They’ve Theatres, We’ve Monuments

At the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2003 last year, sitting next to Ghafir Akbar, a fellow nominee for the Best Solo Performer, I was preparing myself to, basically, not win. So when my name was announced, I didn’t hear it at first. I only realised it when my husband Siva turned towards me in open-mouthed wonder while Ghafir nearly wrenched my arm off. I literally staggered on to the stage, received the trophy from the Australian High Commissioner, made my speech in a daze (and forgot to thank my fellow actors! Forgive me…) and somnambulated back to my seat. At which point Ghafir asked me, “Do you know what you won?” “Why?” I asked in puzzlement. When he told me that I had won an all expense paid trip to attend the Melbourne Arts Festival sponsored by the Australian High Commission, I literally flew to Alpha Centauri and back.

The 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival, which celebrated the Voice, was a 17 days long series of events starting on 7th October 2004. In celebrating the voice in 2004 the programme dealt with the “voice” in dance, theatre and music. Even though my all expense paid trip was to last for only five days, I knew I was in for a treat.

It’s Cold in Technology Heaven

The cross-media stage performance Alladeen was quite extraordinary in its use of technology. The performance, featuring actors from New York and London, had lavish, huge split-screen projections of technologically enhanced cities and workplaces. It encompassed the collaborative works of Artistic Director of The Builders Association, Marianne Weems (director of the piece) a music video (directed by Ali Zaidi, of motiroti and featuring music by Shri) and a web project, (directed by Ali Zaidi}.

A Bangalore call-centre is the link, where bright young Indian workers are trained not only to sound like Americans, but to project false cultural identities that disguise who and where they really are – even to the point of being able to give road-map directions to someone lost in northern California! Who is really lost? The person in America or the Indian workers required to sublimate everything Indian in them and “live” American lives while at work?

The split-screen projections showed actual interviews with Bangalore call-centre workers, spliced with actors being interviewed for jobs at a call-centre, on the job training to speak American English, and the beginnings of a love interest. These simultaneous projections took me to technology heaven but left me strangely cold. Technology had overwhelmed the show. The script was really nothing to speak for; the language was mundane and simplistic. The acting was competent and the Oscar went to the footage from real call-centre workers.

The use of text/song, in the two dance shows I saw, in Once, a solo by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, using a recording of the amazing Joan Baez in concert, and in Mozart/Concert Arias, with sopranos singing Mozart arias while a fleet of dancers moved, was beautiful. Once, performed on an absolutely bare stage, took a minimalist approach. The choreography, very post-modern, was pared down to the bone and seemed to pay special attention to the relationship between dance and music. The occasional inaudible declamations by Keersmaeker were lost on me and the “text” that came to the fore was Joan Baez’s.

In sharp contrast Mozart/Concert Arias was utterly decadent in its lavish use choreography, costume, set, lighting and three stunning sopranos supported by the Australian Branderburg Orchestra. This lush production explored the fusion of dramatic quality and dance induced by Mozart’s music and underpinned by an operatic text. Both programmes were quite beautiful but in my opinion did not necessarily blaze new trails in dance.

Marion d’Cruz with her dancers was exploring text in the late 80’s and 90’s and did some ground-breaking work. Malaysian choreographers today are doing some exciting and challenging explorations in our thriving, diverse, multi-cultural dance scene. But we can still afford to sharpen our skills in technique and choreography.

Gasping for Breath in Good Theatre

Ubung, a Belgian play directed by Josse De Pauw, was unsettling. And I don’t think it was meant to be. On a bare stage, lined on either side with long racks of clothes, six children watch a black and white film with the sound turned down. The film showed six middle class adults at a dinner party. Dressed exactly as the adults, the six children recreate the soundtrack from the big screen, dubbing the adult’s voices and mimicking the action. In the programme notes we are told that in this performance the director Josse De Pauw “has created a chilling commentary on the harmful lessons we unwittingly pass down the generations”.

The dinner party on film degenerates into drunken brawls by husbands, who just found out about their spouses’ infidelity. I was uncomfortable with the children enacting these scenes and felt that the point the director was trying to make was lost. The whole thing seemed to exploit the children on stage. My mind kept going back to the news reports of paedophile networks discovered in Belgium!

Where theatre is concerned, I feel Malaysian practitioners have hit the horse latitudes. There is little that is intellectually engaging or challenging. Unlike the dance scene, there is very little experimentation; we (and I include myself in this) are not taking risks. We can tread water, tire and sink into the calm, or we can strike out for the horizon and we either die in the attempt or find the trade winds which will carry us to new and exciting ports.

Via Dolorosa performed by the non-actor, playwright David Hare was extremely powerful. A monologue of Hare’s journey to Israel and Palestine, it was quite stunning in its simplicity – bare proscenium stage, a small, brown desk with a pile of paper, a jug of water and a glass from which the actor took occasional sips. I was struck by the brilliant artless writing on a subject matter of desperate importance – the ongoing tragedy of the Middle East. The contrast he sets up between descriptions of Israelites in their kibbutz, sitting around the swimming pool discussing how the intifada has deprived their lives, with scenes of the West Bank ruins where Palestinians stays, and then later scenes of London, driving home from Heathrow, reveals very stirring ironies of our world.

But the play was not a rabid attack on any one side, challenging instead the audience to decide for itself. It reinforced for me the sheer power of good theatre; how it grabs your gut and mind in a vice grip that leaves you gasping for breath. It also reminded me of the sad state of playwriting in Malaysia.

After 50 years of independence, we don’t seem to have structures in place that can encourage people to write for the stage. One reason for the many Australian plays is the work of groups like Playbox Theatre. The artistic directors of this company believed in supporting Australian writings, having fostered top Australian playwrights. The same thing happened in New York and London in the 50’s and 60’s. Quite a number of organisations in these countries were supported or subsidised by government funding of some kind or another.

There is a dire need to invest in playwrights, both in terms of creating new ones and getting the ones already writing to keep writing, but in new and interesting ways. As one former critic was heard to say, “We have become introspective in our concerns.” Navel watching is only good for the watcher and is boring for the audience. We really need to think more deeply and become articulate in the issues we are dealing with, about the shaping of performance and about the ways we talk about performance.

A number of our English language theatre companies, like Five Arts Centre, Drama Lab and Actors Studio, have been nurturing writers to develop new writings, and then staging their works. But we have not reached a point of critical mass where playwriting becomes self-sustaining.

Small Stage in Big Palace

The highlight of the whole festival for me was the absolutely mesmerising performance by the Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett in Provenance (the story of the origin of a painting and its ownership). Provenance spans the 20th century and revolves around Pity (short for Pittance) Beane, a graduate student, brought up by two gay parents, obsessed with a mysterious painting of a beautiful, androgynous boy called Tender. Pity sets off on a quest to Europe in search of the provenance of the painting. The trail leads her to a brothel in Vienna where she encounters a cast of fascinating characters, and a web of secrets surrounding the painting.

Burkett’s gallery of characters (he made the puppets, wrote the text and designed the set and costumes) hangs behind ornate wardrobe doors. As the story develops, he opens the doors and pulls out superb marionettes, floating miniature masks, hand puppets and dolls. His depiction of rape during war using puppets burned itself into my mind. This sombre piece deals with the issue of beauty and plainness and touches on sexual ambiguities and philosophy, questioning how we become what we are, how society perceives us, and how we serve those perceptions.

After five days at the festival what did I come away with? I wish as a country we would invest more in human capital (without fear or favour), and less on grandiose infrastructure, as though infrastructure will make up for lack of content.

I was struck by the theatre spaces I saw in Melbourne. I saw traditional theatre spaces with proscenium stages and boxes along the sides, which catered for large audience numbers, very much like the Panggung Bandaraya and more modern spaces. From the outside these modern theatre spaces are not architectural wonder! Obviously money was not wasted on the appearance of the buildings but spent instead on the interior design of the theatre spaces. Compare this to our Istana Budaya.

A huge amount of money (RM210 million) was spent on making Istana Budaya look “good” from the outside. For what appears to be a really huge building I have always been flabbergasted as to why it appears to have only one theatre space.

Every time I go see a show there I feel like I am in an Air Asia flight. I am small sized but when I am seated my knees almost brush the seats in front of me. I wonder how we got the Istana Budaya we have. Is it bad architects? Or just a lack of knowledge about designing theatre spaces on the part of the planners? (I bet tax payers’ money was spent on junkets abroad to check out theatre designs round the world) OR was it political interference – politicians putting their noses in where they had no business? I leave you to figure this out.

At the end of the day, we can build as many beautiful theatres as we want but if we don’t invest in people and talent to create work to fill these spaces then all we are left with are empty shells that stand as ‘monuments’ to our lack of foresight and creativity.

This “festival spa” had been an all too short luxurious indulgence and I thank the Australian High Commission for the wonderful opportunity. I hope they continue to support the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in this way and wish others would take a leaf out of their book.

“Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world” – Mathew Arnold


Anne James is an actress, dancer, teacher and director who has worked actively in the Kuala Lumpur theatre scene for the last 17 years. She won the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2003 for Best Solo Performer in Theatre for her role in Leow Puay Tin’s ‘Dinner for Two in the Best of Restaurants’, in Five Arts Centre’s 7 Ten. She was last seen in Rohaizad Suaidi’s Ops Ophelia – A Fashion Opera.

First Published: 10.03.2005 on Kakiseni

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