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★★★★☆ Review: Berak by Teater Ekamatra

Chong Tze Chien’s Poop! takes on new life for a Malay audience.

According to the Islamic faith, a person commits suicide is sent straight to hell. Yet, within Malay culture, there remains the belief in the existence of hantus and lingering spirits that remain earthbound even after death. Does that then suggest there are alternative means to think about what lies after death, and use that space to process one’s grief?

Originally written by Chong Tze Chien and staged by The Finger Players (TFP) as Poop!, Malay theatre company Teater Ekamatra have now taken Poop! and given it their signature ‘transcreation’ process, reborn as Malay play Berak. In this version, directed by Mohd Fared Jainal and adapted Zulfadli Rashid, Berak follows the aftermath of a father who commits suicide, and explores how his remaining family members – his wife, his mother, and his daughter, handle the ensuing grief.

Wherein the original TFP production, Poop! went full on into innovative use of puppetry, black light theatre that only showed select parts of the set, and emotive sound to craft a whimsical world, Berak instead opts to focus on a more immersive set-up to achieve the same effect. Most notably, Wong Chee Wai’s colourful set features a series of tunnel-like orange tubes that snake around the Esplanade Theatre Studio, reminiscent of a waterpark or giant playground that contrasts the play’s heavy theme of death, while a circular screen with a hole in the middle bears more than a passing resemblance to an anus, and is a cheeky wink to the title. A shiny, reflective floor further throws the realism of the play into question, and creates the illusion of depth when it mirrors the set and actors.

The eye-catching set however, seems to work against Berak, with how busy the stage feels almost all the time. Besides the set, Berak also features lighting that illuminates the entire space, all four actors onstage at the same time and performing in some capacity in nearly every scene, while trippy visuals and video footage (by Eric Lee) plays on the screen. The audience’s eyes are constantly wandering rather than focused, and often detracts from its ability to fully capitalise on the intimacy of the more emotional scenes.

That being said, Berak‘s stellar cast is what carries it, and they bring out the off-kilter nature of the play, balancing it with the raw pain always hiding just under the surface. Fir Rahman is fantastic as the deceased father, sadness and confusion on his face as he communes from beyond the grave that shows both guilt and regret at having left his family behind. There is an immense desperation he emanates as we watch his life from before the suicide, an insurance salesman who receives rejections at every call, and an increasing sense of shame when nothing seems to be going right for him. Berak hurts so much precisely because we understand how a man can be driven to take his own life, backed into a corner with the sheer amount of pressure heaped onto him.

As the central figure in Berak, Fir also interacts well with his other cast members, and amidst the sadness, always brings joy to the stage whenever he interacts with his daughter, played by Siti K. After a long absence from Malay theatre, Siti K’s return is a welcome one, and channels her inner child to bring a lightness to her movements and sweet innocence to her smile. Her interactions with Fir Rahman allow her to really lean into the carefree nature of her character, with the two often engaging in games that see their imagination coming to life, such as Fir acting as a ghost on the MRT. At one point, Fir dresses up as a vampire to represent a cancer cell, and under ultraviolet light, Siti K and Fir wield glowing, neon props to do ‘battle’ with each other, one last moment together as father and daughter.

Meanwhile, Siti Hajar, as Fir’s widowed wife, brings the most serious character to the table, expressing her frustration at being the only one who seems to be doing the necessary preparations for the funeral, her frustrated grief the most familiar of the remaining three characters. In a particularly devastating monologue, she recounts a dream she has of Fir stumbling through hell, while in others, she grapples with the twin pressures of dealing with her mother-in-law and her daughter’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, all of which contribute to her portrayal of a long-suffering mother deserving of our sympathy.

Finally, Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit rounds up the cast as Fir’s mother, constantly plugged into her headphones, as if in denial of her son’s suicide, and even going so far as to tell her granddaughter that he remains all around, in the air, in the toilet, and in the NEWater they drink. As aloof as she seems to be, there is a streak of anger that escapes each time she ‘sees’ Fir, lashing out at him for the pain he has caused the family and broken her heart. As with the original, one of the most powerful moments actually comes from Alin’s interaction with Siti Hajar, partly from how unexpectedly hard it hits with the truth. With her husband gone and only a matter of time before her daughter succumbs to her illness, Siti Hajar expresses apology for her desire to return home to Malaysia to be with her family. But rather than anger, Alin responds with acceptance, recognising that they are no longer tied together by any living people, only sharing their grief in their deaths.

As a whole, Berak feels like an almost completely different production from the original, with distinctly Malay elements such as reference to a kenduri and the use of traditional Malay songs to characterise the play. Yet, at its heart, Berak still captures the core idea of how death and grief completely overturn the life of those left behind, the pressure of keeping up appearances and the seeming impossibility of moving on. Even with its somewhat disorganised direction, that in itself perhaps reflects the chaos that grief wreaks on the living, and by its end, we recognise the storm of emotions across all four characters that makes grief precisely so hard to weather. Ending on a note of hope, in watching Fir go towards the light, it seems like the characters of Berak are finally ready to move on and perhaps, allow the pain to slowly but surely subside as they begin to heal.

Photo Credit: A. Syadiq

Berak played from 1st to 4th September 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here

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