By Kelvin K. Wong
Having been disappointed by two out of three plays from The Actors Studio’s Malaysian Playwright Series, I admit to being quite sceptical about the fourth instalment. Gavin Yap, who pioneered the series with his not-that-sweet Sweet Nothing, has just staged his second play at The Actors Studio Bangsar (Sep 2 – 5, 2004).
Wish I Was There is a simple, straightforward tale of two men, herewith to be known as Old Man (Patrick Teoh) and Young Man (Gavin Yap), who are forced to confront each other in a literal limbo upon their deaths. Hoping to tie up loose ends, they soon find themselves back on earth for one last time, before leaving for a better place (the changing room?).
The no-frills performance area reflects greatly the gist of the play. Is death as austere as the angular furniture? The different levels of rectangular panes – do they accentuate the emptiness of life and death, however one looks at it? Perhaps life and death are just spectacles that one observes through a window, like theatre itself.
But who would have imagined God as a pot-smoking, alcohol-indulging vamp with a fine piece of rack? Or that she would look like Samantha Schubert?
Samantha manages to exude a complex god-like allure even while being decadent – that isn’t an easy task. I particularly like the nonchalant way she proves she is God, and the way she walks out of an argument midway, leading Patrick Teoh to remark: “That’s what happens when God is a woman.” Assertive, robust and sometimes kooky, Schubert is a pleasure to watch.
Along with Samantha, Patrick Teoh easily outshines the rest in the play. As the fuzzy, troubled Old Man, he may have had difficulty in expressing his feelings to his children (Maya Abdullah & Chew Kin Wah), but breaking through this dam is a flood of emotions – anger, pain, joy, confusion, frustration – portrayed most persuasively. From the way he talks and walks, to his constant hurls of profanity (“Ni ah mah!”), Patrick easily wins the audience’s empathy.
The children, however, cannot match Patrick’s chemistry. For instance, the excessively outraged son’s way of vacillating between moments of subtlety and moments of frenzy seems unnatural. The callous daughter remains callous for most parts of the play, to the point where redundancy settles in. The children’s feedback gives the impression that their father is anyone but the poor, Old Man himself. Could this be the result of poor character development, or was the playwright purportedly illustrating the figurative death of the family?
The Young Man (Gavin Yap) and his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Carmen Soo) also have an invisible wall between them – both are trying to get across, but cannot. But perhaps it was doomed to begin with, because both Gavin and Carmen are trying oh so hard to express themselves. Perhaps the emotional detachment is meant to be deliberate, to signify the death of the Young Man in the ex-girlfriend’s heart?
Something I found noteworthy in the play is the living’s indifference towards the dead’s return back on earth. I expected the son, daughter and the ex-girlfriend to be frightened beyond their means upon seeing their dead significant others. But that isn’t the case; in fact, their collective indifference led me to thinking that perhaps no death had actually happened at all.
In the world of Gavin Yap and director Joe Hasham, both the living and the dead make use of the same space, the same furniture. Maybe what they are suggesting is that life and death have not much difference: neither really mattered. In other words, people who are dead can be, in an abstract sense, alive, and people who are alive, dead.
Yap also perceives death as a point where people look back and think about their shoulda-coulda-wouldas. Can this play actually be a revelation to all of us who are still alive? After all, we humans often regret more the things we didn’t do than those we did. Quoting from the Old Man himself, “We can’t just come back to earth, say a few apologies, and then fuck off to heaven, can we?” Since we don’t all have the privilege of sorting out things posthumously, playwrights may serve to remind us of these things: Don’t leave unfinished business! Tell the people you love that you really love them!
Wish I Was There had some depth, a pretty good flow, and made a lot of sense to me (I know what limbo feels like). With this progression of the Malaysian Playwright Series, people are definitely going to look forward to the next one.
And honestly, if God really was like that, then death is seriously underrated.
First Published: 22.09.2004 on Kakiseni