By Jerome Kugan
Written in 1952, at a time when Europe was intellectually paralysed by World War Two, Les Chaises (The Chairs), by the Theatre of the Absurd’s posterboy Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994), conveys the horrors of the dehumanisation of the individual and the community in Europe as a result of unchecked modernisation. Its Absurdist depiction of the defacement of the individual and the almost deliberate historical amnesia, as embodied by its two characters who play mind games that lead nowhere, throws so much of what Europe (and the rest of modern civilisation) had become in sharp contrast against the noble progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. The Absurdist contention is that, for all the glorious achievements of the Industrial Revolution, for all of Nietzsche’s overarching ubermensch visions, humans are fundamentally flawed. The bourgeois dream is nothing but a handsomely tailored suit worn by a gorilla.
Fast forward to present day Malaysia. Talented director Loh Kok Man, whose play Untitled rightly won him the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in 2003 for Best Director and Best Script (in Chinese), has chosen to adapt Les Chaises, re-titling it Play Time and adapting it to a Malaysian context. In a way, it makes sense. Malaysia – a survivor of the war, albeit fought under different circumstances, and informed by a modernist revolution that has yet to truly examine the consequences of its dubious colonialist formation – is in many ways the perfect Absurdist state (though right now I must admit Singapore has more of a right to that tag). We are clueless. We rewrite history as we see fit. We continually deny our rotten-to-the-core bourgeois existence by deflecting any existential inquiry by focusing on this uncontrollable monster we call “economic development”. And if the resigned attitude of the post-Merdeka generation is any indication – ‘That’s just the way it is” uttered without a hint of sarcasm – then perhaps we’ve truly acquired a taste for the very thing that’s been dividing us.
Still, it’s hard to empathise (especially since we are already so bourgeois) with the Absurdist approach. Like Dada and Surrealism before it, the Absurd destabilises established notions of what’s real and what’s constructed, to prove the point that much of what we believe in is really a hot air balloon. While this ambiguous approach can be fun and subversive, it also tends to polarise the community. What is art, after all? What is politics? Are these things synonymous with entertainment? The Absurd can only respond with silent guffaws. But precisely because it can get so-up-one’s-nose, the Absurd has the ability to really bring out issues into the open and dissect them at a really profound level.
The Chinese Dilemma
While it uses Les Chaises as its starting point, Kok Man’s Play Time (11 – 14 Aug 2005, KLPac – Pentas 2) is a different play in several key aspects. For one, the title has been changed. Initially I thought that maybe Kok Man wanted to emphasise the more playful aspects of Les Chaises, but later I wondered if the new title was a move to make it more appealing to an audience that might not be receptive to Ionesco’s brand of the Absurd. The fact that it resists a literal translation of Les Chaises makes it a politically-charged move, and a very interesting one, but what’s less clear is why this has been done. The same can be said of the decision to stage the play almost entirely in Mandarin. Kok Man is Mandarin-educated and he’s probably most comfortable working in the medium but I can’t help wondering if the use of Mandarin suggests that the play is expressing a particular existential dilemma faced by the local Chinese community (seeing how the use of language is so tied to racial identities in this country), despite the English surtitles (an obvious move to reach out to non-Mandarin speakers). And when Malay and English words are used, they’re limited to very specific words (mostly curses), further suggesting Play Time is exploring the issues faced by the citizens of a world-within-a-world (especially since the play is set in a sort of future-present Malaysia). Kok Man further departs from Les Chaises by introducing a third character. In addition to Old Man (Sui Shiang Chi) and Old Woman (Ling Tang), the two protagonists who push each other to the limits of their dwindling memories, there is a Baby (Gan Hui Yee) whose childlike gestures add an extra facet to the play, even though she seems to have been cut from very much the same personage as the other two and thereby not really adding anything new to Les Chaises. The Baby character is a puzzle. But she’s not much of a clue.
In terms of plot, Play Time tends to stick to the original. Elementary mind games make up the first half of the play, with Old Man, Old Woman and Baby snapping themselves out of their bored reveries by playing musical chairs (with one chair and no music), followed by a round of teasing, and even a wide-eyed excursion to Petaling Street at one point, like a truly dysfunctional family incapable of deep meaningful exchanges. The effect is like watching an inane scene from a sitcom over and over, with something going askew in each repeat, culminating in slapstick humour. And while the slapstick is initially silly and causes the audience to laugh, it’s a very peculiar reaction, like toddlers laughing at springy toys. And when repeated several times, it’s almost as if one is forced by a certain cerebral programming to do so. Why we chuff at this comic yet ultimately tragic pointlessness is interesting; we seem tickled by how humans are at times so much like machines on the edge of absurdity. When this realisation hits, the humour is very quickly transmuted into something more ominous, especially when one can’t figure out anymore if the characters’ actions are actually funny. The audience gradually realise that they’re part of the imbecilic game happening onstage.
While the first half of Play Time is interesting for what its simple pointless games and banal results reveal, the second half introduces a more complicated game played according to a more traditional narrative development. (Sadly, this change steals the play of its momentum.) The three characters decide to organise a grand function at their house to which they’ve invited virtually the whole of Malaysia to hear an orator deliver a speech. In Les Chaises, the speech represents the unraveling of the play – the Old Man hires an orator to deliver his speech about the superlative achievements of his life and the whole of humanity, bla bla bla, but it all comes out as garbled babble – or Ionesco’s twist of the dagger – the meaning of life as a joke. This anti-victory ending sums up the Absurdist view of bourgeois human civilisation. Just as the mirror held up to the characters reveals an empty reflection, so too does the audience see their empty lives reflected. In Play Time, however, the garbled speech goes unheard. At times, it even becomes secondary to the preparations for the event, with much attention being given to the characters’ anxiety as they greet and smooch the guests, and the unexpected success of the ceremony that overwhelms their capacity to provide enough chairs. Instead of garble, we get a helicopter sound and lighting effects, and then… nothing. The speech has been excised to silence. Initially, I was kind of disappointed but later I can’t help thinking that maybe Kok Man is making a statement about how our absurd existence has affected us Malaysians in a very specific way. Have we arrived at the point where we say and do nothing even though we make all this fuss over the least important things?
The Eternal Mind Game
With this ‘silent/silenced’ speech, Play Time moves beyond the Mandarin-speaking community into the wider sphere of the Malaysian experience. Do we not sometimes sense we’re stuck on some kind of treadmill, pointlessly running on the same spot but not really getting anywhere? For all the years of blood, sweat and tears that have been poured into searching for a unified Malaysian identity, for instance, we’re still continually finding ourselves going back to first base, each time referencing a pre-Malaysian/colonial model. All this despite the notable efforts that have been made by countless individuals proving that there can never be a singular Malaysian identity because we’re too historically and culturally diverse to ever be compartmentalised under such limiting nationalistic terms. And why do we still surrender ourselves to such feudalistic practices as giving tabik to datuks and datins when democracy had already supposedly liberated us? While Play Time touches on such social absurdities and compellingly envisions how these things have modified us for the worst, at the same time, it’s only when one considers Play Time in a broader context that the play reveals its inherent flaws.
It doesn’t matter so much that Kok Man has taken pains to adapt Les Chaises to a Malaysian context. Nor does it really matter that he does so without considering the fundamental differences between the sociopolitical context that informed the original play and the Malaysian situation. I’m not saying that Kok Man should’ve stayed faithful to the original or implying that he should’ve read up on modern European history. His alterations to Les Chaises – in the spirit of appropriating it to make a statement about contemporary Malaysia – should be lauded and encouraged. But Malaysia in 2005 is a very different place to France in 1952. Any changes should challenge Les Chaises and whether or not the Theatre of the Absurd can be relevant to contemporary life in Malaysia (or anywhere, for that matter). The trouble with Play Time begins in the somewhat superficial manner in which Kok Man has adapted Les Chaises, merely substituting ministers with datuks, a picnic outing with an excursion to Petaling Street, etc. Other things too irk me. The costumes, while looking absurd, alas, fail to add to the characters’ personalities or the story. It would make more sense if they were less colourful. The unsettling score by Bernard Goh, while evocative, seems misplaced. And the design of the performance space too, wrapping Play Time in a bubble of unreality, sets up an unnecessary distance between the play and the audience, whereas the play is actually quite funny and would’ve benefited from a more sympathetic approach.
But what’s most disappointing about Kok Man’s play is that he failed to account for the second half of the 20th Century in his update of Les Chaises, which is very much a product of its place in history. Since Ionesco wrote the play, there have been further developments in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd. The work of the Situationists and Lettrists in the 1960s and 70s stands as a real challenge to what Absurdity can mean to subsequent generations of artists concerned with issues of imperialism (the tyranny of mass media culture, for instance). Not to say that Les Chaises is completely outdated, but then again Kok Man is not staging a revival. Play Time is an update, and as an update, it should’ve examined what’s truly causing the existential dilemma (if there’s any) that Kok Man seems to be suggesting is plaguing the Chinese community (or Malaysian society, as a whole). What is it? Is it diasporic trauma? Is it a cry for attention for a marginalised sense of identity? What is it that’s at risk of being lost in this mind game called Play Time? Our humanity? Which type of humanity? The one that’s dressed in funky Ah Beng fashions via Sungei Wang Shopping Centre aping the latest looks from Shibuya? Or the one that’s mushrooming way yonder in that administrative desert we call Putrajaya, bumigeois yet still loving his Ampang yong tauhu (served on Royal Doulton, mind you)? I can’t help feeling that if only Play Time engaged with its most obvious subject matter in a more direct manner, it could’ve bettered its source. Absurd doesn’t have to mean detached.
For all its flaws, Play Time did achieve a certain measure of success. The spirited performance given by the ensemble cast – Sui Shiang Chi, Ling Tang and Gan Hui Yee – was nothing less than compelling, that is when they’re not overwhelmed by the heavy-handedness of the material. They handled their roles with a verve rarely seen in local Chinese theatre. All of which makes the whole venture all the more unfortunate, since Les Chaises is perhaps more relevant to describing contemporary Malaysia than pithily-adapted revivals of Shakespeare (which represents an escapist solution, considering the colonial hubris). But the difficulty comes with casting an unflinching look at the play, its themes and how it relates to the present state of our society. It’s almost a crippling proposition. Where does one start? Now that Mahathir’s Wawasan 2020 has been revealed to be nothing more but a megalomaniac’s fantasy? Do we press the reset button and play another round of this twisted mind game?
Jerome Kugan is a singer-songwriter and poet.
First Published: 07.09.2005 on Kakiseni