Review: Main² by Teater Ekamatra (Pesta Raya 2017)

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When one thinks of Hari Raya, one thinks of tasty ketupats, pasar malams and LED lights outside houses of those celebrating this joyous occasion. It’s almost impossible to link it to issues such as drugs, incest, rape and domestic violence. But for Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, no issue is too dark to bare on stage in Main².  

Commissioned for the inaugural Pesta Raya back in 2002, Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit’s seminal play about the lower depths of the Malay community returns to the festival 15 years on with an all new cast and a script updated to include modern references.

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Main² takes place in the limbo of the afterlife, where six souls await Hari Raya to return to earth and visit their loved ones. Main², or ‘Main Main’ literally means to play, and to reflect that, limbo takes the form of a literal playground, as designed by Akbar Syadiq, which during the play, cast members make full use of, from scaling a green climbing frame to oscillating from an orange swingset. Adding to these colourful images is Foo Ai Wei’s patterned, multi-layered costumes. Although at times certain articles of clothing appear tacked on for aesthetic purposes, each costume is actually extremely functional and very well thought out, allowing the cast to easily transform them onstage when they play a different character from each other’s pasts. There is an incredible energy emanating from all six cast members as they skip and dash across the set, playing games from childhood and revealing their unbridled desire to return to a simpler time, away from the tragedies of their past lives.

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But despite its cheerful visuals and deceptively innocent title, Main² is probably the most sobering play to have graced the stage in a while. Beneath the multi-hued slides and seesaws and rounds of ‘catching’, each of the six cast members hide a dark history that’s led them to their current predicament. Daud (Al-Matin Yatim) was a serial drug abuser living with his single mother, Adam (Farez Najid) was an unrepentant, abusive divorcee whose only care in the world was his Harley Davidson and dating young girls, Junita (Farhana M Noor) was a victim of domestic abuse in a shotgun marriage to a gambling addict, while Shaiful (Hatta Bin Said) was a henpecked husband both physically and psychologically abused by his wife.

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In a role far removed from her carefree YouTube persona, Munah Bagharib plays Asha, the mistress in an extramarital affair who grew up with suicidal tendencies. Her description of her various suicide attempts are strangely logical, and there is an immense relatability and sympathy for her character’s desperation in holding on to the one relationship in her life.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the character of Nina (Suhaili Safari), a Hotel 81 receptionist who reveals her horrifying childhood of being routinely sexually abused by her father, warping her idea of love in adulthood. Suhaili Safari’s Nina appears to have arrested development, and her performance paints the picture of a naive, innocent child equating love with sex. A particularly disturbing image features Nina performing a sexualized version of ‘Rasa Sayang’ as she lies on a see-saw and spreads her legs wide. Her eventual demise is one of the most gruesome and tragic ends of all, and viewers should be forewarned that there are zero happy endings in Main².

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The most disturbing thing about Main² is the casual way with which most of the characters treat the various forms of abuse each of them has gone through. In Main², ‘play’ is a coping mechanism and a means of making sense of the unbelievable horrors each of these characters have gone through in life. Although one might think of play as therapeutic as a form of escapism, the hard truths still manage to find a way into their games, warping them into something far more sinister. Early on, for example, a game of Pepsi Cola gets a twist when it adds in a side of wordplay, and each character’s rhymes and puns are darkened by their content while audience members remain mesmerized by the hypnotic choreography of stepping and jumping.

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Alin Mosbit’s script and direction allows for the tragedy to take on interesting new forms that are as chilling as they are watchable. Adam tells his story like a stand-up act, trivializing his abusive behaviour by lacing it with comedy and interspersing it with recreations of popular movie scenes, while Daud’s drug use is represented by a feverish headtrip into his stoned mind, where he meets quirky imaginary characters and even ends up doing a ballet sequence. One of our personal favourite scenes was Nina asking to play ‘royalty’, and the cast took on various roles in a campy fantasy setting. Farhana M Noor stole the show in this sequence as a deceased queen with an American accent, while Hatta Bin Said was given the opportunity to play a laugh out loud comedic role, in contrast to the gloom and doom of the rest of the play. All six cast members are extremely capable, and possess a spectacular chemistry with each other that brings Alin’s script to life, easily instilling sympathy for each of their recognizable characters as individuals and fortifying each other’s performances when they come together.

Although reported incidences of drug abuse, domestic abuse and sexual abuse have gone down since the play’s premiere in 2002, they remain pertinent issues even in 2017. At times difficult to watch due to its discomforting content, Alin Mosbit’s play is a bitter pill to swallow as it reveals these very real problems that continue plaguing parts of the Malay community. Main² is a deeply melancholic response to the Hari Raya festivities, and remains a bleak reminder that beneath the perfect facade of our garden city lies an entire community of people still living on the fringes of society, with little to no way out.

Photo Credit: Jack Yam, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended on 20/7/17. 

Main² plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 23rd July as part of the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of the Arts. Tickets available here

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