Antares plays Red Devils’ Advocate at MANCHESTER UNITED AND THE MALAY WARRIOR
Having been greatly entertained by Rani Moorthy’s one-woman play, Pooja, I was looking forward to the staging of her latest work, Manchester United and the Malay Warrior (which will see a one-week run in June at Cultureshock, the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Manchester). A collaboration between Five Arts Centre, Rasa (Ms Moorthy’s own company) and Contact (UK), the project was spawned from a Creative Industries Trade Mission from Malaysia to Manchester two years ago. As a Mancunian resident born in Malaysia, Rani Moorthy was ideally positioned to create this complex study of hero archetypes in a cross-cultural context. Ms Moorthy’s non-linear text was intelligent and lyrical, laden with historical and mythical references, and whimsically addressed the issue of cultural and ethnic identities in non-Euclidean spacetime. But how it was translated to the stage raised a few questions many have asked but no one can answer. For instance, what defines a play as “experimental” and what makes it plain boring? When does artsy turn into fartsy and vice versa? Not so long ago, a cross-cultural dramatic collaboration of colossal proportions was staged in KL. Called Pulau Antara – The Island In Between, it was directed by Jo Kukathas with a huge Japanese and Malaysian cast. Despite a few structural weaknesses in the script, it proved to be a spectacular production and broke through to new levels of artistic and technical achievement in its use of multimedia effects.
The same cannot be said of Manchester United and the Malay Warrior as dramatized by the indefatigable Krishen Jit. After nearly 40 years in theater, Krishen’s reputation as a dramaturge is probably too firmly entrenched to be shaken -or even dented – by mere criticism. But, much as I love the man and respect his dedication to the development of a “post-colonial” Malaysian theater style, I have to say he seems to have run out of ideas. That doesn’t mean I think he should stop. Theater is his life and soul, and even if his dramaturgical output is wearing thin, we’re happy to have him around forever. Indeed, we’re fortunate to have him around at all. A saucy rojak of Malay bangsawan and Chinese opera, tossed in with random elements of Brecht, Chekov, and Ionesco, may produce a universal salad with a distinctly local flavor, but it doesn’t constitute a dietary staple. And you can’t keep microwaving and serving up last week’s rojak without losing customers or turning it into gado-gado. The bottom line is, people are paying more and more for an evening at the theatre – and they want to be entertained, not merely provoked and left scratching their heads. High-brow art doesn’t necessarily hasten the receding of hairlines on eggheads, it can also be wonderfully down-to-earth, engaging, soul-satisfying, sexy and, above all, enjoyable. Art comes from the heart, not the head. True, a learned head can craft what the heart says into sheer eloquence, but too much left-brain processing only turns it into empty, institutionalized rhetoric. In his director’s notes, Krishen says:
“One of the most debatable issues was the character and persona of Hang Tuah and his brand of heroism. The revised version of the play tussles with the contested notions; the phenomenon of contestation and dispute continue to preoccupy our current rehearsals. An edginess continues to occupy the air of the rehearsals, producing tensions and conflicts that are one of the stimulating aspects of the present collaboration.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that there was a fair amount of artistic disagreement amongst the collaborators (at least one hopes there was); but judging from the performance, it would appear the director had the final say. Was there nothing I liked about Man U and the Malay Warrior? Well, the technical aspects were fine (nothing particularly brilliant) except for the incidental music which kept jamming, causing the dancers to pause in mid-step till the sound came back on (now, this jerky effect could have been deliberate, it’s hard to tell with a Five Arts production). Video footage of the Manchester United soccer club was inserted at strategic points but contributed little (apart from breaking the visual monotony) to Ms Moorthy’s musings on culture heroes.
British actress-director Romy Baskerville turned in a stalwart performance as the nostalgic pensioner Alice; and the multi-talented Mohamad Arifwaran (who also choreographed) was fairly engaging as Kamal and Hang Jebat. Jerrica Lai as Tun Teja was her usual intense self (and did well as a dominatrix in one of the video sequences). Elaine Pedley and Mardiana Ismail (Hang Lekir and Hang Kasturi) were energetic, highly focused, and very cute. However, Adlin Aman Ramlie’s Hang Tuah looked but didn’t sound the part at all; while Chee Sek Thim was rather lame as Hang Lekiu, loverboy Tengku, and even as the ethereal back-projected Jinn (whose mask-like makeup was neither grotesque nor scary, it was simply unaesthetic and uninspired). The “Keystone Kop” prop movers (working at high speed to a silent film soundtrack) might have been intended to lend the proceedings a cartoonish dimension – but I didn’t laugh, nor was I amused by the frozen grimaces on the dancers’ faces. Some people are too serious to be funny and Krishen Jit is a prime example. Somehow, the boundaries between comical, farcical, and poignant moments became blurred, so much so that any inherent humor or wisdom in the script was obliterated by the stilted style of the performances. In the early 1980s Five Arts Centre dedicated itself to producing cutting-edge theater. Time (and sponsorship contraints) may have considerably blunted that edge, but in this arts-unfriendly climate, we have little choice but to keep supporting and cheering on the few institutions that have endured. Nonetheless, beyond subjective definitions of “excellent” or “mediocre” theater, paying audiences expect to at least enjoy themselves. No doubt there were a few “interesting” ideas thrown at us but, alas, there was far too little joy in the experience.
7 May 2002