In Malay, Bulan Madu means "honeymoon". It's a strange title for a production so loaded with sadness - in this classic Teater Ekamatra doublebill, playwright Alfian Sa'at tells us stories of a Malay tradition crushed by modernity, broken by time.
First up, Madu II (***), which translates as "bigamy", is the tale of the two wives of a businessman as they await his return home for dinner. We witness the power struggle between the two - first wife Kamariah (Alin Mosbit) boasts of her culinary prowess and of being their husband Hisham's first love, while second wife Suhaila (Oniatta Effendi) hits back with details of his enjoyment of her body in her bedroom and her superior mastery of secondary school math.
It's a curious competition between the two, and director Rohaizad Suaidi is careful enough to portray it as a game - the wives smile and laugh as they mock each other, and the tension never erupts into physical violence. In fact, there's an atmosphere of unreality throughout the play - the women take turns pretending to be Oprah Winfrey interviewing the other, Oniatta breaks character to explain her own opinions of polygamy, and the set itself is so elaborately decorated with middle-class knick-knacks that it resembles a furniture display. Even the wives themselves emerge as parodies of themselves - the archetypal makcik and minah, introduced boxing-ring style, listing their respective achievements in crocheting and dancing joget moden for Teacher's Day performances.
The tragedy of Kamariah and Suhaila, however, is that they are not stereotypes but real people, reduced to type by the confines of their circumstances. There's a rib-tickling scene where they enact a ritual of leaping over a rice pot to hasten their husband's return, each seizing the chance to wish for additional selfish favours from Hisham. We laugh, but as we clutch our sides, we ache from the sense of their bondage and the claustrophobia of housewifery itself.
It's notable that the play begins and ends with a voiceover from Madu Tiga, the classic film by director P. Ramlee about a man who marries three wives. It's a plaintive echo of a time in recent history when Muslim polygamy could be the subject of a romantic comedy - a traditional institution that just might continue to work to everyone's satisfaction in a modern age. As it is, polygamy emerges as just another structure confining Kamariah and Suhaila to their tiny, passive worlds. Waiting hours for Hisham, the lord and master who never arrives, the two descend into memories of their personal traumas - not competitors, but fellow victims.
Flaws exist, of course - it's a pity Rohaizad hasn't drawn a clearer line between the realist and non-realist worlds of the play, so that many moments of satire and black humour lose their edge since they're not performed with an adequate sense of distance from the text. Conversely, emotionally powerful scenes, such as the climactic breakdown of the two leads, can appear overwrought if we haven't seen at least one face of the characters that we can regard as their true personalities. Just as problematically, the director hasn't quite managed to convey the loneliness of the wives through the use of silence and movement - the breathing spaces between the lines of the play where dark emotion may creep in.
Anak Bulan di Kampung Wa'Hassan (****1/2), on the other hand, demonstrates a mastery of space and voice as a one-man-show performed and directed by Gene Sha Rudyn, exploring the stories of Singapore's last kampung on the eve of its demolition.
Translated as "New Moon at the Wa'Hassan Village", the play introduces us to a panoply of characters living in this small, Malay-dominated rural settlement: there's the mosque watchman, the ex-drug addict, the old woman who believes her daughter has been spirited away by the orang bunian fairies, the ten-year-old schoolboy, the young woman in love with a construction worker tearing down the kampung.
Even before we step into the performance space, Gene prepares us well for this journey into a hidden side of Singapore. We're instructed to remove our shoes and are given a twisted cone of pandan leaf, and as the audience enters the stage area, dried leaves crunch under our bare feet. The set is minimalist, with a few boxes and step-ladders and an immense prayer bell hanging from the ceiling. From a lectern, Gene reads - in English - a brief summary of the kampung's history, including its use as a film set in Madu Tiga, as well as a description of his visit to the kampung with Alfian in 1998 to devise the play.
Somehow, this non-naturalistic presentation makes the play all the more powerful - when Gene slips into drama, gracefully sliding from one character to the next, it's almost a ritual act, a shamanic possession by voices that has been preceded by all the necessary ceremonies to summon the spirits. His characters overlap - sometimes it's not immediately clear when one voice leaves off and another begins - and while that's ordinarily a flaw in acting, here it suggests the common soul of the kampung speaking through each of their mouths. And of course, the figure of a lone man, moving through all corners of a largely bare stage, evokes that necessary sense of loneliness that the kampung community must have felt on realising that the world had left them behind.
Unlike the wives of Madu II, the characters of Anak Bulan rise above stereotype through eccentricities that ring true - Gene covers his face with his hair, and he becomes a pontianak in sunglasses asking for her banana tree to be saved; he uses a bizarre American accent for a lost little girl who takes the bus to Kampung Glam to meet her dead sister; the Malaysian construction worker reveals that he is destroying the kampung with righteous fury, because his own kampung refused to accept his relationship with his boyfriend.
Because we've met these people, there's a real sense of loss at the end as Gene sounds the prayer bell and recites the azan, only to be drowned out by a rising tide of joyous dangdut music. The old way of being Malay is crushed under a new Malay identity - loud, unified, patriotic - never guilty of nostalgia.
Why Bulan Madu, then? Why give this production, this moving duo of social tragedy, the portmanteau name of a honeymoon? Perhaps because of nostalgia itself - a married couple may look back at a honeymoon as a time when everything worked in the family. There's a double nostalgia in this production, really - it looks back to previous stagings in 1998, with Gene as the new Artistic Director, as well as its reprise in 2001, when it went on tour in KL.
Or perhaps it's because, very often, we want theatre to be a honeymoon - a brief, escapist holiday abroad, seated next to your beloved. And Teater Ekamatra knows that drama should be more than that - that it should talk about issues relevant to the community, right here and right now.
For if this is a honeymoon, it is a honeymoon in hell. The sadness is eternal. At the end of Madu II, Kamariah and Suhaila are still waiting for their husband as the clock ticks into the small hours of the morning. In Anak Bulan, the voices are not spirits of the past, but of the present - still alive, but lost.
And time will not help you. When you leave the theatre, the stories follow you home.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /