By Mark Augustine
A familiar story in the genre of gay fiction: wholesome, studious, clean-cut good-boy (sigh, gush, swoon) meets wry-smiling, over-sexed, truant bad-boy… who smokes! (gasp, oh no!) What ensues is an adolescent tale of adolescent tail and the forbidden love these two boys share but don’t know it yet, and WON’T know for another ten years until they meet again and confess their passion. (ho-hum) I use the word ‘familiar’ because in the history of gay fiction it’s a common theme.
Adolescent emotional and physical awakenings have always been a safe port of entry into the theme of homosexuality. Two gay characters will always seem less threatening if their desires are rooted in an innocent filial bond that toes the line between friendship and partnership. God forbid they are portrayed as guys who just like to sleep with other guys. Things like that don’t exist here in Malaysia, after all.
Of course, there can be only one outcome for such a story, and for Sam & Jet (our titular characters, played Andrew Chiu and Sunny Cheong respectively) the ending broadcasts itself about thirty minutes into the show. Tortured lovers lead a tortured existence. The tortured lovers try to be together but the good boy and the bad boy can’t seem to break out of themselves long enough to negotiate a relationship. Yes, despite Sam’s best nagging, Jet refuses to give up smoking! Tortured lovers break up and become more tortured. Tortured lovers inflict their angst and longing and unrequited love on other people, until they finally come back to each other and find that they are only happy being together as mismatched people in a world that doesn’t understand them and merely tolerates them. Jet gives up smoking for Sam, and Sam misses the smell of cigarettes. I just don’t know why I had to sit through three and a half hours to finally see it.
Over the course of the evening, a friend repeatedly informed me of the background to this story. It is based on a gay cult classic called Bishonen. In the original film the Sam character was a cop instead a banker… the film was popular… everyone loved it… etc, etc, etc. Sadly, I think this is what caused the play to suffer. Trying to ride on the coattails of the film (and perhaps another recent, well-received play with gay themes called Angels) Sam & Jet never quite take-off into a theatrical form.
Throughout the show, the staging is remarkably cinematic in style. You can almost hear the director saying, “and this is when we would do a close-up on the actor’s face.” Yet no one told me I had to run up and see if the actors had tears in their eyes. The times when they did take a more theatrical approach to the dramatic action of the story, it cut to bone of the emotional turmoil these men felt, making their experiences much more meaningful in the eyes of the audience. It’s a simple rule really: don’t tell us you’re hurt, show us you’re hurt. It’s hard to feel empathy for sniveling, downtrodden victims.
On the upside, the director started the show with some fairly adventurous staging (that died out far too soon). We walked into the theatre as audience at a karaoke competition, watching campy singers belt our 80’s favourites by Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. Actors in the audience heckled the singers on stage, sometimes attacking them, other times booing them off, other times cheering them on. It was a fun and engaging simulation of something like a televised, karaoke gameshow. We even got to witness the show’s hostess setting up a deal to rig the competition. The ensuing brawl when winners were announced had the audience howling. Fun as it was though, I never saw how this scene was relevant to the rest of the story.
During the second half, the director again had some inspired moments, using the ensemble cast to create a strong sense of emotional tension which the actors couldn’t seem to generate on their own. During one particularly effective scene, the two lovers walked the stage as though plagued by loss, doubt, and heartache while the ensemble cast scurried back and forth like ants. In another, the cast constantly rearranged themselves, making human walls between Sam and Jet wherever they went. Simple visual metaphors like these, representing barriers in the lives of the lovers, were almost elegant in their simplicity. I think I actually felt something for the characters in those moments.
On the technical production side though, their ‘Jet’ made a nosedive, crashing into the broadside of a concrete wall. I still can’t decide whether all the problems were the result of opening night bugs yet to be worked out, an inexperienced production crew, lack of timing, or poor planning. Regardless of reason, there were too many problems to make the show enjoyable. English subtitles projected on the wall at stage right headed my list of things to clean up. Even if they had been timed to coincide with the action on-stage, EVEN IF they had been translated into grammatically correct English, the subtitles were projected on a side wall that made them difficult to read from audience left and impossible to read from audience right. Now, some might argue, “Hey, it’s a Chinese show, lah! The English subtitles aren’t the main focus.” But that begs the question, “Why were they included at all?” In the end, they detracted so much from the show; I stopped paying attention to them altogether. (C’mon people, if you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all!)
But wait, maybe I’m being too harsh? Maybe it was a directorial decision made at the last minute. It was a technically demanding show and the production manager and lighting crew, I think, tried their best – which is more than I can say for the backstage crew! At various points, stage crew felt the need to drop large, heavy objects during a scene. I winced and grimaced several times, wondering if these crashes and bangs were special effects the symbolism of which I wasn’t quite grasping. Sorry to say this but, in professional theatre things like that do NOT happen! Then again, maybe I underestimate their competency. The production manager may have asked the crew to divert audience attention away from actors who couldn’t find their spotlights during any one of far too many meaningful (-less?) fadeouts. With any luck, they’ll get it right by closing night.
In the end, you don’t see many shows with gay themes here in Malaysia, but that doesn’t mean that you need to make any one into some magnum opus. There will be other stories, and other scripts, and other shows, but I don’t see why they needed to try and put ALL of them into this production. Instead of calling it Sam & Jet, a more accurate title would have been ‘Sam & Jet & Sam’s Family & Sam’s Friend, Sindy & Sindy’s Boyfriend, Andrew & A Couple of Lesbians’. Each of these could have been a separate show unto itself really, but in one night I got all of them (or perhaps none of them). Sam and Jet tries to be an epic tale of love between two men who struggle through and don’t give up, yet I found myself wishing that they had.
First Published: 05.01.2004 on Kakiseni