Circumcision as a rite of passage opens up difficult conversations about family ties.
Severance of any form can be a source of great anxiety. Whether it’s separation from the only family you’ve ever known, or even the prospect of removing a part of your body, can the act of having something cut off from you no longer be seen as a necessary rite of passage?
In Teater Ekamatra’s Potong, that is precisely what protagonist Adam is wondering, as he’s shipped off to Singapore alone to serve his National Service, and instructed to undergo circumcision, both at the insistence of his single mother Siti, in a bid to make him more of a man. Things aren’t as straightforward as they initial seem however, when he meets faces a strange doctor with a wicked sense of humour, but also meets his uncle Saleh for the first time, completely different from the photos he’s known. It is under these circumstances that Adam begins his path towards becoming an independent adult, and understanding what it means to be a Malay man.
Originally staged in 2018, this new production of Potong is helmed by Mohd Fared Jainal, who brings a clear sense of direction and pacing to the work, capturing the little nuances and ensuring balance between Johnny Jon Jon’s quirky sense of humour, and his emotionally devastating scenes. Above all, there is a fundamental thread of family that ties the entire show together, as the characters all deal with their own personal hang-ups and complicated familial relationships across the play, taking us on a powerful journey of self-discovery from start to end.
This is supported by the play’s design elements. Wong Chee Wai has crafted a maximalist set for Potong, divided into three distinct segments – a room half-filled with plants that Siti attends to and waters, Saleh’s bedroom with a mirrored dresser piled with makeup clearly visible, and Dr Dini’s intimate consultation room, with a shelf full of perfume. Each space feels like it belongs to one of the three characters mentioned, with only Adam, lost without a clear identity, not having a space of his own. Within the set, there are also patches of what look like shreds of clear plastic wrap and metallic patches strung up on string, perhaps symbolising how frayed or damaged these characters are inside.
From time to time, the string connecting all the metallic patches is rustled, and combined with Safuan Johari’s soundtrack, with hints of static and interference, it brings out the tensions abound in the play. Safuan’s soundtrack is also perfectly pitched for each scene, and supports the core emotions in each moment, whether as an emotional lullaby, or tenuous uncertainty. Albert Wileo’s lighting also plays well with the set, the lights reflecting ever so softly off the metallic patches and amplifying their effect, while still focused enough to illuminate only the parts of the set necessary at any point.
Watching Potong, one would be forgiven if they thought it was a comedy at first, with Johnny Jon Jon’s penchant for quickfire puns and witty wordplay employed by both Saleh and Dr Dini, often at the expense of Adam and his inability to understand Malay. But between the jokes, Potong also takes its time to fully and firmly establish and build up each character and their relationships, so much that we perfectly understand the complexities in their attitudes towards each other, and how even their silence speaks volumes of the love and care they have for each other.
Strong performances from the entire cast allow Potong to achieve this, and hit its emotional high points. Farah Ong, the only cast member to reprise her role, excels as both Siti and Siti’s mother, each role echoing the other in their heartbreaking portrayal of dementia, drifting in and out of her memories and the present, while maintaining strong onstage chemistry and clear love for both her sons. Despite a shaky Australian accent, Irsyad Dawood gives the impression of a boy who’s not yet a man, extremely attached to his single mother, and is clearly overwhelmed when he arrives in Singapore. Aisyah Aziz, as the wisecracking Dr Dini, makes for welcome relief from some of the heavier material the play deals with, and offers an objective point of view as to how to make sense of circumcision.
Of the cast however, it is Jada as Saleh who emerges as the breakout star. Taking on a mentor and guardian role towards Adam, Saleh is a bundle of supposed contradictions of gender, sexuality, religion and more, yet always feels like the wisest and most responsible person in the room. It helps that whether in menswear or womenswear, Jada’s personality glows bright, always ready with a sassy retort or sly observation. There is an authenticity and sincerity to the way Jada plays the role, unabashed and unafraid to speak her mind, while nursing a heart of gold.
This is especially felt in scenes between herself and Farah Ong, such as how even across a phone call, the sibling bond and resemblance is clear in the way they banter and joke, with an underlying layer of concern for each other, even if only fleetingly mentioned. But underneath the sass and glamour, there is a clear burden of sadness Jada bears as Saleh, from the way Saleh’s own mother has forgotten about her son, and the pain of pretending to be Siti, knowing their mother will never accept her own transgender child.
When Potong reaches its emotional high points is when it drives home its themes and leaves us floored by its ingenuity. Throughout the play, there is a recurring idea of how forced severance and separation is what builds stronger bonds and maturity. Yet by its end, what is revealed is that all this simply serves to leave one psychologically affected or worse – left in the dark about a loved one until it’s too late. Perhaps what underscores Potong as a whole is a single scene towards the end, as Saleh and Siti’s mother, slipping in and out of her memories and consciousness, briefly recognises Saleh again after years of forgetting. She lays her head on Saleh’s lap, and the momentary bond between mother and child is clear to see; all around in the theatre, one hears sniffles and crying, with the realisation that familial bonds are one of the strongest ones of all, allowing people to find strength to carry on in spite of all the loss.
In all, Potong is an ambitious play that is skilfully presented in this production, deftly balancing difficult themes of loss with the complexities of finding one’s identity. There are well-placed, intentional running themes and ideas that recur throughout the play, whether it’s anxiety over separation and reconciliation with foreskin and mothers, or accelerated adulthood due to harrowing experiences in life. The power of theatre lies in its ability to elevate the seemingly ordinary into something profound by revealing fundamental truths. Potong has achieved that with stunning sensitivity and sincerity, and makes a strong case for carving out new normals in the Malay family structure, where love and acceptance are what’s needed to cut through the pain and confusion of life.
Photo Credit: A. Syadiq, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay
Potong runs from 18th to 21st May 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts. Tickets and more information available here
Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts runs from 18th to 21st May 2023 at the Esplanade. Tickets and full programme available here
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