Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatra
Memory, mothers and manhood are placed on the chopping block in Teater Ekamatra’s first show of the season.
In the absence of a father, what male figures does one have to turn to in order to find out what makes a man?
That’s one of the central question at the heart of Teater Ekamatra’s first show of the season. Directed by Irfan Kasban and written by Johnny Jon Jon, Potong follows Adam (Salif Hardie), an Australian-born Singaporean just turned 18. As a rite of passage, his single mother Siti (Farah Ong) sends him back to Singapore to serve his National Service and get a circumcision, in an attempt to get him to reconnect with his roots. But things get weird when Siti becomes adamant about staying behind in Perth, and weirder still when Adam encounters his transgender Uncle Saleh (Mohd Fared Jainal) and a circumcision specialist (Munah Bagharib) who takes just a little too much pleasure in her family business.
Johnny Jon Jon may be young, but he’s already developed a very recognizable voice. In a full length play like Potong, he’s given the chance to pepper the entire script with his signature puns and wordplay, touching on identity and ritual amidst a slightly less than normal family. From beginning as a commentary on manhood and father figures, Potong quickly spirals into a a much more complex play that throws in themes of memory and inheritance as skeletons in the closet are exhumed one by one. Rich in symbolism, costumes adhere to a specific colour scheme to represent mirrored and inherited roles, while the fact that Adam shares his name with the first man ties in nicely with his becoming an adult male. Irfan Kasban’s choice to use multiple lamps as light sources helps create some interesting illuminations that add dramatic flair, while Tini Aliman’s electronic music jerks audiences out of the peaceful pastoral and hints at the tragedy still to come with its dissonance and sonic crackle.
Irfan Kasban’s direction, though slow, allows audience members the time to grow alongside Potong’s characters, and endear them to us, helped by Johnny’s uncanny ability to write unforgettable people who remain relatable amidst their quirks. Good performances from the cast allow Potong to hit its emotional stride and make this play work – Farah Ong switches between playing a middle aged mother and an older grandmother quickly and fluidly, and captures the terror of Alzheimer’s perfectly in her casual amnesia and a real fear in being completely lost, with her chemistry with her onstage sons. Meanwhile, Mohd Fared Jainal captures the physicality and vocal inflections of a transgender woman accurately, allowing us to buy into his character, while striking an emotional chord in the most basic of human desires – the want to forge a strong relationship with one’s own parent.
Similar to how it mentions that it is not the ritual itself that makes a man, but the journey one experiences that shapes him, Potong may take us on a rollercoaster road to independence as we watch a boy turn to man, but finds real power in its exploration and straining of the unbreakable bonds between mothers, sons and family. Arresting and original, Potong proves that Johnny Jon Jon has potential to be one of the most promising local Malay playwrights of his generation with his ambitious writing and clear voice.
Photo Credit: Irfan Kasban
Performance attended 21/3/18
Potong plays at the Malay Heritage Centre from 21st – 25th March 2018. Tickets available from Eventbrite