Dark humour is rife in these riveting playlets that highlight social issues.
KUALA LUMPUR – The term normcore stems from an anti-fashion movement that revolves around purposefully choosing to wear plain, unremarkable clothing. But in the two plays that make up writer Ridhwan Saidi’s Teater Normcore Double Bill, these initially normal looking settings quickly give way to settings far darker than they initially let on. Held in an unusual performance space on fourth floor of an art gallery in Chinatown, we were impressed with Ridhwan’s evocative scripts and resourceful use of the space, keeping direction and set design to a minimal and fully bringing out each script’s inherent message with his actors’ performance alone.
Teater Normcore begins with Tiada Cinta Selama Muda (No Love For The Young), a text heavy play reflecting on the nature of love and relationships in Malaysia amidst tradition, morality and religion. At its core are Amirul Syakir and Adena Sams playing an unnamed couple as we watch them grow and change over four periods in their life.
Inspired by films from the French New Wave, the set up for Tiada Cinta Selama Muda is extremely pared down, with both actors simply sitting with each other and talking. Lights corresponding to yellow, red, blue and white characterise each segment, signifying the primary emotion or theme of each conversation, such as discussions of infidelity and erotica during the ‘red’ segment, while the ‘white’ segment plays out as Adena Sams’ character dons an all white religious garment, perhaps signifying newfound purity. Tiada Cinta Selama Muda was not an easy play to absorb, often heavy in tone and subject matter. The many issues it touched on were bold and often taboo, from orgasms to blindness, something that was rather bold considering the conservative nature of Malaysia. Ridhwan has done well to have captured in his script so much in such a short span of time, fully showcasing the huge extent of research he’s obviously put into its writing.
Tiada Cinta Selama Muda ends inconclusively, but offers reflection on the difficulty of pursuing true love and a real relationship when issues of class and differing beliefs, both personal and religious come into play. Ridhwan’s script left us provoked and pensive, while the often tense performance from Amirul and Adena was helped immensely by the atmosphere and moody lighting, effectively bringing out its themes of distance and connection.
In the second play of the double bill, Ridhwan goes for a more naturalistic setup. Titled Matinya Seorang Birokrat (Death of a Bureaucrat), the play takes on a distinctly more comedic tone as opposed to the first one, with deadpan humour characterising this comedy of misunderstandings between various social classes.
Set in a theatre studio, we’re introduced to a quintessentially eccentric actor (Roshafiq Roslee), as he prepares for the company’s new, upcoming production titled Death of a Bureaucrat. A method actor, his speech and unusual demands irritate his director (Amirul Syakir), a man of a much higher stature and position who leaves him to prepare for the role by studying and conversing with a visiting bureaucrat. As the bureaucrat enters (Mia Sabrina Mahadir), misunderstandings and confusion colour hers and the actor’s conversation with comic lines and witty wordplay from both characters. Mia effectively brings out her character’s sense of condescension when she initially mistakes the actor for the director and abruptly changes her behaviour when she realises her error. Meanwhile, Roshafiq’s dour, deadpan expression and controlled language present throughout the performance only adds to the humour mined from the bureaucrat’s exasperation with the actor, a wonderful contrast to her self-righteous and fast-paced lines.
Towards its climax, Matinya Seorang Birokrat eventually turns pitch black in its shades of humour, with the violent death teased in its title eventually occurring. Yet as violent and shocking as the death is, it’s one that’s not entirely sad. As the bureaucrat reflects back on her position, she finds in her own ‘death’ the hope of new life as she chooses to embark on a path of rebirth that promises to attempt to find a happy medium between the arts and bureaucracy. Ultimately, the play leaves us battered but hopeful in its belief that the unimaginably wide gulf between artist and government can eventually be bridged.
In our short time in Kuala Lumpur, we’ve already caught three plays of vastly different forms and sizes. Teater Normcore provides a fascinating look at the sheer potential the Malaysian arts scene has to offer with its intellectual take on issues within the country, and we can only hope that when we next return, we’ll get a chance to see even more of such writing and productions receive a showcase. The plays we’ve seen have each caught our attention in their own unique way, and be it on a huge stage or as simple as the fourth floor of an art gallery, what truly matters is that there remains space and opportunity for the arts to grow, and that these creators are given support in the right places.
Performance attended 8/2/18
Teater Normcore played at RAW Arts Space, Kuala Lumpur from 8th February till 11th February.