Death and Tears

Fancy costumes and hoity-toity language do not generally agree with me in the theatre, so it was with much trepidation that I went to see Wong Phui Nam’s Anike: A Play In Verse (at Dewan Budaya USM on the January 26th and 27th, it also played at Jalan Bukit Bintang’s Wisma SGM the previous weekend). The ‘Play In Verse’ subtitle induced visions of poetry-spouting snobbishness — fears probably caused by listening to puisi declamations in wailing, strangled tones during official functions. Real people don’t speak in verse. Real people speak in incomplete sentences, with imperfect grammar and a very limited vocabulary.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The plastic-looking costumes were a jarring albeit minor distraction; more importantly, however, was that Anike didn’t sound the least bit like a poetry recital. Listening to the actors, I wouldn’t have noticed they were speaking in verse, thanks to director Himanshu Bhatt’s careful, delicate handling of the rhymes. As he states in his director’s notes: “… lyricism finds life in a meaningful representation on stage. Any surplus dabbling — either by multimedia, pyrotechnics or undue experimental expressions — and the work shudders like a finely woven web that is disturbed.” My fears were unfounded.

The gist of Anike retains the plot and themes of its inspiration, Sophocle’s Antigone, and Phui Nam’s subtle references to regional history and legends in his adaptation, like Majapahit and the Tuah / Jebat connection (as exemplified by Wira and Sirat, Anike‘s Eteocles and Polyneices), serve to reinforce the play — as if the events in Anike were taking place in an alternate universe (the production notes state that the story is set in a successor city to Temasik, but don’t state which), foreign but familiar.

Death and Tragedy

While the clash of values between Antigone and Creon is central to the Greek tragedy, in Phui Nam’s version Anike lacks the conviction and feistiness to move the audience the way Antigone does — it is Maniaka, the king, who carries the show.

Anike got off to a slightly choppy start — with Anike (May Kung) and Yasmine (Saw Jin-Jin) attempting to mimic the puisi reading style I so dread — but as the momentum picked up, I began to find myself engrossed in the internal tug-of-war happening within King Maniaka (powerfully played by Jayaram Menon).

Having decreed the punishment of Sirat — a Jebat-style warrior who went amok, took over the palace, and turned His Majesty out — and Sirat’s Xena-Warrior­-Princess-wannabe sister Anike — who insisted on giving her brother a proper burial; here, special mention should be given to Aliakbar Campwala, for his delightfully comical performance as the guard who caught Anike in the act of burying her brother — Maniaka stubbornly struggles to uphold and defend his edict, despite pleas and entreaties by his courtiers who insist that this action is grossly unwise.

Being a firm believer of keeping my promises and seeing my decisions through to the bitter end, King Maniaka’s eventual fate was, personally, rather unnerving: when his conscience creeps up on him, the king tries to right his wrongs, but ends up being punished anyway — losing his son Nadim (Lim Yao Han), then his beloved queen, Wanang Seri (Fariza Ariffin; very muhibbah casting).

Death is a powerful catalyst for change; Anike‘s ironic heart is that those threatened with death — the subjects of the city — have grown weary of the threat and do not fear it, while the one who threatens others with the shadow of death — their sovereign — ends up the one most affected by the deaths of his loved ones.

Crazy Ballerinas

Death can drive an already unsteady mind off the brink of insanity — a point continuously stressed in My Ballet Shoes, written and directed by The Actors Studio Greenhall’s new theatre supervisor, Wan Rosli. Portraying the hysterical, psychotic rants of ex-ballerina Ayu (played by Anne Nurbaya), tortured by the death of her husband and loss of her legs due to a car accident, My Ballet Shoes (which I went to see with some degree of expectance) almost drove me off my seat as well.

Clocking around 30 minutes, I thought that the end of the play was its intermission. When I realised that the cast was coming out to take their bows, I was shocked and blinking. Was that all? Why end when things were just about to get interesting? As far as I could tell, the entire half-hour was merely an introduction. Check out my summary:

Meet Ayu. Ayu’s mad. Ayu’s mad because her husband left her. Ayu loves her husband very much. Why did Ayu’s husband leave her? Ayu’s all alone. Everybody hates Ayu. Ayu’s caretaker Inaz hates her. Inaz hates Ayu because Ayu is a self-absorbed, arrogant bastard. Inaz takes care of Ayu, because Inaz wants revenge. Ayu was a top dancer, choreographer, etc; and Inaz was not worthy enough to be her student. Inaz did not deserve to be her student. Ayu can’t dance anymore, because she sits in a wheelchair. Ayu is angry. Ayu goes mad some more.

There were too many question left unanswered, too many loose ends. Inaz (played by Enaz; that’s really her name!), especially, was a lot more intriguing a character than Ayu, and severely underdeveloped. Who is she? Why does she, of all people, take care of Ayu? Does she hate Ayu, or does she actually care?

Unfinished Business

Towards My Ballet Shoes’s end is the play’s most competent scene: Inaz holding a wrenched Ayu — sobbing helplessly on the floor, consumed by anger and bitterness — in her arms and consoling her:  “There is someone who loves him more, Ayu … God loves him more.” This short line, a poignant bit of pathos, was a refreshing change from the earlier pace of the play, where Ayu tells the audience everything — but we see and feel nothing.

“He wants you to realise, so that you would change yourself to becoming a better person,” Inaz continues, “Not like the old you, who is arrogant, proud and always so angry.” Divine intervention is pretty idea, just the kind of consolation that a psychotic schizophrenic like Ayu might accept, more than a death with no rhyme or reason. Yet Ayu remains angry, wrapped in her cloak of denial and grief — a pretty accurate depiction of what people go through during times of tragedy.

In the end, however, My Ballet Shoes — as it was staged at Greenhall on February 2nd to 4th — is a script in progress.  A badly-written one at that, wrought with bad English and grammatical errors like: “How could I live this life with such disability? Where are all you sweet loving promises vanish to?” and “There is still some kind thought for you from this person who you once look down on.” I have yet to meet a heartbroken female who has lost both her mind and her sense of grammar — there is always a first time for everything, I suppose.

Rosli would have benefited from a dramaturg — or a proofreader. RM20 for something so unpolished was highway robbery; an RM5 ticket would have been more appropriate. And call it as it is: a workshop, or a work-in-progress. Hallo, customer satisfaction is very important, you know. Don’t mislead people into thinking your draft is a full-fledged play.

I believe in miracles, and I’m always looking forward to new works, new styles, and new experiences by new writers and directors. First-timers can actually work magic sometimes — just take the kids of Penang’s DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians project last year as an extreme example.

With My Ballet Shoes, this wasn’t the case. Interesting that, while Anike (which I’d dreaded) ended up being an eye-opening experience, the play I had sunny expectations of turned out a disappointment.


First Published: 01.03.2007 on Kakiseni

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