By Sharon Bakar
Life Sdn Bhd 3 began with each member of the cast of thirteen bounding forward to introduce themselves and declare proudly, to audience cheers, “I am Malaysian!” National identity has, of course, to embrace ethnic and sexual diversity – there is no such thing as the “average” Malaysian. Yet you have to wonder how far these actors were representative of their audience, given that a large proportion of the cast were “lain-lains”, of mixed-parentage or gay. (Gavin Yap’s “I haven’t even told my family I’m straight!” monologue at the beginning of the play acted as a clever foil for the latter.)
It’s a tried and tested formula: take a group of actors, encourage them to dig through their own memories and experiences, derive a script from their stories, and then shape those reminiscences into a piece of polished theatre. This is the third outing for The Actors Studio’s successful Life Sdn Bhd series, conceived and directed by Faridah Merican, and dramaturged and scripted by Joe Hasham. Part 3 showcases original “lifers” Ben Tan, Patrick Teoh and Susan Lankester and new faces Nell Ng, Reza Zainal Abidin, Fang Chyi, Christian Orow and Mohd. Sobri Anuar.
Tickling the funny bone was the play’s main mission (the programme notes promised we would “smile, chuckle, laugh, perhaps think a little … “) and humour there was a-plenty, though sometimes it was a little forced. And I can’t say I really appreciated the numerous sanitary pad jokes or revelations about first erections. But the best moments of the show were those that did make us think. And not just “a little”.
It takes a lot of courage to bare your soul in public. Several of the stories were poignant and heartfelt including Samantha Schubert’s account of adoption and being adopted, and Andrew Tan’s story about bringing his male lover home for reunion dinner and his subsequent confession that he is HIV-positive.
But the most moving monologue of the evening was from Ben Tan who talked about how he lost his Danish lover to brain cancer. He made a particularly strong case for official recognition of gay relationships, pointing out how enlightened Denmark is in this respect compared to other parts of the world. He ended with a furious “Fuck you Bush!” referring to the US president’s uncompromising stand on gay marriage, but surely such outrage should be directed at a much broader target?
Fang Chyi as the only gay woman of the cast could have put herself on the line a little more. Her contribution – an account of picking up a beautiful woman, felt a little lightweight, and I would have liked to hear more about how it is to be a gay woman in this country.
Changes in pace and tone are vital in a production of this kind. So, songs and dance sequences, including an amusing medley of nursery rhymes and a lively bhangra, were employed to provide moments of light relief. And I very much enjoyed Fang Chyi’s plaintive rendition of ‘Yue Liang Dai Piao Wo Di Xing’ (The Moon Represents my Heart).
There were many moments where I could identify personally with the stories being told. Having huge feet (by Malaysian shoe store standards anyway) like Reza Zainal Abidin, I know only too well the feeling of total abandon when confronted with shoes your size in shops overseas. I’m also certain I had Patrick Teoh’s grumpy fat examiner the first time I failed my driving test. Like Mary George, I nurse a childhood disappointment to my soul (She didn’t get to go to the fair; I was denied ballet lessons). And I knew exactly what Schubert meant when she talked about Malaysians asking blunt and prying questions (In her case: “You white, your baby black, ah?” In mine: “You got no kids ah? You using birth control ah?” or “You or your husband got the problem? Seen doctor yet?” repeated just about every time I get into conversation with a taxi driver).
I have to make special mention of Ari Ratos who is hilarious even before he opens his mouth (What a pity no-one makes silent movies these days!). He recounted how he and his siblings would filch money from his parents’ wallets, and how he escaped getting caught.
If any actor stole the show though, it was Sobri Anuar with the account of his sister’s wedding with nine pondans in attendance, and how his Indian mother was discriminated against by his father’s Malay family (she had to give birth on the floor, while her sister-in-law delivered in the best bedroom). Sobri has tremendous charm and was so natural he could have been telling the story in your living room.
It is this sense of intimacy which was obviously missing from much of the show. Many of the cast sounded a little too ‘theatrical’, even when telling their own stories, as if in the act of transferring them to stage they had become somehow disassociated from them.
Perhaps a smaller cast would have helped create greater intimacy. And much as I like the way the performance was staged with the cast sitting around on a variety of typically Malaysian stools, I found the presence of all the cast members on stage a distraction during more serious moments.
The play could also have benefited from a stronger thematic link to hold the stories together. Was it true, as Samantha Schubert said at the beginning, that the theme was supposed to be about ‘family’ (either in a literal or extended sense)? And if so, why were so many of the stories not about this? Some stories were so very much stronger than others that the overall production seemed a little patchy overall. A more careful weeding of less meaty content would have strengthened the production.
First Published: 29.04.2005 on Kakiseni