Back to Africa

By Kakiseni

Rey Buono chides me: “If you had told me you were going to do an interview about my opinion on the KL arts scene, I would have said I don’t have the time.” But in spite of his obvious disappointment with the insularity of my tabloid questions, he kindly indulged. Until not long ago, Rey would have pulled no punches when he felt compelled to register his thoughts on the sad state of KL arts, or sloppy interview questions. But running a Performing Art programme at Sunway University College has a way of mellowing a Mat Salleh’s tongue. His thoughts are now mainly with his students, and he is careful not to jeopardise his reputation and theirs.

Last year, in an effort to give his students a chance to work on a small-scale production, Rey staged Tony Kushner’s The Illusion at the college’s Roof Top Theatre. But what the students really need is experience with professional theatre practitioners. For this reason, Rey is staging acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, starring the incredible Jo Kukathas, with the seen-it-all Thor Kah Hoang and the feisty Jerrica Lai. Besides working with the pro actors, Rey’s students also get to work backstage with pros like lighting designer Mac Chan and set designer Raja Maliq.

The play is based on the life of Helen Martins, an eccentric South African artist living in New Bethesda who, after the death of her husband, began a period of explosive creativity that resulted in strange sculptures inhabiting her garden. Her behaviour estranged her from the community and inspired the concerns of a priest (Thor Kah Hoang) who wants her moved into a nursing home, and the friendship of a young girl of a different race (Jerrica Lai).

In 1992, Athol Fugard made his directorial debut with a film version of The Road to Mecca, starring Kathy Bates as the younger girl. The 60-year-old playwright, known for his radical work addressing injustices in South Africa, had had to find his own voice and literary relevance again after the abolishment of apartheid in his country. What else can an artist say when his main themes are resolved in society? Perhaps, the play is also asking: How do we keep the inner fire burning?

Rey, who may be less biting these days but certainly no less burning, is constantly trying to inspire us to think about the power of art and our need for more artists, and bolder ones too. To that end, he stages plays and runs a school that may eventually provide us with more practitioners. Ultimately, Rey is too tired to opine about the KL arts scene because for now, at least, he is impatient to talk about anything else but The Road to Mecca. So, without much ado…

Pang: Thor directed Jo before. Jo directed Jericca before. You directed with Jo before. Isn’t this a sign of KL art scene being terribly small? What happens when directors act with those they had directed before? How do you use these relationships?

Rey: Well, Pang, let me say one thing up front. Yes, the KL theatre scene is small, and yes, some actors suffer from overexposure – but Jo Kukathas isn’t one of them. A performance by her in a major dramatic role is an event to be treasured. Her last such appearance on a local stage was well over a year ago in Election Day, and before that, you have to go back to 2001. Jo is an actress of international stature. Her performances in New York and Tokyo have received the highest acclaim. Critics described her performance of From Table Mountain to Teluk lntan at the New York Fringe as “stunning” and “astonishing”. And before that, of course, there was the unforgettable Atomic Jaya.

So The Road to Mecca is a must-see. All the more so because, in this production, Jo K doesn’t merely act, she interacts with two other exceptional, and rarely seen, actors – Jerrica Lai and Thor Kah Hoang. So we get a chance to experience the brilliant chemistry Jo brings to her ICT revues in a great play written by Athol Fugard, one of the outstanding dramatists of the twentieth-century.

So, where were we? Ah, yes, the English-speaking theatre scene in KL. Yes – quite small one. The number of working and practicing actors can be counted on one’s fingers and toes. We do see the same faces on stage over and over. Now with the opening of KLPAC, two more venues will be “in play” – so the talent and resources are about to be stretched even thinner. Hopefully, this new facility will attract new blood and inspire young people to take up careers in performance.

As for the “incestuousness” of the scene, there is more than a bit of that. Everybody knows everybody. This can make things claustrophobic. Whenever you work with people, they have a history with each other – good or bad. This can be to your advantage, but it also can make things way too cozy or prickly. You also get the feeling that every move you make is scrutinized by everybody and will be grist for the gossip mill. Very bitchy lah – including yours truly!

What were the qualities of Thor, Jo and Jericca that you thought were suitable to the roles you cast them in?

They all auditioned extremely well. Jo and Jerrica, they have tremendous range and professionalism which I knew well from working with them before. For me, Thor really fits the part. His dryness, flintiness, and sense of irony seem perfect for Marius. I wanted to avoid a plummy “preacherly” type in the mold of the Anglican clergy I grew up with. As for Jo, what’s there to say? She shares so many qualities of the actual Helen Martins. She has created so much magic, power, and presence on Malaysian stages: Atomic Jaya, Table Mountain, Election Day, and of course, the sorely missed ICT revues. Miss Helen is a hugely demanding part that requires everything an actress has, and Jo has so much – and is so generous. I also respect her artistic judgment, which I knew about from our work together on Merchant of Venice. At every rehearsal, she has ideas and insights that help me as a director. Like a great driver on a demanding racetrack, she sees the course from the cockpit, I don’t have to tell her exactly when to shift. We work as colleagues.

Including Gross Indecency, you would have done two plays based on real life artists. Is there something compelling about these lives, or this particular one, that demanded your artistic response?

I saw Road to Mecca on Broadway – with Athol Fugard as Marius. I didn’t think much of the production, but the play really got to me, not only because of its themes, but its language! It’s incandescent!  I guess what really does appeal to me as a director and actor are plays with rich, performable language and powerful theatricality. I also want to do plays that really say something striking and important to me. Sometimes, a distinction is made between plays that are “entertaining” and plays that are “arty”. I think this is false, and very patronizing to Malaysian audiences.

Presumably, as a teacher of theatre, you teach all sorts of acting methods. But do you have a preferred method? Which would you be using for this play?

The preferred method is the one that fits the particular play. There are many styles of performance running the gamut from total naturalism to circus. For this play, I am using heightened realism, a style based on method acting, but moving away into a kind of expressionism.

“Heightened realism” in the case of this play means that actors perform with a realistic base, but move at times into something more intense, less mundane. So the play has moments where language and dramatic effect are more akin to classical theatre – Shakespeare or Greek tragedy – intensified and heightened. It’s like you’re sitting in a front parlour having tea, and suddenly you find yourself in a cathedral.

The important thing in all acting is to make it truthful and specific, and to avoid clichés. As one of my theatrical “real people” said: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Part of the aim of this production is to give your students experience working with professionals. What, in your opinion, are the crucial differences between the professional and amateur theatre practitioners in Malaysia?

Well, it’s not that professionals are paid big bucks! The crucial difference, to me, is discipline. Professionals must have it, and do have it. Amateurs have attitude.

Please tell us more about the Astro Shaw scholarship. How did you manage to get such a scholarship off the ground? What kind of student are you all looking for?

Well, just like Joe (Hasham) and Faridah (Merican) at KLPAC, the management of Astro-Shaw, realize that they must take serious steps actively to develop professional talent in Malaysia. There is a huge demand in the industry for content providers who can really do the work. DB Nihalsinga, and his successor as Head of Astro Shaw, Tengku Anuar Mussaddad, have worked very closely with me to help promote my school as one way to fill this demand.

Shows like Malaysian Idol and Akademi Fantasia give the impression that all you need to have a career in performance is pluck, luck, and a pretty face. Ayoh! not so! Must work, must study!

I’m looking for students, not just for this scholarship, but for my school, who are passionate about what they want from their careers and their lives – who want to express, who want to learn, who want to light lights, not just see their names in lights.

You mention that this play has been sitting in your thoughts for a while. I am curious to know what other plays are sitting in there.

Well, I’m dying to do another Shakespeare. I also have a musical up my sleeve. Don’t want to say any more than that for the time being.

What is your mecca?

Gray’s Papaya, a hot-dog stand on Broadway and 72nd Street.

First Published: 19.07.2005 on Kakiseni

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