By Jeremy Mahadevan
If you go to the Kakiseni.com event listing for Romi and Joolee dan lain-lain and read the user comments, you’ll find people have been largely appreciative of the play, the only point of contention being a sort of mini Omar Sharif-Barbra Streisand controversy involving some silly hang-ups certain people have about a Malay actor wearing a cross and playing a friar. Personally, I hadn’t even noticed that the friar was a Muslimin since I was too busy being impassive.
Now, I can’t remember ever having experienced Faridah Merican’s direction in the past, but I do remember going for a production in which she made a cameo appearance. It was a glorified school play, I hated it and she appeared at the very end as God. What I’m trying to say here is, of course, that I’m not in the ideal position to provide a knowledgeable evaluation of her work. I can’t say that the problems with Romi and Joolee are systemic, indicative of some greater flaw somewhere outside the bounds of the KL Performing Arts Centre. I remember being often frustrated in my early days as a theatre reviewer for the NST, when we’d get told not to be too scathing because Malaysian theatre needs supporting, despite the fact that many productions were and are, in fact, rubbish.
From a technical standpoint, Faridah Merican is a perfectly able director. It’s not easy to organise the cacophony and chaos that frame a good farce, so she deserves credit for the fact that most of Romi and Joolee had actors in the right places, doing the right things. She must also have fostered a well-judged mood backstage, so that the actors were clearly having fun, but not too much fun. Of course, the actors deserve mention here – all were good enough, and some were excellent, particularly Maya Tan Abdullah and Reza Zainal Abidin. Apart from a few bad Indian accents here and there, I can’t really fault any of the performers.
The material, though, is a different story. Or rather, it isn’t – it approximates every other Shakespeare-based farce or burlesque that has been done over the ages, shouldering debts to everything from Moulin Rouge to The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Of course, the key gimmick here is that things have been Malaysianised and so on. But what this results in is exhaustive use of certain joke templates, such as the Shakespearian vs. Local Dialect joke, repeated just about every three minutes throughout the show. One character will begin a line in Old Bardish, the other will respond with furrowed brows and vacant mouth, whereupon the line will be rephrased in Manglish, thus constructing a circus out of a one-trick pony. Thanks to the actors it was mostly funny, but none of it’s really inventive, none of it really matters, and contrary to what some people would have you believe, good comedy always matters.
Which brings me rather neatly to a user comment on this site, posted in response to a different event listing – that of The Odd Couple (Female Version), which played in the Actors Studio Bangsar under the direction of Joe Hasham. The comment in question involved comedy and high art, and whether or not we ought to praise things that have intellectual aspirations whilst denigrating that which is done purely for fun. The Odd Couple (Female Version) happens to be particularly suited to this issue, because I can think of no other reason for its existence apart from playwright Neil Simon wanting to have a bit of fun. Well, there’s money too, but then he is the world’s most financially successful playwright, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that front.
Anyway, in the sixties he wowed Broadway with his play about two polar roommates, a slob and a neatnik, who end up discovering that they can’t stand each others’ quirks. Then he successfully transitioned his tale to the cinema, in a film that immortalised the comic abilities of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Then came the successful TV series, and then, in 1985, for some reason Simon decided to dress the entire play up with the genders on back to front.
The snob in anybody will immediately shriek in horror at this, since the guy didn’t even bother to come up with an inventive new name for this new version. Instead he stuck with the famous phrase that he is, apparently, very proud of having introduced into the vernacular, choosing to make this version stand out by tacking on an unsightly parenthesis. It’s a good analogy for the play, because basically it’s stuff we’ve all seen before, but by the way, just for clarification, the lead roles were female this time.
Joe Hasham’s interpretation of the play is remarkably similar, in some ways, to what his spouse was up to across town at the KLPAC, in that my response would be a shrug and a “so what?”. As far as his Odd Couple is concerned, I came, I saw, I left. It was entirely unaffecting, as if nothing of import had happened. I carried absolutely nothing from it except hunger and the need to take a leak. This is where I’d differ with the user comment I mentioned earlier – it’s argued that just because theatre is fun and inconsequential, doesn’t make it bad. I would tend to believe that theatre can be fun, but as long as there is no sense of consequence or import, at least within the on-stage world, I won’t care about the characters or what happens to them, and that is most certainly bad.
Some of the blame here has to go to the actors. Samantha Schubert did a remarkable job with the obsessive-compulsively neat Florence, since she seems less like the audience’s collective scolding mother and more like a genuinely abnormal, and hence cruelly funny, person. The rest of the cast, though, only lived up to their tasks momentarily. The snappy rhythm and deftness required to maintain the humourous tension of a modern comedy was lost, and instead any scene involving more than two people was palpable as a bunch of actors delivering lines.
I found, worryingly, that the jokes that work best on Malaysian audiences always involve slapstick and buffoonery. Even The Odd Couple had a few cringe-inducing moments of dancing and prancing, clear missteps by Joe Hasham. Those were the only points at which he tried too hard. Why this reliance on low humour worries me, I’m not sure, but I know it does. Maybe I am a snob, after all. I could spin theories about higher or lower forms of comedy that approximate true comedy in differing degrees. But comedy’s comedy, after all, whether or not you care about what happens. In any case, slapstick and buffoonery backbone the best bits of Romi and Joolee, so they can’t be that bad, right? Apart from the slapstick, a lot of it seemed to try too hard to impress, while professing not to try and impress at all.
Maybe that’s why The Odd Couple worked better than Romi and Joolee. Joe Hasham’s direction, perhaps stemming simply from more directorial experience, was more relaxed, more in tune with the fact that all he needed to do was provide something funny, and maybe a bit stylish. He wasn’t trying so hard to place postmodern meaningfulness (meaninglessness?) within the humour, and as a result he ended up presenting the more sophisticated work, which shoves nothing in your face. The Odd Couple can be inoffensive to an anaemic degree, but it’s better than sitting through an hour and a half of “This is crazy! It’s wacky! It’s loony! Perverse! Clever! Irreverent! Cheeky! Witty!” type shenanigans.
As a final example, I offer the one segment of The Odd Couple that can be said to contain a theatre in-joke. This would be the bit where Zahim Albakri was substituted into the script for some man that Florence thinks is attractive. This kind of thing can easily be skipped over by the rare audience member who has no idea who Zahim Albakri is. Romi and Joolee, on the other hand, communicates so often with the local theatre scene, always in a gleefully lascivious winking manner, that it quickly becomes tiresome. The references to Eurasians, Datuks, Patricks, city councils and so forth firmly root the performance in the here and now, making it doubly inconsequential for anyone who isn’t firmly clued in. Furthermore, the links to Shakespeare seem simply there for convenience, perhaps because the material is written with the mistaken assumption that pastiches are meant to mean nothing at all – when in fact they’re meant to mean so many things that it’s difficult to pin down any of their meanings.
Jeremy Mahadevan contributes to NST.
First Published: 25.08.2005 on Kakiseni