Metatheatrical examination of Malay representation onstage brims with potential.
Theatrical adaptations from one medium to another are tricky businesses, with the fear that the essence of the original is lost in translation, rather than enhanced. It is to the credit of playwright/director Adeeb Fazah and the Second Breakfast Company team then that Performing Malay Sketches is in fact, not a direct adaptation of Alfian Sa’at’s eponymous short story collection, but an original work that delves into the metatheatrical instead, adapting the short stories in part and framing them through a larger narrative.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alfian himself did something similar last year with Tiger of Malaya, passing commentary on Malay representation in national narratives by portraying a theatre company remaking a ‘brown-face’ film. In Performing Malay Sketches, the premise instead features an all-Malay production team adapting Alfian’s collection for the stage, in an attempt to create both a seminal piece of performing art, and to reclaim Malay-ness from their overuse as comical stereotypes onstage.
The fictitious production team, for the most part, comprises familiar characters echoing people one might have met in real life – there’s Ijah (Sofihah Sha’har), the director with a brown saviour complex as she dreams of creating the ‘Malay Black Panther’, Faizal (Fauzi Azzhar of SGAG, in his theatre debut), the stage manager who’s keeping all his frustrations bottled up, Bob (Hafidz Abdul Rahman), the educated mat and actor, Mas (Nisa Syrarafina of Patch and Punnet), a ditzy actress, and Shazwan (Adeeb Fazah himself, in a rare stage appearance), the quintessential shady, business-minded producer.
The metatheatrical medium works like a charm for this production, set in the company’s ‘rehearsal space’ and easily allowing the audience to believe in the authenticity of the rehearsals taking place before us. Like with other ‘plays gone wrong’ types of productions, there is a schaudenfreude-like glee in watching things fall apart as each character grates on the others’ nerves with their own view of how the production should unfold, with frustrations growing greater still when rehearsing scenes with ever increasing limitations (mostly due to Ijah’s lofty artistic demands). Things only get worse when an actor pulls out due to unforeseen circumstances, replaced instead with a Chinese actor (Hu Yuheng) with the short notice, lending only greater tension still.
The great thing about Performing Malay Sketches is its unabashed, sharp humour, making keen references to the local theatre scene that anyone in the know would likely chortle at, not to mention the observational, almost absurd social humour Alfian’s original texts themselves are chock full of. But even amidst the laughter, there is a strong dose of social commentary that leaves one uncomfortable at times with the hard truths brought to light, particularly when it comes to the unanswerable problem of the best way to then represent ‘Malay-ness’ on stage, with the crux of the drama coming from Ijah’s attempts to erase it altogether by removing all references of it to create a more universal drama, much to the chagrin and annoyance of Bob.
The production could have afforded to tighten up on the pacing of the play, especially with its constant repetition of the same issue over and over again in different variations, leading to a degree of fatigue, as opposed to a potential ‘mic-drop’ moment that never quite happens throughout the play. But in terms of its casting choice, Performing Malay Sketches effectively plays to each of its performers’ strengths they have each become known for, bringing out the awkward humour of Fauzi Azzhar, Nisa Syarafina’s over the top character work, and even gives Hafidz Abdul Rahman a chance to channel his makcik character from his YouTube channel. Sofihah Sha’har, for all her character’s difficulty, delicately manages to balance both the air of directorial leadership and the emotional strain of the character.
Performing Malay Sketches effectively wields Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches to provide biting commentary on the problems of representation onstage today, highlighting limitations of the ‘small’ industry itself in preventing an ideal outcome from currently, if ever being reached. Humorous, piercing, and current, should The Second Breakfast Company ever receive a chance to revisit this piece in future, then by all means, we welcome it.
Performance attended 7/10/19 (8pm)
Performing Malay Sketches runs till 10th March 2019 at The Arts House Play Den. Tickets are sold out.
Textures 2019 runs from 7th to 10th March 2019 at The Arts House. For a full list of programmes and tickets, refer to their website here