By Sherry Siebel
Maybe far too many evenings spent captive watching fusty, antediluvian and embarrassingly démodé British Airways Playhouse productions over the years in the name of journalism have caused me to despise them more than a little. They’re always the goddamn same. They’re always mawkish farces, which means that the usual accelerating kerfuffle arising out of hackneyed devices such as mistaken identities, unlikely situations, misunderstandings and downright lies, and verbal humour that often includes double entendres, puns and sexual innuendo, will inevitably explode in a lightweight hearts-and-flowers ending. Maybe they were good for a giggle in the uptight England of the 1950s and early 60s when sniggering at adulterous spouses, slappers with big knockers, short people and naughty vicars was the very height of wickedness. But these days, it seems that unless you yourself are similarly superannuated, bedroom farces that once teetered on the very edge of social decency now appear to be relics of a bygone age and crashingly boring given the extended interim. So maybe it’s a bit unfair that Masakini Theatre Company’s earnest reprise should be lightly lambasted by a thoroughly biased critic, but hey, tough titty.
No sex please, we’re British?
Alan Bennett, confrere of master comedians Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller, loved to dwell on the everyday and mundane, obsessions with class (a national mania) as well as cleanliness, propriety and sexual repression; now an empty myth given Britain’s position as world leader in premarital pregnancy with its legions of 16-year-old single mothers living on welfare, which has given rise to the charming soubriquet “pram face”, a term currently used on this scepter’d isle to describe a girl who would not look out of place pushing a pram around a council estate. “No sex please, we’re British”, my arse.
Born in Leeds in 1934, Bennett is famous for his solid body of work, his schoolboy-like appearance, his Yorkshire accent, and more recently, his gayness. He has been called everything from national treasure and prose laureate to curmudgeon laureate, Oracle of Little England, The Bard of British Loneliness and national teddy bear. The English really, really like him. But he is perhaps not taken as seriously as his peers, much to his chagrin — a 1998 National Theatre ranking of the century’s greatest playwrights didn’t even place him in the top 20. There is a persistent worry, you see, that he can’t resist a joke.
Habeas Corpus (Latin for “you should have the body”) first premiered at London’s Lyric Theatre in 1973 and is probably one of the sauciest pieces of the era, and was specifically engineered to highlight the sexual excesses of the English middle classes in the 60s, when birth control made rampant shagging even more accessible, far less stigmatised and very near consequence-free. Every single character commits sexual misdemeanours of some sort bar the gagging young cleric and the virtuous charlady narrator, and somebody’s trousers are off in all but one scene. The subject of breasts — large ones in particular — is a central theme, and much sport is made of admiring them, fondling them or ordering them in a box. Hidden among his trademark one-liners, Bennett’s message is simple: Life is short, so therefore we should grasp the objects of our lust with both hands, as it were. But alas, my jaded, spoiled person, still sick to the back teeth of genteel English theatre, longed for the end way before it was anywhere in sight.
Farce is a genre of theatre that has always been highly tolerant of bad behaviour and invariably depicts humans as vain, irrational, greedy and childish. Naturally it was the French who excelled at its most risqué forms and the most famous bedroom farceur of them all was Georges Feydeau, whose collection of coincidences, slamming doors and ridiculous dialogues left Paris agog in the 1890s and is now considered the precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd. But it was Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler who took it to its zenith in Der Reigen, which featured 10 bedroom scenes and a daisy chain of sexual liaisons that resulted in his being branded a pornographer. David Hare’s 1990’s adaptation, The Blue Room — famous for hitherto unseen glimpses afforded of Nicole Kidman with her kit off — is the most recent incarnation of the shocking Der Reigen that has maintained its ability to scandalise through the ages. In real life, this guy Schnitzler was a big perv: he meticulously kept a diary from the age of 17 until two days before he popped his clogs, and the manuscript, which runs to almost 8,000 pages, is most notable for his casual depictions of numerous sexual conquests. For a period of years, he even kept a record of every orgasm.
Of course, in comparison, the gentle ribaldry of the English is exceedingly tame, but is perhaps more in keeping with widespread local Victorian attitudes and our easily offended DBKL, who are more than likely to put the kibosh on anything really naughty. A pity. Still, it is highly possible that less prurient theatregoers than myself may find the spectacle of a woman’s front bits being cupped in public amid bursts of mild rudeness quite adequately stimulating. For me, it was all quite ho hum, really.
Deepest, darkest indiscretion
The plot: Balding lothario Dr. Arthur Wicksteed is tempted by a piece of hot tatty who walks into his clinic feeling a bit faint. She meets his hypochondriac son and learns he has Brett’s Palsy and has but months to live. This is the answer to her dreams, for the Hon. Felicity Rumpers is with child out of wedlock, a heinous crime even in those promiscuous times. Arthur’s single and exceedingly flat-chested sister-in-law Constance longs for a big set of jugs and orders a pair despite the attentions of the ardent cleric Cannon Throbbing, who would simply love to pop her cherry as well as his own.
Whole squadrons of misunderstandings materialise in due formation. When Connie’s falsie-fitter shows up unannounced and mistakes the genuinely Junoesque Mrs. Wicksteed (sadly ignored by her philandering husband) for his client, the gropefest begins. Mrs. Wicksteed’s old flame, Sir Percy Shorter — the butt of a barrage of short jokes — shows up and proposes to Connie’s newly ample bosom to the horror of the sex-crazed housewife and the feverishly celibate priest, while a suicidal patient of the doctor tries to hang himself in the living room and is roundly ignored. The play goes on in similar slap-and-tickle fashion until finally a walking deus ex machina arrives in the form of Felicity’s uppity ex-colonial mother who puts an end to all the wanton chicanery by revealing her own deepest, darkest indiscretion.
Sounds appetising I know. But apart from Sabera Shaik in her portrayal of deprived hausfrau Muriel Wicksteed, whose hilarious amorous pursuit of the confused fitter utterly delighted the audience, Sarah Shahrom’s excellent fainting spell as “Lady Rumpers of Addis Ababa and Kuala Lumpur” and Kay Chin’s wonderfully gauche spinster, I was rarely moved to gales of laughter. In fact, I was rarely moved at all. Aside from scattered tee-hees and a few isolated guffaws, Masakini’s valiant attempt still managed to slip alongside its dull English relatives in my personal pantheon of old-fashioned, torpor-inducing productions with the greatest of ease.
The trouble is, farce is hugely dependent on an actor’s ability to use his or her body as a tool of humour, as per the multi-jointed John Cleese. But despite director Chris Jacob’s commendable effort to “further test their capabilities not only as an ensemble but as trained practitioners of physical theatre”, it is evident that they have an appreciable way to go. For despite acting so hard they almost pop out of their skins, the rest of the cast don’t quite manage to be anywhere near as amusing. Kay Li is sufficiently winsome as the coy Felicity, but I privately ached to see the likes of Nell Ng in such an impudent role where sophisticated body language is everything. Nor Hazlin Nor Salam just about gets away with her bogus and occasionally excruciating working-class accent as nosy narrator Mrs Swabb; whose maintenance of a higher moral standard than her supposed superiors is a pointed piece of social irony. Lim Soon Heng’s Sir Percy, who wins the prize for most stage-time spent without pants, is a lecherous pocket-sized Napoleon and suitably conceited President of the British Medical Association, and knocks the socks off all the other men in the ensemble. Wong Wai Hoang as the mental patient bent on suicide has a face made for farce, being both expressive and droll, but we saw way too little of him. And Baki Zainal as the terminally-ill Wicksteed offspring is far from winning and frequently expressionless, while Derek Ong as the lust-infused pulpiteer is so painfully earnest I could have wept.
Most importantly, the entire play is supposed to be held together by the sleazy GP who goes through life “stopping at every lamp post”, and the most hilarious moments in Habeas Corpus are apparently down to this character being played by an actor possessed of the gift of excellent timing and a natural talent for physical comedy. Terence Swampillai as the randy old doctor was a preening peacock all right, but unfortunately failed to manifest himself as the consummate comedian required of the piece. Constantly standing on his tiptoes, sticking out his gut and pouting lewdly, he was a grotesque caricature of a grotesque caricature. He may have been a logical choice, having been cast as an odious Tartuffe in Masakini’s previous crack at farce last year, but as Dr. Wicksteed, ageing sex machine, he was kind of gross. If that was the idea, bravo, you repulsive little man.
At least the tickets aren’t as pricey as the ones for those posh, brittle soirees at the Parkroyal. And who knows? This was just the opening night; maybe they’ll improve by leaps and bounds on subsequent days? After all, even Marcel Berlins of The Guardian recently advocated the astounding concept of the two-visit theatre review to avoid the very real risk of first-days gone FUBAR premiered to the press that result in their being comprehensively rubbished and which jeopardise the play’s entire run. But that’s for plays that last for weeks. This one ends on Friday (28 Apr 2006). Again, all I have to say is tough titty.
Habeas Corpus is running at The Actors Studio Bangsar until Fri 28 Apr.
Sherry Siebel is back!
First Published: 25.04.2006 on Kakiseni