Ridhwan Saidi adapts P. Ramlee’s classic film with a dose of social commentary.
Performed at KongsiKL, the newest edition of Kaos Nol’s Teater Normcore series feels like a form of guerrilla theatre, purposely minimalist and low-budget to focus attention on the production’s craft, script and performance. In this play, playwright and director Ridhwan Saidi has taken inspiration from P. Ramlee’s 1965 film Masam-Masam Manis, loosely adapting it for the stage and adding in contemporary elements and social commentary on modern life in Malaysia.
With KongsiKL’s warehouse space, there’s an element of grunge to the set-up that fully encapsulates Teater Normcore’s ethos of unconventionality and ground-up theatre. Ilham Sani’s scenography shows a good use of space here, with the stage split into two sections with a simple sheet down the middle, resembling two rooms side by side. Across the production, Masam Manis also makes use of a ‘screen’ to show various film clips, setting the scene and establishing the mood and narrative of what’s to follow. The ‘screen’ is in fact a length of cloth, operated by a pulley system. One sees it as a homage to the olden days, reminiscent of how some films might have been screened back in the past.
The show opens with Mar (Sadiq M. Jamil) putting on makeup and sitting at his dresser, while swiping across his phone, reminiscent of how we swipe on dating apps like Tinder. He finally chooses someone, and June (Lew Shu Ni) comes right out, to represent his ‘swipe’. In the other room is Hanim (Mia Sabrina Mahadir, wearing a tudung), who has no idea that it is Mar living right next to her. They argue across opaque walls, complaining about how each other is too noisy and don’t know how to keep quiet, with Mar accusing Hanim of being a backward ‘villager’ and Hanim countering by calling him a ‘city dweller’. It seems that with this set-up, Masam Manis represents the ever-growing lack of neighbourliness in today’s world.
But interestingly, the two seem to have more in common than they think, as Hanim also ends up finding a date – Tengku. Also played by Lew Shu Ni, June/Tengku’s lines are identical when they speak to either Mar or Hanim, and June/Tengku’s identity remains a mystery. Whether Shu Ni is playing June on Mar’s side of the room, or Tengku on Hanim’s side, she is using the same pickup lines and telling them the same story to get closer to them. We think about how on dating apps, we too end up using the same lines and same methods to flirt with others, and as repetitive as it seems, it somehow still works.
Eventually, both Mar and Hanim are so taken with their dates’ charms, that they end up being convinced to marry June/Tengku. This is represented by June attaching a chain from her wrist to Mar’s, and Tengku doing the same with his wrist and Hanim’s. Because of how June and Tengku are both played by the same person, effectively, this ties all of them together in a strange threesome, with both neighbours tied to June/Tengku. When Mar and Hanim finally meet, we realise that they actually know each other and are friends. They comment on each other being attached now, and suggest to go out on a double date with June/Tengku. Much to their surprise, when they both head home, they finally realise that they live beside each other. There is a clear divide between our public selves and private ones, where we share only certain things with others, and keep other secrets to ourselves.
As the show ends, we now see Mar and Hanim now attached directly to each other by that chain around their wrists. June/Tengku are nowhere to be seen, and we begin to wonder if they were even real to begin with. One thinks of this scene as representing how Mar and Hanim were so in love with the idea of being with someone, that June/Tengku were merely a figment of their imagination. Or in an alternative interpretation, one could even see June/Tengku as the personas that Mar and Hanim take on while using the dating app, almost ‘catfishing’ each other by pretending to be someone they are not (Mar as Tengku and Hanim as June), unwittingly ending up with each other.
How much do we really know someone, and if we don’t take the step to unearth more about that person, then can we really know how well two people can exist as friends or lovers? In Malay, ‘Masam Manis’ translates to “sour sweet”, and this show ends up as a curious exploration of love and all its complications. We see the tension that emerges from the various masks we put on in public and the information we volunteer on dating apps or real life, and we are left certain of one thing: even as we’ve got our eyes glued to our devices, we must still make an effort to be real and truthful if we want to live our best lives.
Performance attended 14/3/20
Masam Manis played from 12th to 15th March 2020 at KongsiKL, Old Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.