Five Arts Centre celebrates its 15th Anniversary this year . That’s an incredible feat in itself, for a multi-arts company to survive a decade and a half – and still operate as one big happy family.
Indeed, many key members of Five Arts grew up with theater doyen Krishen Jit and dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz as surrogate parents – and more than a few have gone on to conquer new arts frontiers and win international acclaim as luminaries in their own right. This says a lot about the spirit of Five Arts – long may it live and prosper! – but such durability, such perseverance, such persistence, such prolixity can also prove to be a drawback in certain respects.
The Five Arts family feeling is lovely and wondrous to behold – but it does tend towards an artistic vision that’s inbred and incestuous. Meaning: if it’s a Five Arts production, you can be sure it will be of a certain technical standard, address certain specifically “Malaysian” issues, and embody characteristic “post-modern” postures that may have been avant-garde a decade ago, but in the context of contemporary values, tend to appear over-cautious and repetitious. In other words, it WOULD be nice to see new blood, new directions, new artistic inputs that will carry Five Arts into the new millennium as an artistic force well worth watching.
So when Charlene Rajendran launched into dramatic writing and directing under the Five Arts banner, one might have hoped to see a glimmer of those new explorations. But her directorial debut of My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry &… (restaged in July 1999 at the British Council) proved that the Five Arts imprint is as indelible as ever. This is not a criticism, as such, merely an observation.
The formula Charlene uses as a playwright was initially established over a decade ago by Leow Puay Tin in her highly successful 3 Children – as was its dramatic interpretation. Again we have three “children” in search of their “true identities” intercut with vignettes caricaturing Malaysian slice-of-life situations. Alas, the poetic cohesion of Puay Tin’s Joycean text was never quite matched in My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry.
The three acting students from ASK (Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) – Mohd Arifwaran, Jerrica Lai, and Donovan Goh – were instantly likeable and more than made up for their inexperience with their energy and focus. The “quick-change” characterizations demanded of all three would have been all in a day’s work for finely-tuned actors like Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas, or Patrick Teoh – but for anyone else, they proved a little too technically challenging. However, as I said, the intrepid three from ASK deserve nothing but a hearty round of applause for the passion and verve and the sheer hard work they threw into their rôles. They were a tight team and the chemistry was highly promising – but it never quite reached a flash point. But I’d suggest we keep an eye on these young thespians – they’ll be marking a real mark in Malaysian theater soon enough.
Perhaps it was the script’s obliqueness that made it hard for the actors to anchor the frenetic action in the realm of credibility… there were suggestions enough, but the tentativeness of detail lent the tenuous storyline an abstraction that may have been intentional, but might also been a sign of diffidence on the part of the playwright. Gritty issues like premarital sex, the generation gap, racial stereotypes, and the patriarchal mindset were addressed – but none of it led to fresh revelations or gripping insights. It was a dramatic exercise caught between adult worldly wisdom and the demure coyness of adolescence – which isn’t necessarily a problem, but given the “Family” theme that Five Arts has always cleaved towards, it became clear that Charlene Rajendran, a true child of the Five Arts family, was caught in the dilemma of a child prodigy performing for an audience of aunts and uncles and grannies (grandpa wouldn’t bother going to the theater, most likely).
The “wholesome” expectations of the “family” audience assures easy acceptance and quick approval – but it also inhibits playwright and performers from “letting it all hang out” – from truly pushing the envelope of society’s complacency. And methinks that unless theater strives constantly to achieve precisely that, it is in danger of becoming yet another “safe” consumer product targeted at a “market” of typical Malaysian aunties and uncles and grannies.
Well, I myself may be somebody’s uncle or nephew or grandson -and therefore have no cause to gripe about “relative” values and the wisdom of “playing it safe” – but it’s not what I’d consider an acceptable artistic epitaph. In other words, dear Charlene, I applaud your very laudable accomplishments as an emerging playwright and director… but to get a standing ovation out of nasty-minded ol’ me, you’ll have to do something that might just give your sweet lil’ grandma a heart attack. At least a very mild one, okay?
10 July 1999