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No Higher Love

  • May 7, 2006

By J-Teoh

Spending a Friday night out with two unmarried, middle-aged Englishmen who still live with their mothers is not my idea of a fun date, but apparently personal ads can be deceiving, especially in the case of Graham Whittaker and Gus Gascoigne, at the Actors Studio Greenhall, Penang. Still, you would have to play second fiddle to their objects of affection — trains and Graham’s mother — and not expect them to lavish you with sweet words, flowers, and certainly no snogging (even without DBKL around).

In fact, unmarried, middle-aged trainspotters (literally, people who spot trains) seem to find snogging repulsive. That breed of men cannot tell the difference between a train’s rumble and the moan of a female in heat, as Gus Gascoigne, played by the heavily made-up Alan Smith, reveals in Anorak of Fire, his one-man “Trainspotting For Dummies”. It forms the first half of a Double Bill presented by the Penang Players and directed by David Broadhurst (Thu 4 – Sat 6 May 2005) …

Alan’s expressions and gestures suited his character incredibly well: the fidgety twitching, fiddling of thumbs, and the apprehension, as Gus speaks of his domineering mother (who keeps his salary and gives him a monthly allowance), taking a girl out, studying for his GCSEs and working in I.T. instead of pursuing his dream of driving a locomotive. The moment he starts gushing over his trains, however, all that insecurity disappears and is replaced by gusts of confidence, and his stories (mostly gossip about other spotters) rush out full steam (electricity?) ahead. Listening to Gus go on and on about trains, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had the same effect on my school friends when I get carried away with my Taekwondo stories. But Gus has been so long deprived of an appreciative audience that he just couldn’t help squeezing as much as he could out from Greenhall’s audience, who were surprisingly very appreciative, chuckling and guffawing along. Me? Despite Gus’ efforts, I still think trainspotting is a criminal waste of time and would much rather do my mathematics than spot trains (maybe it is because there are no trains to spot on this island).

Maybe it was the accent, maybe it was the thick layers of eyeshadow, or maybe it was the unbelievable dynamics of Gus’ psychotic mind, but I just could not connect to Anorak of Fire. Low network signal, perhaps? My companion Adrian had no problem whatsoever. In fact, of the two monologues performed, he preferred Anorak of Fire. Maybe this obsession with big machines is a guy thing. Or maybe I ought to get my aerial checked. Actually, Gus Gascoigne seems to me like the English version of Forrest Gump — for his ability to reminisce non-stop about inane details while not being aware of the big picture. Yeah, definitely a guy thing.

What about your pelvis?

Graham Whittaker, our second date for the day was quite the opposite. Played to perfection by John Cadman, this tea-sipping gentleman’s nice, quiet, comfortable life with his 72 year-old widow mother is turned upside down when Mum falls on a curb one day and runs her stockings (“Forget about the stockings! What about your pelvis?!” agonises Graham). Much to her son’s further chagrin, Mum’s old flame from her past, Frank Turnbull shows up, sweeps her off her feet, and before he knows it, his mother is as heavily made-up as Alan Smith and going off on dates while he sits at home and reads Men’s Health magazines (Graham’s 6-packs having long been united into one).

A Chip in the Sugar was considerably less outlandish than Anorak of Fire and I could relate to it better. Mrs. Whittaker was my maternal grandmother and her sister rolled into one, what with their weird stories and dementia. She certainly talks like my Ah Ma, distorted realities and all. When left home alone while his mother is cavorting away happily on dates, John Cadman’s portrayal of Graham’s loneliness and resignation reaches out to the audience, lending a bit of pathos in between the hilarity inspired by his disgust of Mr. Turnbull.

Graham himself might have some psychological issues. For example, his paranoia as he waits for his mother to come home — his fear that when the doorbell rings, he will open the door only to find no one there is a little creepy and disconcerting. His relief upon finding someone at the door towards the end was a relief for the audience as well. The show left me with good memories.

Thank you to the Penang Players for introducing Malaysian audiences to the quirks and eccentricities of everyday English life and insights to men who live with their mums. Because they are cocooned in their own world, these men seem to have a poor grasp of reality. It feels sad to enter their world. Thankfully the guys I know in Penang just can’t wait to get out at the first opportunity, which is usually when they start university. Speaking of which, it would have been nicer to see more locals watching — but full houses are always nice and TAS Greenhall was packed to the brim that night, even if it was with ang mohs. It is always reassuring to note how people from the other side of the world lead lives so similar to ours, which is more than what I can say for Keris Laksamana Bentan, supposedly about people much closer to us.

Talking to his keris

Keris Laksamana Bentan, presented by Persatuan Teater, Tari dan Muzik (Te.Ta.Mu.) Pulau Pinang (Sat 6 – Sun 7 May 2006, Auditorium P. Ramlee, Kompleks Warisan P. Ramlee), is the first Malay language production I have ever watched. Having read Malay period dramas only in my Malay literature textbooks, I wondered what it might be like to watch one onstage — they’ve always been rather tough to comprehend, let alone stage (the whole concept of “Melayu tidak boleh derhaka” or something like that mystifies me), and my Bahasa Malaysia teacher told me that understanding would be easier after watching them performed.

According to the synopsis from Kakiseni, this is “a retelling of the legend of Laksamana Megat Sri Rama, a warrior who served under the reign of Sultan Mahmud II, the tenth Sultan of Johor (1685-1699).” Laksamana Bentan is away fighting a rebellion. In his absence his pregnant wife has eaten the Sultan’s jackfruit and has been sentenced to death. The Laksamana plots his vengeance but is killed by the Sultan in the end.

Radzun Arshad’s performance as Bendahara Abdul Jalil was quite strong in the beginning, especially when he was advising Sultan Mahmud (Hamid Mukhtar) to spare the Laksamana’s wife, Wan Anum (played by Yuslina Yusof). However, as the story got more demanding — i.e. the scene where the Bendahara was torn between his loyalty to the Sultan and his own principles – Radzun’s portrayal faltered somewhat. His body language and his strangely happy expressions did not bring out the inner conflict that playwright Shararom Husain’s words would have had.

Apart from Radzun (who made a fine-looking Bendahara, by the way) I couldn’t help wonder if most of the characters were miscast. Shamsol Ariffin wasn’t what I would call heroic, especially for a Laksamana — maybe he is like those senior martial arts masters who, after working hard for years to establish a strong reputation, take it easy and start developing extra layers of lipids? [Are you referring to your Taekwondo masters? – ed.] Wan Anum could have been younger and prettier as well — hard to imagine why Seri Bija Wangsa found her so worthy of seduction… In fact, hard to understand what Seri Bija Wangsa and the whole host of supporting characters were there for.

The huge cast of unnecessary characters made the production seem like it was lengthened to fit in everyone — one of the failings of overzealous school productions, but hardly what I expected of an experienced theatre group. And the subplots did not help the storyline move along. On the contrary, they seemed to obstruct the flow, most noticeably in the last 30 minutes of the play — which was the most gripping part, if only the Laksamana would stop talking to his keris and get on with the action — where he kills the Sultan and everybody else dies too.

Sadly, Keris Laksamana Bentan did not live up to its expectations and I am just as ignorant as ever on the subject of treason towards tyrannical Sultans. It didn’t have much of a stand as to whether derhaka was justified. Usman Awang’s Matinya Seorang Pahlawan made Jebat complex, human and even righteous in his choices, but here I just couldn’t sympathise with the laksamana — then again, this could be due to the general poor acting. In the end, even though they attempted earlier to show how the laksamana suffered the wrong, they ended the play with a message from the Bendahara justifying the laksamana’s death. By then I didn’t just feel confused, I didn’t feel anything at all. The play just didn’t commit to either view very convincingly — it just sat on the fence really. And unlike what my teacher promised, I remain as mystified as ever to why an injustice committed by a leader must be suffered gladly.

Personally, I think the whole point of putting up a theatre production is to entertain AND pass on a message. Keris Laksamana Bentan was rather lacking in both … I won’t get started on the historical inaccuracies, but for the record: Sultan Mahmud mangkat dijulang and not sitting on a throne surrounded by cronies.


First Published: 07.05.2006 on Kakiseni