What happens when you pick 12 actors with varying degrees of experience and skill, put them on stage, and let them take turns telling personal stories and airing their private feelings about being Malaysian?
I imagine it would be a colourful but chaotic hotchpotch. But what if you videotaped more than 200 hours of rehearsal/workshops conducted by Faridah Merican and got Joe Hasham to edit these down to 100 minutes, transcribe the improvised monologues, and then flesh them out into some sort of performance script? Would the final result be a coherent play?
To Faridah and Joe’s credit, I laughed out loud a lot more than I cringed. There were banal bits that reflected the mediocrity we’ve all learned to accept as part of being Malaysian. And there were sparkling gems of anecdotes told with acute panache – with a poignant squeeze of gratuitous (but hopefully cathartic) pathos added to vary the mood and pacing.
The central idea behind Life… Sdn. Bhd. was that each actor would play himself or herself and inject a bit of personal biography into the ensemble. This was how I found out Patrick Teoh and Gavin Yap’s Chinese names (but, luckily for them, I forgot to take notes and my memory for Chinese names is extremely short-term).
As to be expected, the ones with the most stage experience and presence kept the entertainment level high and maintained The Actors Studio’s professional reputation, compensating for the weaker performances.
Ari Ratos was sublimely brilliant down to the subtlest nuance. His excuse for failing to understand women was masterful, and his raconteurial technique patentable. Ari’s was indeed an impressive and side-splittingly funny “tour de farce” from a young master of the craft.
Patrick Teoh is indisputably one of the finest stage personalities Malaysian theatre has produced. His portrayal of “the undiplomatic Chinaman” was unforgettable, and his supreme confidence kept the audience at ease and enjoying his every utterance. Patrick, who happens to be the eldest cast member, contributed the more cynical and streetwise viewpoints.
Susan Lankester’s extensive experience in Malay TV dramas and features stood her in good stead whenever she was required to emote without inhibition. She may even have managed real tears at one point but I wasn’t seated near enough to ascertain this. Her imaginary conversation with an absent dad was a particularly intense moment tastefully executed. One hopes to see a lot more of Susan Lankester on the boards.
Gavin Yap is certainly not just a pretty face. As an actor and stage personality, Gavin has established himself as someone eminently watchable with a lot more undiscovered potential. His personal comments on being a Malaysian weren’t particularly profound or unexpected, but they gave voice to how a growing segment of our non-Portuguese Eurasian, post-colonial population must view their uncomfortable and somewhat schizoid position in local ethnopolitics.
Ben Tan did a cool and courageous job of representing the suavely gay Malaysian urbanite sector and added a tangy touch of lascivious bitchiness to the proceedings. Iqbal Abdul Rahim was amusingly bitchy, too, but more introvertedly so, and with his clip-on Kelantanese accent, turned in a fairly obscure performance. A touchingly angelic side of Iqbal surfaced momentarily when he burst into plaintive song at one point.
But have you noticed how City Hall has succeeded in insinuating itself into almost every recent play? We’re inclined to take Iqbal at his word when he crows about his being on City Hall’s infamous Script Approval Committee (the New Malaysian Theatre Inquisition that threatens to mute creativity, innovation, social conscience, authenticity and spontaneity in the performing arts).
Young composer-dancer Weijun was an interesting member of the cast representing a passionate new breed of performing artist with an agenda all his own. His graceful agility, coupled with a cosmopolitan savvy and technical sophistication, came through in the brief item he choreographed and performed to some homemade electronic music. As an artist Weijun is perhaps some species of cultural mutant that can be found in any major city on the planet.
The rest of the ensemble consisted of Tina Tan, Lum Kay-Li, Alicia Daniel and Shamaine Othman. Tina seemed comfortable and happy to be back on the boards after a long hiatus from theatre, although she wasn’t ready to reveal more of her private self than required. Kay-Li exhibited a vulnerability and openness that immediately endeared her to the audience, especially when she was describing the travails of a transgendered Malaysian who’s close to her. Alicia and Shamaine are newcomers learning the ropes of life on stage and both did a passable job considering their inexperience. However, it will be a while before they acquire the dynamic stage presence that only comes with self-confidence and long experience.
Stage manager Gan Hui Yee made her large presence seen and felt whenever she could by opening the show, dancing onstage at odd moments, and carrying a sign around announcing a non-intermission. She seemed to relish her classic role of circus clown, Tarot Fool, Joker in the deck, hand of fate, or random factor.
So, did Life…Sdn. Bhd. hang together as a play apart from being a crafty collage of interactive monologues? I’d say it was a compelling concept, having 12 (or 13 if you count Gan) performers on stage in a “videographically” reconstituted brainstorming session on Malaysian insights, opinions, and perceptions. There were moments of truth that came close to encounter group therapy, but didn’t encroach too deeply into people’s discomfort zones. Director Faridah Merican for the most part succeeded in eliciting engaging performances from her motley cast, while Joe Hasham’s slick dramaturgy shaped the material into stageable form. Nevertheless, much as the luminous moments titillated and entertained, the lacklustre bits were so lame and unmemorable, I’ve already forgotten what some of the performers were rabbiting on about, even though it’s been less than a week since I caught the show.
Somehow Life…Sdn. Bhd. reminded me of those yuppie magazines that sell themselves with truly intriguing, often sensational, article headings displayed prominently on the cover; yet, when you’ve actually paid for the magazine and read it all the way through, you’re generally left none the wiser about anything.
First Published: 11.02.2004 on Kakiseni