The Silent Majority

Like half of KL, I have the flu. At seven o’clock on Projek Suitcase 2003’s opening night, mucus blocked up my ears. This is inconvenient, but one side cleared up during intermission with a cup of coffee. Just in time for the shrieks of a bespectacled man with a blowpipe in Faisal Tehrani’s Monsopiad & Lain-lain Cerita. It is one of four monologues – two Malaysian and two Singaporean – presented by Singapore’s Teater Ekamatra last weekend at Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka’s Stor Teater.

In Monsopiad & Lain-lain Cerita, Layun, psychiatric ward inmate, is a delusion of psychiatrist Dr. Sardar, in turn a delusion of Mohd Kamaludin Mohd Daud, the dancer-actor playing the role. Layun believes he is Monsopiad, a Dusun warrior from Penampang, Sabah, who, legend dictates, died at the machetes of 42 bandits, although Layun maintains the hero triumphed. Sardar knows better, having been to Penampang; Monsopiad died of high fever an old man – in the end, Sardar also believes he is Monsopiad, sent into the world to behead evil.

The subtitles are censored twice: one sequence we can puzzle out (infidelity; Kamaludin helpfully spreads his legs), the other totally unintelligible. It is telling, how little significance the Dusun ethnic identity has to the Malaysian public that censors permit Layun to babble on in the Dusun-Lotud dialect, confident no one in the audience will understand him.

Meanwhile, Sardar is in a holding cell, raving in Bahasa Melayu, supervised by the annoyed voice-over of Dr. Rosnah, while the annoyed audience looks on. There are obvious problems when dealing with the mad: they may be geniuses, but they are hardly lucid – forty minutes into Monsopiad we are still at a loss as to what is happening, and wish to thump his head, insanity notwithstanding.

Faisal is convinced the Malay language will also fall victim to the agenda of progress: much of Malay-language theatre is trying to wall itself from new forms, viewed as Western and immoral; this urge to return to a fictional past purity and refusal to move on will eventually prove fatal.

Nam Ron’s MatDerihKolaPerlih accounts the rise and fall of Mat Derih, gangster at fourteen, later a politician lobbying for the right of fishermen to bear arms, finally a peddler purveying amulets. To better one’s lot through a life of crime is a dreary notion. It certainly isn’t as engaging as the character’s simple humanity. We find ourselves rooting for him, even as he kills people and burns houses, and we genuinely sympathise with his expulsion from the political arena.

Nam Ron, a pleasure to watch, directs himself, telling a story with memorable idioms (a man, during a fight, is said to be breathing “like a bull about to be slaughtered for Hari Raya Haji”) in tricky Perlis dialect – although I am told the true accent is harder to decipher. We are offered an authentic image of the Malaysian experience: who hasn’t seen the shirts and songkoks of parliament, or the ubat-seller complete with mat and cell-phone number? It is a deceptively simple, well-told story, with some amusing asides; yet consummate action is delivered early – a protracted brawl from Mat Derih’s gangster days is elaborated and blocked, like a director pitching a script to actors – while later parts of his life are dramatically unexplored. Not that Mat Derih’s story lacks drama; it is as timeless as a Greek tragedy.

The writers were tasked with documenting diversity amongst the Malay peoples; the starting point was disappearing tongues. The divide between Malaysian and Singaporean offerings, however, is noticeable: the pieces from across the causeway are both more cosmopolitan and conscious of their ingenuity.

Alfian Sa’at’s Minah & Monyet is conceptually sound: the Malay as toy monkey, as seen by colonial Mat Salleh and, later, modern Melayu women – including the actress, played by Elmie Shumastri. She ends by telling the audience she was never informed, during the course of rehearsal as to who she was playing: Minah or Monyet. We get it: the oppressed have become the oppressors. The piece alternates between being an amusing romp (through the jungle on an elephant, at one point) and being didactic. And weaving in the stories of six women (seven, including Elmie) left them all rather open-ended. Alfian ‘consciously eschewed narrative coherence’ for his piece; although keeping with the theme of multiplicity, it is much like Causeway (Alfian’s previous theatrical work), as it seems more preoccupied with activism than telling good stories: too many issues raised – colonialism, cultural pimping, ethnic stereotyping, the treatment of foreign domestic labour – dilute the whole.

Aidli Mosbit’s La Libre Latifa has a Malay woman in love with an Indian expatriate; the social question is the sacrifice of family and culture in the name of romance. It is an old question, and the embarrassingly melodramatic sentiment ends with Latifa (played by Molizah Mohd Molder) asking the audience to promise her we’ll learn to be happy. Aidli perceptively has Latifa speaking Malay interspersed with awkward English sentences, like much of the urban generation, perhaps for that extra sophistication English seems to afford. Ultimately, La Libre Latifa is little more than a Bollywood dance-around with decent production values; it is as blatant, and as engaging.

Teater Ekamatra’s showcase is very satisfying. None of the sentiments are entirely fresh, but they remain relevant, and could have hardly been expressed better. The pieces say different things, pulling in different ways, playing with the theatrical monologue form (Alfian and Faisal’s inclusion of the actor or actress as a character). Prism, the other collaborative effort seen recently in the Klang Valley, attempted the suspicious idea of an ‘Asia’ of solidarity; Projek Suitcase is successful because it avoids trying to unite Malay-ness under anything other than what it is: an arbitrary definition – and shows, instead, a myriad experiences.

DBKL forcing censorship upon the arts is much cause for concern – subtitles aside, the censors are easy on Projek Suitcase; more likely, the performers are courageous. It is no reason to think anything is set to rights, but it is great that things continue to provoke: especially in Malay-language theatre, which has been conservative to the point of ill-health. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s Stor Teater is an endearing space, much like the old Actors Studio Box, and its virgin performance is a minor revival that has arrived after a slow year in theatre. The outlook is hopeful. Suitcase’s voices are unique and exciting; you want to unblock your ears and listen.

First Published: 19.12.2003 on Kakiseni

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