When Tedium Becomes The Medium

“Ars longa, vita brevis,” some say (art lasts, life is brief) and having said so, summarily disappear up their own ars. After sitting patiently through Stadium, I found myself mulling over the pros and cons of being a theatre reviewer. Okay, so I get comps to see shows I otherwise couldn’t afford. Producers tend to go out of their way to be friendly. It’s also a way to stay connected to the theatre reality that has given me so much in the way of personal therapy. But if one expresses a subjective dislike for a particular style of theatre, one runs the risk of getting the cold shoulder from old friends and associates. There’s a fine line between artistry and artiness that when crossed produces pain rather pleasure. But is it worth hurting someone’s feelings just to point that out? In the end, it’s only art, not life.

There must be a way to commend the laudable efforts of the enthusiastic, disciplined, very earnest and undoubtedly talented young cast comprising Fahmi Fadzil, Gabrielle Low, Joannou Ng, Kubhaer T. Jethwani and Mark Teh – and the equally young and gifted director, Kitrhona Ramday – without encouraging them to persevere in the same dreary pseudo-artistic and thoroughly tedious vein in future theatrical endeavours.

Indeed, the five performers from Akshen (who seem profoundly influenced by Five Arts Centre) are wonderfully gifted souls with much to offer. They appear totally committed to their craft and are all blessed with beauty, intelligence, and marvellous versatility. Their collectively generated text, declamatory and polemical for the most part though it be, came close to sheer poetry, albeit wincingly self-conscious. However, the deliberate flattening of their delivery made them talking cardboard cut-outs instead of real human beings. I’m aware that this is a perfectly legitimate stylistic approach which had its roots in Greek tragedy where characters wore masks signifying various virtues and vices and spoke not as individuals but as archetypes. It was later revived in Europe in the first half of the 20th century by a succession of playwrights like Ionesco and Brecht. A 1960s permutation of this dramaturgical school was dubbed “post-modernism” by critics and eagerly taken up by academia.

It was considered avant-garde to “deconstruct” naturalism and go for the bare bones, so to speak; to intensify the audience’s psychological response by minimizing the performer’s emotional involvement in the public ritual of theatre. Just as it was thought trendy to use only the lower case in poetic typography (Edward Estlin Cummings went to the extent of signing himself e. e. cummings and took pains to ensure that no publisher ever rendered his name in upper and lower case letters). Perhaps it was the post-Marxist Zeitgeist that made it de rigueur to express leftist sentiments through symbolic acts like refusing to employ capitals (which would, no doubt, position one on the side of the accursed capitalists). Well, it was great fun and very catchy. I went through an extended phase of lower caseism myself, and still find it useful when I’m too tired to hit the shift key responding to emails. In the “labour-saving” digital age of SMS and internet addresses, upper case letters have become something of a luxury. And thus these trends go round and round and vanish up their own rear ends, not unlike Ouroboros swallowing its own tail (though in this instance it’s a case of the tail swallowing the worm).

Pretty harmless stuff really, but when taken too seriously, this species of artiness becomes a tad tedious and tends to lose audiences. Something Malaysian theatre can no longer afford, since it claims to have gone pro in the 1990s. I’m by no means suggesting that theatre practitioners stop experimenting and aim for the bottom line. Hardly. I’m merely expressing my personal opinion that artistic experimentation does not necessarily preclude entertainment value. In effect, the avant-garde doesn’t have to be ingrown, narcissistic, joyless and neutered – as most “experimental” theatre presented locally tends to be. “Look, ma, no commercial potential!” is no way to push the envelope of the performing arts.

Stadium purports to address cogent issues and questions of cultural identity. It alludes to “sensitive” subjects – and then promptly veers off in allegorical tangents (perhaps to avoid getting its public performance permit revoked by ever-vigilant bureaucrats). Questions may be more important than answer, but one does weary of hearing the same old questions being asked generation after generation. Indeed, repeatedly taking the same non-committal artistic stance puts one in danger of merely posing. This production will be presented in Manchester from July 14-20 at Cultureshock (the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival). The poor Mancunians are in for some real culture shock. Imagine offering durian to an eskimo – and not even the real thing but stylistically reconstituted post-modern durian!

First Published: 04.07.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…