamatra's Projek Suitcase. It takes some cojones already to stage a double bill in which the first play's in Malay and the second's in Tamil. Moreover, the first play Kalbun, tests religious taboos by speaking from the perspective of the dog in a Muslim context - ultimately, playwright/performer Najib Soiman was pressured to change his title from Anjing ("dog" in Malay) to Kalbun ("dog" in Arabic) for the sake of lexical refinement. The scond play, P, uses the societal taboo of human faeces to discuss the more sacred taboo of politics - and was accordingly denied confirmation of its performing licence until its very day of opening, with propitiatory changes made to the voiceover script. Hip-hip-hooray for the cultural warriors for getting past the hurdles of our snip-happy censors, certainly. But putting all that aside: are the plays any good?
My beef is that they're nowhere as good as they could be. With both plays, the rich dramatic potential of the taboo was squandered - not completely, but to no small extent - by a lack of focus. There are still futures in sight for each, demanding essential reworking and trimming. I'll handle each play separately, beginning with Kalbun.
Najib is clearly a fantastic creature of play: he strikes up a gregarious chemistry with the audience, getting a chortle for a wag of a tail and a convivial cock of the eyebrow. Further, he's prodigiously experimental: his treatment of the subject has moved him to use a wooden flute, Koranic scripture, a makeshift drum, an electronic marquee, five plush dogs in five different voices, a blonde wig, voiceovers in Mandarin, and more.
This combination should make a great performance. Instead, it weakens the play. Core themes and messages are lost in the erratic mess of theatrical miscellanea produced on stage.
We're told from the beginning that the protagonist is a dog, that his mother, father, brother, sister, etc. are dogs, and that he's "at times haram (impermissible in Islam), at times halal (permissible in Islam)". A certain narrative is played out in nonlinear sequence, featuring the family and personal history of the dog, from his upbringing in a red-light district where his mother could sniff out police officers to his days as a police dog, mistaken for the killer of his master, to his days as a performing dog in sequins. The tension between Malay-Muslim experience and the image of the dog is a recurring theme - we're treated to a particularly funny send-up of a Muslim cynophobe fearfully wailing an Arabic prayer as he passes a dog, as well as a revisionist study of the Koranic passages that denounce canine contact.
We're almost certainly dealing with the dog as an allegorical figure here, most likely representing the outcast. However, the dog's experience ranges from being intensely literal (as in the tale of his sister's being beaten to death at a hawker centre, buried and mourned only by a transsexual prostitute) to extremely esoteric in the most memorably wacky moments of the play. These odd episodes are those most tangentially related to the story, such as his mother's description of her distant hometown ("You cannot reach it by ship, you cannot reach it by submarine...") and his plush-toy puppet drama of the other members of his theatrical production (including Mr Dachs the dachshund director) all participating in a competition to gossip about him. The correlation of the dog's experience to that of any specific oppressed group is tendentious, while his identification with the universal outcast is thwarted by the various scenes which do not focus on his outcast status.
Najib's eccentricity has bred an erratic, only semi-coherent story, which aims at delivering grand truths but falls short. Yet one's general impression is that of a story in development, to be greatly improved with better organisation. It thoroughly entertains when it gears itself to be funny, and it succeeds in conveying pain at crucial moments. With the introduction of a greater psychological build-up leading to the final denouement, we could have a very strong piece of theatre on our hands.
Whereas Kalbun appeals as a story under development, P shakes the viewer as a potentially wonderful story ruined. I do not exaggerate: I was moved to shut my eyes near the end to avoid reading the God-awful surtitles.
This was not, principally, due to Elangovan's direction, which balanced the sordid imagery of the monologue with soft orange lighting and a tinkling, almost transcendentally beautiful murmur of music. Nor should we point fingers at the actor, Ahamed Ali Khan, who held the stage with an admirably grounded sense of presence, and made much fuller use of the space than had Najib.
Nor was it the grossness of the imagery that truly harmed the play - as I initially feared it would, attending the press preview. While the protagonist's story of having been born inside a dollop of his mother's excrement is profoundly disturbing, that's the kind of disgust that wakes you up and can make you receptive to other ideas.
What I'm truly disgusted by is the inability, on behalf of Elangovan as playwright, to handle the motif of shit with balance and maturity. The show's advertising tantalised me with the prospect of a fable of an Emperor who tyrannically heads a search for the source of a piece of shit that falls from the sky in front of his palace. But what we're presented with is a protagonist named after shit who shits copiously and works for the Internal Shit Department amidst a shit-obsessed population who worship shit, build statues of shit, and cry, "Long shit the Emperor!" Shit is everywhere in the play, both repressed and worshipped by the authorities and society, and it is consequently impossible to pin down what it signifies, in what direction the playwright is pushing the metaphor. It could mean anything - thus, ultimately it means nothing.
Every now and then, a fresh thought seemed to pop up amidst the miasma - a moment of sacredness in the historical reference that "Our ancestors burnt their shit to ward off evil spirits", or the Borgesian incident when shit statues of the emperor begin to shit in different colours, and even shit out smaller shit statues. But by and large, the ideas that the political fable might have expounded became lost in the monomaniac pounding of a single word and image. One line read verbatim: "All the shits were having a shitlogue to find a shitsolution." It's not clever, it's not creative, it's barely language. Midway through the show, I was simply exhausted by the overuse of the word, its emotional power drained into a nonce-syllable, as if someone had just been yelling "cupcakes!" into my ear all night.
There's a radical rehaul needed of this play before it is restaged. Having read several of Elangovan's plays, I've got the greatest admiration for him as a playwright who uses drama for social criticism, as in his work on Indian prostitutes, Buang Suay, and on Muslim divorce, Talaq. In P, however, his overindulgence in scatological imagery has blunted the force of his satire. In short, the play needs a thorough wipe down.
Of course arts manufacturers don't owe anything to the MDA - they should have the right to put on shows as crappy as they like, touching on every forbidden topic that comes to mind. The people we owe are the audience members, not all of whom are jaded aesthetes who get shocked by nothing. We've got a responsibility to the folks who dare to have their inhibitions challenged to give them a piece of great theatre while their minds are exposed; to impart some crucial lesson of humanity to them before they crumple up the programme and go home to everyday life as they know it.
Tackling the taboo is never an easy journey for the audience; it can be for the artist, if he simply hopes to ride on the sheer crest of shock value. The makers of Projek Suitcase aren't guilty of that kind of laziness; they've been really ambitious in the spaces they've wanted to illuminate by burning the sacred cow - the societal quandary of the outcast, and a crazy political system - through the simple objects of the dog and the pile of dung. But their ambition has not been realised. Speak the unspeakable, but also take care to speak it well.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /