By Zedeck Siew
At a crucial point in “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”, an informal-by-form check-up on Wayang Kulit, performer Wong Tay Sy exits stage left, bowed, expression tired and supplicant, rear thrust up in the air. The play’s three actors have just performed a dramatisation of an interview with the dalang and Seniman Negara Pak Hamzah Awang Mat, who had been talking about his relationship with his home state of Kelantan, losing the respect of his peers, and the government’s policies towards the practice of Wayang Kulit.
It is serious business: “Saya berterima kasih dan bersyukur,” the actors moaned, a grimly sardonic refrain to the spread of official indifference, religious conservatism, and personal defeat — all the more painful to hear because these were Pak Hamzah’s own words. By the time Tay Sy exits, everyone looks thoroughly depressed.
Over the house speakers, however, she appears to fart. “Poot!”
Not surprising, considering its subject matter, that “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” is sometimes sobering. Described as a “docu-performance that investigates the position of the Wayang Kulit dalang in the shifting contexts of Malaysian history,” it is divided into two discrete sections; perhaps the more moving of these two deals with the concurrent careers of Pak Hamzah and Pak Abdullah bin Ibrahim — better known as Pak Dollah Baju Merah.
The former went on to become the face of Wayang Kulit, embarking on state-sponsored world tours at the expense of alienating his fellow practitioners; the latter remained in his home state and became a local icon. The show presents considerable pathos in its portraiture of these two individuals.
There is the irony of Pak Hamzah in the aforementioned interview, where the master (who came up with a formalised curriculum of Wayang Kulit, now taught in schools like the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan) basically thanks authority of allowing the little space in which the form is allowed to exist. On the flipside is the humour associated in Pak Dollah’s trajectory, who gave cell-phones to his Ramas and Sitas — and also a sense of lost opportunities: we see the then-young dalang giving up his chance to travel abroad, in accordance to his father’s wishes (it was Pak Dollah who directed officials to Pak Hamzah as a suitable replacement).
Both threads, combined, become a diptych that illustrates Wayang Kulit Siam’s place in Malaysia. Banned in Kelantan during Parti Islam SeMalaysia’s 1990 election into state governance, the form drew ire from deepening religious conservatism, being, as it was, a stage package meant to deliver Hindu epics. This ban was relaxed two years ago, provided that performances were shorn of their pagan roots. Throughout, however, Wayang never really died: it remained popular enough in its home state for Pak Dollah to turn down, with trademark bravado, a 2005 meeting with Nik Aziz to negotiate the lifting of the ban.
More than a review of shifting political mores, however, the dichotomy “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” presents us highlights a greater threat to Wayang: boredom. In a time of cineplexes, why sit in front of a sheet, watching the shadows of leather dolls recreate the Mahabharata? There are two choices: Pak Hamzah championed the fact that Wayang Kulit is a hallowed (and niche) Traditional Form; Pak Dollah recognised that times were changing, and adapted old epics to modern idioms.
Do you keep you current audience or attract new ones? Close ranks or gamble? It is a crucial problem, in the face of other emergent themes and media — one that may be, perhaps, applied to all forms of theatre.
Mark Teh’s last directorial effort was “Baling (membaling)” — first staged as part of Five Art Centre’s Parti Komunis Malaya-themed Directors Workshop, in 2005. Referencing the Baling, Kedah peace talks between Malayan officials and communist leaders, “Baling (membaling)” was a performative opus, distilling those crucial Emergency discussions into the visceral act of tossing chairs; audiences flinched as stools flew in their direction.
“Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” employs physical metaphor to a similar (but much less confrontational) end, turning plastic ponchos into Wayang puppets. Quoting text from an interview with Pak Dollah Baju Merah about the dalang’s formative years, Lim Chung Wei excitedly describes the coming of a renowned Wayang Kulit magus to a nearby village, then draws out a smaller poncho of his own. “I also began to play!” he exclaims. We see the beginning of a Kelantanese boy’s life-long journey with the elements of his chosen art-form, mercurial as any crinkly plastic.
Mark makes his props do a lot of work. Tay Sy, Chung Wei and Fahmi Fadzil wield a poncho each; naturally, they are coloured yellow, red and blue. All three are waved about like flags — both a nod to the inherent locality of the form and the rising tides of ultra-conservative nationalism that threatened to squash it.
Five Arts Centre’s performances have always tended towards serious commentary on the national consciousness, whatever their subject, be it Wayang Kulit or Komunisme, the May 1969 Riots (“That Was The Year”, earlier this year) or the English Premiere League (2002’s “Manchester United and the Malay Warrior”). Mark and Fahmi debuted as part of Akshen (previously Article 19), ostensibly Five Art’s youth wing; they were celebrated because few Malaysians would dare raise issue with weighty stuff like national politics (2001’s “Lebih Kecoh”) and the National Stadium (2002’s “Stadium”) — much less college students.
Akshen has been out of school for some time now; “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” comes as the latest in a unmistakable, and dour pedigree (Five Arts has also long been known for an abstract, heavily-stylised movement vocabulary). Still, as its title implies, the show doesn’t shirk on exuberance; the socio-political sashays are tempered, here, with light-hearted fun (as opposed to the ironic — and, deep down, depressing — satire that is characteristic of humour about the Malaysian Condition). The performers move less like tai chi masters and more like overeager silat students.
Fahmi Fadzil, a young dalang himself, stated in a Kakiseni interview that he wanted “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” to “reflect a cheekier sense of things … Wayang Nakal.” The show’s other component, a retelling of the “Betara Kala” tale, is a story about a man-eating nasty: in pursuit of prey, the creature stumbles into a Wayang Kulit performance (at Central Market, no less; warning: textual recursion!), and the dalang has to keep him amused so that the monster’s mind doesn’t wander back into bloodlust.
All three performers play the Betara Kala as tongue-out slavering — and slightly idiotic — in turn, but it is Fahmi who best embodies the informal hilarity of Wayang-craft, salivating over the night’s audience, referring to (and sniping at) his director, and just goofing off.
The “Betara Kala” premise allows the show to be an introduction to the technical aspects of Wayang Kulit: Fahmi, the monster, ensorcelled by the performance before him, annoys the dalang by asking about the cloth screen, the light bulb, and the banana stem in front of a Wayang stage. It also allows for a stealthy examination of the form’s troubles: Chung Wei and Tay Sy, the monster, repeat these questions, but more threateningly — they still make the crack about the dalang’s batang pisang; only this time, it is to say that it’s small: “buat apa nak main Wayang Kulit? Sekarang ada wayang filem, Cineplex, besar, canggih!”
That may be “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” ‘s most effective moment. Fahmi’s pet endeavour, this year, is Projek Wayang, an effort that aims to bring the old form a present-day, urban appeal; the people behind the show have rightly identified the barrier to entry as being merely one of public perception. We laugh at Betara Kala’s double entendre, note his opinion as one commonly held against almost all traditional art forms, and then dismiss that opinion. The night’s proceedings had shown us that size and technology are quantitative, not qualitative; Wayang Kulit is as fun as any kind of movie — and what is film, anyway, but the shadows of shapes recreating epic tropes, projected onto a large sheet?
Speaking of technology: the common-object, lo-fi nature of “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” — reflective, naturally, of its inspiration — is a pleasure. Not only in the performer’s plastic bags, but also in graphic artist Fahmi Reza’s overhead projections via overhead projector: shifting bits of paper around (they eventually form the Kelantan state coat-of-arms); a slideshow of scrolling exclamations (done by taping several transparency-pages worth of words); the psychedelia borne out of moving one page of concentric circles over the other (a Fresnel-esque screensaver you’d usually expect to be computer-generated).
Cutting-edge technology is all the rage these days, and while there are clear advantages in employing it, both in life and onstage, very often the programmes and doodads and computer generations we use are just more insulation: contraceptives against getting one’s hands and minds and emotions dirty. But it goes beyond technocracy: the over-application of formula, the adherence to formal discipline, or the slow death of Art-is-sacred are equally rubbery things.
Changing public perception and making old Wayang relevant again involves a willingness to reach out and find audiences — and it may be as simple as that. It’s no mistake that Betara Kala heads to Central Market when he got hungry, not some distant kampung idyll; no faux pas that, before things start, Mark himself gives kneels in front of his audience to give some insight into the performance process, instead of confining it to notes in a programme. With “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari”, the young of Five Arts seem eager to proselytize: like “Baling (membaling)”, the run included a tour of colleges around the Klang Valley — audiences in the show’s Central Market Annexe leg probably were its most “artsy”.
Due to unfortunate circumstances (a case of disfiguring chickenpox in the cast, messing with show dates) the tour didn’t visit public universities. A shame, really: the most debilitating to its intentions. “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” is a damn good show - and not least because you feel as if the people putting it up are not taking themselves too seriously. The fate of Wayang Kulit is a heavy subject, and they give it the thoughtfulness it duly deserves — but that doesn’t stop them from having fun with their material.
The mischief is palpable enough to touch. Fahmi Reza and sound designer Aziz Ali sit behind the audience — but not really apart; everyone is on the floor, or sitting on boxes, so both had audience members seated nearby, peering curiously, trying to figure out what the guys are up to.
Aziz controls his audio cues on a notebook computer, open and on the floor. Tay Sy exits stage left, bowed, expression tired and supplicant, rear thrust up in the air. With a mousepad touch, she appears to expel gas.
After several seconds, Aziz looks up from his console, then sniggers.
First Published: 08.07.2007 on Kakiseni