Cruelty to Audiences

The World is a Comedy for Those who Think…

Instant Café Theatre Road Show

Presented by Instant Café Theatre

Oct 27 -28, 2004, Grand Plaza Parkroyal

Fifteen years of laughter packed into one night can be tiring to the jaw. After the dinner at the hotel Ballroom was cleared away and our wine glasses filled with sky juice (it was Puasa month), Harith Iskandar came onstage to introduce the Instant Café Theatre. His introduction was short, but the night was not. ICT Director Jo Kukathas, who has a laser-sharp tongue, but an inability to self-edit, kept us captive well past midnight. Perhaps she wanted to justify the RM10,000 per table price. But even laughter has a margin of diminishing returns. A director I know defines the margin as one and a half hours.

The performance that night was held in aid of PUSAKA, an organisation started by the haughty conservationist Eddin Khoo to promote and inspire the continuation of traditional performing arts. We sat at the same table but hardly spoke a word. Maybe he is too happy.

Highlights of the night included an opera on our economy (Figure O! Figure O! Feeeeeee-ger O!); a duet with Reshmonu and Allan Perera rapping about Indians who want to be Blacks; Paula Malai Ali and Andrew Leci recreating a steamy Spanish soap opera episode dubbed over by dialogues of Hari Raya preparations.

The Instant Café Theatre provides a necessary outlet for many of us, and proves that freedom of expression and political criticism is possible in this country (until someone writes a letter to the papers). Never mind if they have to pay a bomb for it, audience members are happy just to experience this vicariously.

We can say lots if we dare. But most of the time, we don’t dare. We let others do it for us.

Someone responded to my editorial last week with this: “a reading of your editorials sometimes seem like the dreams of a romatic [sic] with little regards to realities that are impossible to change: can one actually do anything apart from rant about the atrocities of the government or the board of 8-year-olds in the national censorship board?”

Realities that are impossible to change? So I suppose the African Americans needn’t go to war, and child labourers should just quit whining.

I will submit that it is true: To rant is to acknowledge the limits of action. But words may also be the first line of action. So many people in this country think like the poster above that nobody even bothers to speak up anymore. And yes, political realities and power struggles have remained the way they are for millennium. Do we rant to change that system? Artists don’t change the system. People do. Artists just hope they move enough individuals to speak up for themselves. Are we in danger of laughing ourselves into a false sense of national security?

.. .and a Tragedy for Those who Feel

Five Letters from an Eastern Empire

Presented by Sumunda

Oct 21 – 30, The Actors Studio Bangsar

The programme booklet of this revival said that the first time Five Letters was staged it was “directed and performed” by Edwin Sumun. The facts: the first time Five Letters was staged in Malaysia, it was presented by the then new theatre company called Rep21. It was performed by Edwin Sumun, and directed BY Christopher Ling (who is presently directing the creative ministry at his church). Now, I can appreciate that there might be differences with your director, and you might even think he didn’t direct you at all. To pull off this deliberate omission in such a public way, however, is …  well, not nice lah. Why so petty and unprofessional?

That just seems counter to the spirit of compassion in this tale about an imperial poet who learns to feel for his people. When I first read this short story in the cute 60p book that Penguin issued some years back, I saw Malaysia within its allegorical fantasy empire. When it spoke of the new city constructed at the expense of the old, I thought of Putrajaya, against my old Malacca hometown.

Edwin can be a damn solid actor – for example, in Gross Indecency, directed by Rey Buono, when he was playing against type. But watching him huff and puff through the role of the poet, I couldn’t relate to anything. Edwin, as one of the four directors (including Rohaizad Suaidi, Zahim Albakri, Reza Zainal Abidin) in this undercooked broth, took complete charge of the styling of this production to its own detriment. It was stylish – brilliant designs all round. But it was stylish with nothing to say about anything else apart from “look at me!” The self-obsessed production seemed to have ignored the play’s allegorical – and therefore socio-political – elements, and had remained a fantasy tale, like the wet dream of some hallucinating bard, or a self-directing actor out to spite his previous director. This play seems to be Edwin’s fantasy of his own grandeur.

Five Letters from an Eastern Empire is a story about the people of the old city who are killed, the people (re) moved by a government when they are no longer “necessary.” Edwin is presently too caught up playing the full­-time Actor, all important and imperial, to know what it is like to be unnecessary. Perhaps now is a good time to get in touch with that again.

And for Those who neither Feel nor Think…

Orders From the Dead

Presented by TEA Theatre

Oct 29-31, MCPA Theatre, Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, KL

“The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.” – (Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage. Edited by E. Bentley. Penguin, 1968, p.66)

Antonin Artaud is mega influential in the world of theatre. Lots of people studying theatre will have to read him at some point and pretend to comprehend what he is saying. But not everyone would dare to attempt to stage the Theatre of Cruelty by having just read the above lines. Yet this is what TEA Theatre has done.

To the director’s (Milo Low) credit, we felt his cruelty. It was painful. My housemate and I walked out immediately when it was over and wondered why we didn’t do so earlier.

Orders From the Dead attempted to comment on a world suffering of wars and imbalanced power. About a dozen actors writhed, shouted, got raped, turned into monkeys, got crucified, and moaned continuously on stage for one and a half hours. They occasionally broke out into segments of ritual theatre – they banged on hand drums, to channel some tribal purity and prove their total lack of rhythm.

It was like a bunch of novice actors in a cleansing workshop. This may be great for them, but why put us through it? Opening the play with a sequence of screaming shadows against a make-shift cyclorama effectively abstracted their angst and distanced the audiences. At the end of the play, they showed a montage of video clips. They were the very ones circulating the internet that have been emailed to me and which I had opened accidentally. I never failed disabuse whoever who sent them. They are clips of Daniel Pearl and other terrorist hostages being decapitated.

Why do I need to see these images? What will I do with such information? Feel guilty about it? Fetishise over it?

Shocking us without saying anything new is sensationalism. And these video clips may shock us momentarily, but they also force us to immediately desensitise ourselves, safe with the knowledge that we are thousands of miles away from the horror. I refuse to be a part of this spectacle, obviously designed by power-hungry people – the terrorists and CNN – to manipulate me into a state of catatonic helplessness (so I do nothing and stay glued on the channel) or reactionary fear (so I vote for Bush). By becoming an audience, we too become complicit in these madmen’s theatre of cruelty. By showing us these spectacles, TEA Theatre merely furthered the terrorists’ art. The theatre in response to this should give audiences a third option: allow us to look into ourselves, into our complicity to these games and find other ways of responding.

First Published: 25.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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