Domestic Stress Test

At the door to Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan, which ran between September 7 – 10 at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Stor Teater, one is given a slip of paper titled Stress Test: the printout contains eight floral configurations, subtly coloured to appear — as the eye moves across the page — ambulatory. The caption reads:

Fokus gambar diatas, jika ianya berputar ini bermakna anda menghadapi stress. Jika ianya berputar laju anda mungkin boleh membahayakan orang lain atau diri sendiri. Sila berjumpa dengan pakar sakit jiwa.

Inside, the set constitutes stained red walls, a floor painted with maze-like lines, and a chair around which is strewn crumpled newspaper and toilet rolls. The house lights go off; they come on again: a stone-faced woman in a tudung in up against the far wall; off and on: she is nearer; off and on: she is on the chair.

Welcome to one person’s private Hell. Marlenny Deen Erwan, early in Nam Ron’s one-woman monologue, ecclesiastically proclaims:

Pasal apa orang tak nak jadi jahat? Jahat. Jahat. Jahat. Apa tu jahat? Jahat tu tak baik. Apa tu baik. Baik itu bila tak jahat. Mana satu yang lebih baik. Baik ke jahat. Jahat ke baik. Kalau tak ada jahat ada ke baik. Baik tu pada siapa?

This flip-flopping on the nature of good and evil is no sermon; Marlenny’s character, Bulan, is merely trying to make sense of the misfortune that has befallen her.

It was only a few years ago, you see, when Bulan’s paramour Laut took her out in his “kereta Proton Wira warna biru gelap, yang dah diubahsuai jadi macam Mitsubishi Evolution,” and knelt in front of his virginal girlfriend at a table in the Hard Rock Café — a scene right out of a pulp romance, complete with Coldplay promising eternal love.

Of course, Brit rock groups are rarely that optimistic, so Laut’s proposal: “Laut akan sepi tanpa Bulan. Sudikah Bulan menjadi teman hidup Laut?” unsurprisingly masks the unravelling of a marriage. One of Laut Lebih Indah‘s set-pieces occurs early on, as Bulan giggly recollects of her early courtship with Laut; she is trying to polish the chair at the same time, and trouble is foreshadowed — her motions get increasingly forceful and frustrated; she cannot get the chair clean.

Ascendant Star

Perlis-born Nam Ron is one of the freshest voices declaiming in contemporary Malaysian theatre: his previous works include Lembu, a one-man kenduri mishap; and matderihkolaperlih, a Perlis gangster history (the latter won him a Boh Cameronian Arts Award for Best Original Script in Bahasa Malaysia in 2003; the former was nominated the following year).

A pity then that the Alternative Stage is not the most organised of theatre companies: a rehearsal cycle that began a week before opening night, very little money, and nearly nonexistent publicity meant that few people caught one of the best pieces of theatre this year. The night I saw Nam Ron’s latest there was a house of less than two dozen.

Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan is the sequel to Aku Nak Jadi Bintang, an excellent 10-minute sketch performed at the 2003 Cammies by Mardiana Ismail, about a young pornography actress and aspirant star asphyxiated by her lover.

Nam Ron has a knack for subjugating text in aid of his characters: The girl in Bintang was such a pleasure to watch, as she stepped slowly down a runway-like stage, because she simply ran through the list of her lovers, those that “benar-benar boleh menjadikan aku bintang”:

Amran, Jalal, Rahim, Abang Din, Jason, James T, Mr. Greenfield, Krishen, Joe, John, Johnatan, Johnny, J J, Johan, Basir, Bakari, Bum, Beng Hoe, Bala, Mr Dass, Money, Man BM, Manjit, Hairul, Fiz, Farid, Farah, Mrs Mantoya dan Datin Hanim.

employing a tone of casual, almost-dogged naiveté — and it is this naiveté that allows her to justify her assailant’s actions: “Lakonan Johan malam tu real betul … Aku kasihankan Johan. Dia dituduh merogol dan membunuh aku. Semuanya kerana lakonannya yang hebat itu.” Her ambitions have elevated Johan into a benefactor who brought her stardom — the attention of the press.

On the Verge

After some time playing domestic spouse to her man, Bulan finds him missing. Nam Ron reportedly designed the lights himself, and their cinematic effect is one of the elements in Laut Lebih Indah that underline his skill as a director: portions of the stage light up, inviting Marlenny to pass through them — and we see the silent dark house coming alive, room by room, malevolently pulling its occupant along towards discovery.

Bulan arrives at Laut’s notebook computer and finds porn in a folder labelled ‘Indah’. As if this is not shock enough, she receives a phone call that informs he has been detained as a suspect in the murder of a young woman and part-time nude model, Indah. Johan and Laut are one and the same.

The stage goes dark, and a chair clunks, overturned, telling us matrimonial betrayal has finally broken our protagonist.

Aku Nak Jadi Bintang is a passion play, however twisted — its young protagonist suffering at the hands of successive lovers to receive transcendence as a national-circulation victim — but Bulan has no such reprieve: When we next see her she stands in a basin, baptising herself with water and beginning to shiver. For her, unfortunately, it isn’t over.

This sequence soon collapses into a recitation of sensational newspaper headlines, between May 14 and July 18, with Bulan feverishly shaking her head as if flipping through pages, faster and faster, as if reading in horror her personal tragedy being exposed for public entertainment.

While Laut Lebih Indah is Nam Ron at his most psychologically incisive, several narrative choices betray the overeager tendency to shift into full-blown psychosis: in an earlier scene, we see Bulan sing a soothing lullaby and fold a paper airplane; in another she writes the recipe for Sambal Tumis Ikan Bilis Campur Tempoyak dan Petai on an invisible wall. But seeing her in asylum conditions disarms of Bulan’s pain: we are much better off watching the immanency of madness instead of the comfortable pools beyond.

And Laut Lebih Indah certainly has an actress talented enough to carry this intensity: Marlenny, in both delivery and movement throughout, exhibits the kind of clenched-teeth control of a mind unwilling to admit to nervous breakdown. Her 27-year-old wife is forced to stop working: “Mula-mula berhenti kerja, duduk kat rumah, aku rasa bosan. Tak tahu nak buat apa,” and fills this frustration with different frustrations — household chores, all fifteen of them:

Cuci toilet dua kali seminggu. Vakum karpet seminggu sekali. Basuh kain-baju tiga kali seminggu. Ampai, seterika, lipat, susun. Gantung, gantung, gantung.

and while Bulan becomes frantic, accompanying her recitation with hand-chops and punches in the air, Marlenny never descends into hysterics.

A Matter of Morals

Johan’s story is, as yet, unknown — Nam Ron is planning a trilogy, with a final part voiced by the husband and murderer. We can only speculate as to what he will have to say.

As for the protagonists of Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan and Aku Nak Jadi Bintang, they are two sides of one event, and both blind themselves to ugly truths. Indah’s aspirations shield her from the shame of sexual degradation; Bulan’s story of growing up and falling in love, her use of romantic, metaphorical monikers — the sea, the moon, beauty — are attempts at fogging her from the fate of disappearing into early obscurity as stay-at-home chattel.

While Bulan’s mirages are self-imposed — they are there because she “tak nak jadi jahat,” — we also know she chafes: early on, Bulan holds out apostolic palms, contemplating a theological conundrum:

Mak kata perempuan tu dibuat dari tulang rusuk lelaki. Kiri. Yang aku tahu kiri tu selalunya tak elok. Basuh berak tangan kiri …

But Laut Lebih Indah moves beyond feminist commentary when it leaves the binary male-female configuration of marriage for the all-encompassing intolerance of public discourse: Bulan’s predicament is no long an indictment of men, but of Man — our secret slavering for sex and violence, our overt need to lord over and martyr fellow humans.

Though Nam Ron’s trilogy was begun predating it, these monologues obviously reference the real-life sordidness of our national media’s reporting of the Norita Samsudin murder; “11 JULAI: LAUT DAN INDAH JALINKAN HUBUNGAN SEKS PELIK” and “14 JULAI: EXCLUSIF! INDAH MODEL DI LAMAN WEB LUCAH MELAYUBOLEH.COM” mirrors the glee of headlines when information of the circumstances surrounding her death surfaced.

Laut Lebih Indah means to criticise the drive for false moralising that fuels these sensationalist actions; the dregs of Bulan’s innocence, something she has tried to guard, are finally stripped away on July 18. We discover that the court has acquitted Laut because of reasonable doubt, and facing her husband upon his return, Bulan reflects:

Aku tak kenal dia. Macam mana nak cium orang yang aku tak kenal, Aku bukan perempuan murah, boleh cium siapa saja. Tapi kalau tak ada jahat macam mana nak ada baik? Pasal jahat adanya baik. Aku boleh buat tak pedulikan dia. Aku layan dia macam orang asing biar sampai dia cerai aku. Biar dia merana.

“Tapi aku tak pandai jadi jahat, pasal aku baik,” she whispers, suppliant, unwilling to acknowledge the evil that has infected her.

Indah, a somnambulist who wades through the evils of men and willingly refuses to see it, is let off — she finds her salvation, rising up to light that is “makin lama makin terang makin lama makin terang dan menjadi sangat terang.”

Bulan tries the same thing, but ends up in the heart of darkness. Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan ends with Marlenny centre and downstage, ready to fly her paper airplane. The lights go out just as she lets it go — we already know it is going to crash. Bulan is a bloodied martyr; worse, she is now one of us.


Zedeck Siew is currently employed at as a staff writer and lowly sub.

First Published: 20.09.2006 on Kakiseni

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