Supermarket Theatre

My late father was a strong supporter of the arts, and my family heritage has always included some interaction with the creative space. I should probably state upfront that I feel passionately about arts and culture, and creative expression. I should also tell you that I was a theatre producer, and co-founded DramaLab, and so anything I say will be subjective to the extreme.

English language theatre in Malaysia seems to be pretty vibrant – there is always something on, and you can see a new play every week if you want to. But it seems something is missing. There is an element of self­ indulgence in some of the theatre that I have seen recently that borders on the narcissistic. Sumunda’s presentation of Five Letters from an Eastern Empire springs to mind. I found it difficult to be engaged because there was no theatre happening – no exposure of truth, or grappling with internal issues, no character growth or storyline. There was no acting, only a recital of words that had no meaning or resonance. A friend of mine said that it could be reviewed in a single sentence, “Dear Mother and Father, I wrote the third letter and have killed myself and thus saved the audience from any more pain.”

I recently spoke to Krishen Jit, who is in rehearsal with Zahim Albakri, on two one-act, one man plays by Huzir Sulaiman (Notes on Life and Love and Painting + The Smell of Language). He believes that a certain complacency has settled over the arts scene in recent years. He talks of a culture of “supermarket theatre” where arts practitioners try to tempt audiences with performances that will make them laugh or smile, but will not provoke them, or bring out those truths that make us recognise our shared humanity.

What’s happening here? In part, I think theatre in Malaysia has responded to the socio-political climate out there in the big world. Everything is moving towards the right, but in such a way that “if you are not with us, you are against us.” You cannot challenge because the line in the sand is so complete. It is all or nothing, and we, sadly, seem to have come up with nothing. The audience is looking for a happy pill. Something pretty, well designed, may be a little edgy so that they can feel that they have been anarchistic, but there’s nothing really too challenging or scary or moving or difficult. The audience is guilty of a certain narcissism too. And because they are paying, and we depend quite often on a good box office, we have given them what they want.

Our government has not helped. In the past few years, we have seen a movement towards silencing our freedom of expression on the most ridiculous grounds. And while the arts community has at times responded and challenged this conservatism, it seems that we are also self-censoring more than ever now. We revive old works that we know the audience responds to, and we add in flashing lights, and put up great big screens with incomprehensible and unrelated images flashing in the background to make it feel ‘arty’.

And to be honest, the arts criticism I have read in the papers is not really… stimulating. It feels like some soft white bread, fluffy, white, bland, and filled with shit, not nutrients. We are all partly guilty for bringing our arts scene to the point that reading reviews is no longer a challenge but a smooth susu pekat manis moment of sickly sweetness.

It’s strange that at a time when Kuala Lumpur is trying to be an international city, and find recognition as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated urban metropolis, DBKL hampers artistic expression and ties us up in knots with licenses and legalities. And yet rather then creating art in a parking lot, and saying fuck it, we turn around and start performing in corporate gigs, and become the useful idiots of a system that wants us around, and yet doesn’t want us to say what we should say, or contest where we need to contest, or talk about those things that make us uncomfortable and break out in a cold sweat at 2 am.

I hope this will change. The new Minister of Arts and Culture has encouraged me to believe that there will be a new approach to enabling artistic expression in this country. He is proactive in his support of the arts, and there is a feeling of a fresh clean wind, like after the heavy rains of the monsoon, sweeping through our country. This is all good, and I am glad I am going to be here for a while to see what happens.

I hope in all of this that there will be more support of the arts, resources, financially, physically, spiritually, mentally. I hope that we challenge each other to find those elements of honesty that allow us to tell the stories of our place and our space with pain and laughter and light. We are a nation that sits around at mamak stalls late into the night, and tells each other stories about hantu, corruption, true love, politics, angry drivers, waves of change. And all that in one sentence sometimes! We celebrate our difference, and fight about it. We have a sense of humour and we find our truths by exposing all our inconsistencies and irritations to one another.

There are times when I have sat in a darkened theatre, and been overwhelmed by the honesty that has been created. It transcends my daily experience and fills me with memory, longing, recognition. Art happens in a space between the audience and the performer, where a shared experience can, for a moment, create clarity and beauty.

In all of this, we need to continue to go to see theatre, and other works of art and culture. We need to support those who are brave enough to try to present truthfulness, and we need to confront those who are taking our money and running with it. We need to encourage our friends, lovers, family, enemies to come and watch and be a part of the making of culture, because culture belies the popular consciousness, and it does influence how a society works, views itself, operates, loves, destroys, lives.

And back to Krishen, Zahim and Huzir who are presenting Notes On Life & Love & Painting + The Smell Of Language at Actor’s Studio, Bangsar this week. Notes is a play that received fantastic reviews but had very low audience turn out the first time it was performed (five years ago). This is a shame because it’s a work that speaks to the life of an artist, and gives us an insight into why artists are there in the first place. The Smell of Language on the other hand is a piece that is political and familial at the same time, and exposes our fears about the consequences of saying what we need to say. Both are challenging pieces that won’t necessarily ensure a comfort level that some of us have gotten used to, but will hopefully raise the temperature a little bit in our small corner of the world. I hope you go and see this – or anything else that catches your fancy that might be a little bit different. Krishen and Zahim are both dearly beloved friends of mine, so I cannot review their work – if I tell you how wonderful they are, would you believe me? You would recognise that I experience them through my love of them, and thus be sceptical of my viewpoint. What I hope you will do, is go and see this production, and use this space, or any other you can find, to talk about and share your experience of this work of art. It’s a part of the dialogue that happens that makes art important in our lives, and that can change the way we make art, and thus the way we live.


Pia Zain was a co-founder of Dramalab. She is in the process of starting a company HegZain, a project development company. She hopes to be involved in the arts scene soon, so she can put her money where her mouth is.

First Published: 18.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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