What’s That Smell?

The shop-lot in Taman Tun Dr Ismail that the theatre companies Dramalab and Five Arts Centre share has a rehearsal space on the ground floor; last Monday, it was occupied by the cast of Ann Lee’s “Tarap Man”, the playwright’s first full-length play in nearly a decade. For a work of such apparent significance, however, the prevailing emotion in the room seemed to be one of becalmed energy.

Ann, after whispering to two of her principals, leapt off a table on which she was perched; Anne James and Mia Palencia resumed their work by bouncing a ping-pong ball back and forth. It was an expositional scene, clearly: the veteran journalist Ashi (played by Anne) was getting to know her new apprentice Cornelia (played by Mia) over a game. Yet the two actors kept missing strokes and collapsing into laughter; halfway through, Mia stopped to pick something from the table’s wooden surface. “What is a peanut doing there?” she said. “It was distracting me!”

Director Zahim Albakri had his attention elsewhere — on Thor Kah Hoong and Christina Orow; the former was reporter confronting the latter, his editor, in the scene they were rehearsing. “Better,” Zahim said, sitting slumped in a chair and looking relaxed. “But it still feels a little flat; we still don’t feel the stakes. And Thor, remember that you don’t have much space to move around; this will happen on an upper level.”

“How wide is it?” Thor asked.

“It should go up to there,” Zahim said, gesturing a line on the floor. Thor made a show of falling down some stairs, and Christina peered over the imaginary edge. “Tarap Man” would be opening on December 5th. Panic should have set in this late into the process, but on that evening, nine days away from opening night, I could see no evidence of it.

The Cracks

It is usually a faux pas to ask a playwright what her play is about — I did it anyway, and Ann gamely obliged: “It’s about a boy, who didn’t have a birth certificate because of the war, and the crime he may or may not have committed in 1952, and the question of whether he could still be kept in prison.”

The germ of the Tarap Man (a fictional character, so named because he was eating the fruit at the same time his parents’ lifeless bodies were discovered, and played by Vernon Adrian Emuang in the upcoming production) was planted in 2000, when Ann read a report about the mentally ill in Sarawak; the article mentioned a patient that had been in the system for 40 years.

“He murdered his wife,” Ann said. “I tried to find out more, but that the usual problem with Malaysia: we can’t get access. This is especially true for prisons and hospitals.” The rule of silence, ostensibly in to protect the privacy of individuals and families, so heavily blankets information as to mean that we don’t really know what’s going on within those systems.

Ann did what any good sleuth would have done: she snooped around some more –­ recruiting the assistance of lawyers M R Purvalen, John Skelchy, and Hamid Ibrahim. “I started to research criminal law,” Ann said. “I found out that the prison systems of East and West Malaysia were very different — there was a very different sense of how to run the place — and were only aligned in 1975.” Records of before this time were sketchy and ad hoc.

The playwright’s imagination began to flare. “So I started wondering: what about someone who had no records, who had lost his birth cert?” Ann said, “Kept in prison, essentially, at His Majesty’s pleasure?” There were review systems in place, of course, but what if due process did not function for the few individuals who had slipped between the cracks?

“I found out, later, that the man who had been in hospital for 40 years had been asked whether he would like to leave,” Ann said. “He refused because he had been there for so long — but the interesting thing is that he was actually offered a choice. Could he have been given the option ten years ago? Twenty? Where was the line?” These questions were subsidiaries under a thematic umbrella: the exercise of justice’s calculus upon Malaysian society.

Investigative Journalism

“Tarap Man” isn’t just about the Tarap Man, though — it is also about chasing the story of the Tarap Man. Anne James’ character, Ashi, is a West Malaysian journalist who lost her job for the kind of provocative commentary to which our media is so averse. “She’s flown too close to the sun,” Ann said, “And she ends up in Sabah — like most people who’ve fucked up.” In the play, it is 1994 — the year Barisan Nasional took over government of the state, even though Parti Bersatu Sabah had won in elections (PBS would later be assimilated into the BN coalition). “How does she move about in an environment that’s unfamiliar,” the playwright wondered, “That’s filled with all these obstacles?”

In many ways, the play is vessel that explores this idea of crossing over. Staging “Tarap Man” in 2007 was important for Ann. “I wanted to do it in our 50th anniversary,” she said, “With the whole thing about Merdeka and Malaysia Day and whether it should be 50 years or 46 years.” The playwright told me about the 20-point memorandum of 1963, which stipulated North Borneo’s conditions on joining the federal government (Point 5, for example, states that the federation should be named “Malaysia”, but not “Melayu Raya”) — and how travelling back there (Ann was born in Sabah) drove all these issues home. “If you come from Semenanjung, you have to show your passport — Whereas I didn’t have to,” Ann said. “The 20 points just came back out.”

In her writing for the theatre, Ann feels closest to Kee Thuan Chye, whose works for the theatre (“1984 Here and Now” (1987) and “We Could**** You Mr. Birch” (1994), most notably) take on socio-political conundrums. But there are important differences. “Thuan Chye is more barebones and didactic,” Ann said. “I think I prefer to be less direct.” Much of her work hinges on the personal. Kualiworks, an all-women production company that Ann co-founded, most recently staged “From Table Mountain to Teluk Intan”, a dramatisation of Shahimah Idris’s private struggle with violence and disability; the writer’s first play, 1993’s “Happy Families”, weaved child abuse into the stories of four father-daughter configurations.

Perhaps a fitting example of this oblique style is the tarap itself, which subtly underlines the disconnect between East Malaysia and the peninsula. Having never seen one for myself, I asked Ann to describe the fruit. “It’s very hiong, very fragrant,” Ann said. “Unlike cempedak or durian, it’s easy to open, and the fruits are around a single stem. It’s fleshy and comes off easy in the mouth.”

I read Ann a reference to the tarap that I found online: “It tastes like rosemary with custard.”

“It’s my favourite fruit,” Ann said. “Coming from Sabah to KL in 1987, I couldn’t find it — nobody knew what it was! It was so common, back home.” We are citizens of the same nation-state, but we didn’t even know each other’s produce.

Dialogue Coaches

Our multilingual society presents certain problems for writers; it is host to any number of dialects, and familiarity with individual idioms may vary wildly. The instinct to present the Babel-like “voice” of Malaysia and the need for textual intelligibility are diametrically opposed. Some tackle this obstacle well – K S Maniam writes in English, but attempts to capture the cadences of Tamil in his characters’ diction; Thuan Chye has his speak in the way they would speak England, according to class and upbringing. Then there is always the option of copping out: pinning “lah”s onto the rears of every other sentence.

In this case, then, “Tarap Man” — like all of Ann’s previous work — is defiantly difficult: the play is largely in English, but also features significant bits of Bahasa Melayu, Telegu, Maoyen Hakka, and Kadazan. Dramalab’s production had the assistance of half-a-dozen language tutors. “I had Petronila Maurice to help me translate, and the cast had Fenella Ginu to coach them on pronunciation,” Ann told me. “They are both from the Kadazan Cultural Association.”

The playwright felt that it was important to have an authentic cacophony. “Hopefully it’s not arbitrary,” Ann said. “The language has to work for the characters — and here, language is of extra importance because they are mother tongues.” On and off the stage, people are irreversibly coloured (and vitalised) by how they first learned how to communicate — again, a nexus of contention inseparable from our context.

Of course, audiences still have to understand what is being said; in the theatre, this is· frequently solved with subtitling. “Zahim has suggested that translations be projected in between the performers as they talk,” Ann said. “We’re still trying things out.” But Ann isn’t worried. “Theatricality has possibilities. You see how you include it and struggle with those problems. I’m interested in how things come together.”


Earlier that evening I had a chat with Zahim about staging. There was a floor plan of the stage stuck to a wall, adorned with notes. “Tarap Man” would be running in The Annexe at Central Market’s top-floor gallery; divided into three sections, each with their individual lofts, it is a puzzle for regular theatre.

“How do we use a space like that?” Zahim said. “I’m still trying to decide whether we should use all the sections, and move the audience around. It’s a question of: how do we serve the play? It’s about an investigation; in the same way, we’re finding ways of staging it.”

As he talked to me, Zahim was sorting through stacks of paper; readings and rehearsals had produced seven drafts, with numerous minor rewrites.

The first public taste of “Tarap Man”, a rehearsed reading, happened in September, as part of Dramalab’s “A Season of Origins and Originals” programme of new works. Zahim had received the text five months earlier, at a cold read Ann presented to friends. When he first read it — the play was, then, in its fourth iteration — he found it perplexing; on paper, the themes and ideas were a muddle. “It was a tough read,” Zahim said. “I wasn’t quite sure what it was about. This is something that needs to be performed; it needs actors to delve into it.”

I asked Zahim whether he felt prepared.

”No,” Zahim said. “It keeps changing — I’ve actually got a note for Ann today.” I didn’t detect much worry in the man’s voice, however; the standard final-week fatigue typical of any rehearsal cycle was, here, mixed with good humour.

One of the country’s most saleable stage directors, Zahim’s last production was Enfiniti Productions’ sumptuous (and well-sold) “P Ramlee – The Musical” — “Tarap Man”, by contrast, was almost a respite. He seemed to take to his current project with an air of relief, as if the smaller scale and budget meant more room to manoeuvre — to try out, and be excited by new ideas. “Let’s explore the play in an unconventional space,” Zahim said. “I’m still discovering it. It’s all part of the process.”


When I told Ann that Zahim had notes for her, the playwright was more excited than apprehensive. “I’m doing rewrites in rehearsals, rewrites overnight,” Ann said. “I did make a stand on certain things — but (and I hope Zahim will agree) I’ve been open.” She had no doubts about her director. “His dramaturgical input was most helpful here,” Ann said. “He has an incredible eye for detail.”

Staging “Tarap Man” has been a fresh experience for Ann. Her previous plays were self­-directed — partly because she thought she was the best person to do it, and partly because she assumed that no one else wanted to. But a twenty-year-long evolution demanded change. “The readings showed me that other people’s opinions are paramount,” Ann said. “What do the director and actors think? ‘Tarap Man’ is a thriller; with all those rewrites, I sometimes lose the plot. Other people provide extra rigour.”

The playwright grinned. “It also means that it’s not just me,” she said. “I get to put everyone under suffering”.

But the so-called “suffering” is an exhilarating, almost playful process; it means that actual creating is being done. Towards the end of our time together, as I ran through my notes, Ann insisted that I record her enthusiasm for the production’s actors: from her words, all seemed to have challenging roles; later, when I met the cast, I could see from their faces that they were having a ball doing it.

Speaking of Thor Kah Hoong, Ann had this to say: “His challenge is to not play Thor”: not to be the aloof, quietly intense mandarin the actor almost always is, onstage. “I think he’s going to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Ann told me. Judging from Thor’s shenanigans that Monday night, I had no reason to disbelieve her.

First Published: 05.12.2007 on Kakiseni

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