To Bitch or Not to Bitch

In the current spirit of fulsome, if not full, disclosure I should admit to a couple of things. First is that Faridah Merican had originally cast me as Hamlet in this play but during rehearsals we had a heated disagreement over padded leotards and Gavin Yap immediately swooped in to replace me.

Secondly, I received a call from Kakiseni’s editor inviting me to review this particular Hamlet. Turns out that the editor/trix knew nothing of my having been cast as Hamlet; in fact, I discovered how surprisingly little interest there is in my career altogether.

On the appointed night (Sat Feb 5, 2005) at the The Actors Studio Bangsar theatre, Kakiseni’s editor emerged wraithlike beside my ear and sibilated, “And then it started like a guilty thing, upon a fearful summons… ”

Moving away, I encountered TAS’s gracious hosts, Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham, and hugged them gently around their colostomy bags. Besides them and a few art-crones like Marion D’Cruz and Anne James, the foyer on that Saturday night was milling with a few dozen young people – mainly students, I surmise from their age, and art students from the casual boho-look (tudung and denim for example) being affected. The buzz in the crowd had a youthful pitch. “A nipping and eager air.” It was optimistic and supportive – the excitement and anticipation before the concert of a good friend. Indeed several members of the cast are students at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan. And from what I overheard in the foyer, Joseph Gonzales who is Ghost and Player in this production, is everyone’s favourite guru.

The marketing of this production had been basic; it was a short run after all (It’s scheduled for a restaging soon – ed.). Inside I would later find the design spare and pleasantly undemanding. This time Faridah’s Hamlet has a roll-up-sleeves-and-do-it quality that deja-vued me right back to the makeshift days of the drowned Box. The production was so simple as to make disparaging it mean-spirited. The set was a series of steps and platforms of various heights on which the energetic cast ran on and off. The lighting was also artless, which is so not like the brilliant show-off Mac Chan, but in this case fitting perfectly. There were judicious edits and it was one of the best-paced Hamlets I’ve ever seen. Faridah obviously has an instinct for the different rhythms inherent in the play (Dr Johnson called Hamlet ‘amusing’ meaning it held our interest with its variety).

Percussive sounds helped set the mood, played by John Hagedorn and Salim Dastan. Absolutely right, I thought hypnotic yet virile, as if entering a young man’s febrile dream.

So when I watch a Hamlet, I look for the production’s original notions, how it uses this hoary soap opera to present new, unexpected ideas.

While the actors attempted local voice, their costumes were of a different locale – leather trench coats, rubber boots and such. This anomaly lead to the assumption that the costuming was mostly for stylistic effect, and there is nothing wrong with that. Guns were used instead of swords – this wasn’t just a ‘modern touch’ but also spared the actors from pain-in-the-ass fencing lessons. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these choices but it must be admitted that when elements don’t hold together it allows the intellect to drift. But aside from the clothes and guns there were few other ‘elements’. It was a pretty straight take on the play and all that’s left to do was enjoy the playing.

Here’s a truism. The people who know you most are the least likely to appreciate your performances. ‘More than kin and less than kind’ indeed. My friends, when pressed for comments, will say things like “that colour wasn’t good on you,” or “you should’ve padded your leotards.” They know my tools too well – my voice, expressions, gestures – and familiarity does breed condescension. Of course there is acting which is plainly awful (not evident in this play) but judging a performance is like judging a personality. It can be hurtful, but it’s also too much a matter of individual taste to really matter. I hope my run-down of the actors will be taken for what it’s worth and nothing more, okay dudes?

Gavin Yap, being physically attractive, made a physically attractive Hamlet. When his Hamlet bent over in snug black jeans I knew I didn’t stand a chance. His Hamlet has his swagger – the swagger of a junior rooster. Yap’s talent lies in his ability to internalise his characters, they speak through him. His Hamlet sounded authentic in that he spoke with the authentic voice of Gavin Yap. And because there is often a not-quite-convincing but endearing bluster to Gavin’s own personality, his Hamlet often sounded, most appropriately, both brave and insecure.

Christina Orow is one hot MILF (theoretically of course) but an extremely intelligent one. So if I found her Gertrude a little disconnected from the events around her I must assume it was intentional. Still, for other reasons, this isn’t the role to highlight Orow the actress. I liked that Reza Zainal Abidin played Claudius with a lightness which subverted the expected villainy. But in making his usurper king positively frolicsome, he somewhat de-sexed the man. Let’s face it, without dirty little undercurrents, his relationship with Gertrude merely looked best-friendish.

This production’s Polonius had an added advantage, for as a matter of personal taste I’d enjoy watching Patrick Teoh read a parking ticket. Plus, which KL actor doesn’t want to see Pat shot through the arass? (couldn’t resist, sorry) In the play’s history, Polonius has been played both sage and silly and all points in between but Teoh did what he always does. He doesn’t wear motivation on his sleeve but intrigues you with implications. He is the craftiest of exhibitionists, making you look at him to try and figure out what is being concealed. How does Patrick do it? From close observation, I reckon that it’s just a matter of deepening the voice and maintaining a single expression for entire scenes, but I guess being a bit of scam doesn’t make it any less of a gift. The same can be said of Nell Ng. Her bag of acting tricks has instant impact and having her do small, quirky roles is a no-brainer. When you watch an actor and you literally wish to see more, then she must be doing something right.

Sharifah Amani will be amazing one day, it’s in her genes. Naturally embodying Ophelia’s loveliness, Nani also gave her a fragile alertness, a brittle focus. Then she showed how easily this sensitivity can be shattered.

Unhappily for me, when she ran on for her crazy-scene, the audience laughed. Even sadder, it looked like that was precisely what the production was going for. When the ghost first appeared, he did a vibrant dance which included a few Kung Fu moves. It was all very mock-virile and patently tickled the audience. Besides being an odd time to go for a laugh, the problem lies in that there is nothing in the play consistent with that movement, nothing to indicate that the King had been a Bruce Lee kinda guy. Since the moment seemed merely to pander to the skills of Joseph Gonzalez, one can’t help but fall into the same uncritical mood of friendly indulgence.

No indulgence is necessary towards the performance of Wan Kanari as Horatio. I felt he did an excellent job under the circumstances. There are several ‘best-friend’ roles in Shakespeare’s works – they’re ho-hum parts (and I’ve played them all). They’re like probationary roles – a test for actors who haven’t done enough or aren’t handsome enough to play hero. Wan Kanari plays Horatio with grace and facility, transforming this best-friend into the eye of this murderous storm. He felt like my proxy in the play – and a respite from it. However, not to take anything away from this very good actor, it could have been because of a disengagement from the main characters.

Laertes is the rival, the other guy in the duel, the anti-best friend. This Laertes as played by Khairil Ridzuan Saharudin didn’t try to match Hamlet’s intensity and swagger. At best we sense a mild-mannered man being pushed to the edge. I can’t decide if this was an especially nuanced interpretation or an underwhelming one. Still, Khairil, as well as Sobri and Eri in their multiple bit roles, are pretty comfy onstage.

In fact, every time one of the Malay-speaking actors came on, they brought along a sense of ease for me. They allowed the comfort of my listening without effort. Obviously, this is simply because the play is in Malay.

See, here’s my main problem. I still can’t understand why Shakespeare should be translated at all. Who was it that said that poetry is what’s lost in translation? For me Shakespeare is not just poetry but an apotheosis of the English language (although semantically incorrect I believe there were other apotheoses – in Joyce perhaps – and there will be others – maybe, hopefully, in the English syncretised by writers of former colonies).

On top of that I thought this translation clumsy and unimaginative. For example, “Bertindak atau tidak bertindak?” is the clunky substitute for “To be or not to be?” whereas for me, Hamlet’s plain existential question translates more powerfully as “Jadi atau tak jadi?”

We can understand how Shakespeare’s texts have much of their magic in the language they were written in – even scripture, songlike in its original language, sounds pedantic in translation. In any case, without the glorious, perfect lines, we’re just watching an ancient soap opera. Furthermore, the translation hamstrings the leads with no good reason for the challenge. Gavin raced through his lines, unfamiliar with the inflectionary options available to him in Malay, and seemed relieved to reach each full stop. And poor Christina Orow stumbled with her words, gradually eroding the intent behind them.

The conventional theatre wisdom here has always been to ignore accents altogether, as if our cultural context demands an extra suspension of disbelief Even, for example, if the Brothers Karamazoff sounded like they were raised separately – in Perth, Slough and Muncie. We say that it’s all about available resources but we don’t mention that it’s also about extra work – accents are hard, man. But in reality, we do hear the accents. And, even if subliminally, we always have to make sense of them.

Horatio’s Kelantanese accent and Ophelia’s Penang one did more than get a brainless giggle from the house, they made the characters warmly accessible. But the specificity of these local accents also drew attention to everybody else’s accents. We hear protagonists speak with Californian vowels or Aussie-Greek consonants while smaller parts are spoken ‘locally’ and identifiably. As my brain tried to find a rationale for these discrepancies and found none in the scenario or dramaturgy, the conclusion can only be this – on Life’s stage, the mixed-race or the foreign-educated actors will always get the leads.

Which is ironic since the only possible reason I can think of for Faridah Merican choosing a translation was to mount a production that is inclusive of Malay-theatre practitioners. Any desire, let alone attempt, to minimise our schismatics must be applauded. And quite frankly, that Saturday night, the audience felt neither melayu-­speaking nor mat salleh-speaking. So for that intent and purpose, this production was successful. But with awkward mat salleh-speaking stars and smooth melayu-speaking supporting roles, this Hamlet brings with it the unspoken, irrational hierarchy of local (commercial) theatre. So, in a way, this attempt at solution also displays an uncomfortable symptom.

In the end though, it was a problem only with me. It just wasn’t interactive enough for me – curmudgeonly, I demand a Hamlet to demand rigor from me. Saturday night’s audience loved the production though. The playful, indulgent, Box-like spirit was perfectly pitched to its intended young constituency. It de-mythified a theatre Icon, made Hamlet fun and local and full of good friends.

So here’s the checklist. Was it Hamlet? Sure. Was it Shakespeare? Not really, more Charles dan Mary Lamb. Was it enjoyed? Indubitably.

First Published: 14.02.2005 on Kakiseni

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