Antares investigates Rep21’s double Pinter production, Mountain Language & One For The Road
“Pinter remains, to his credit, a permanent public nuisance, a questioner of accepted truths, both in life and art. In fact, the two persistently interact.” ~ Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996)*
Give this performance a miss if you wish to remain comfortably cocooned in political apathy. I emerged from the experience with renewed resolve. First, I now consider myself a Harold Pinter fan (not that I disliked his work before, I simply never paid him the attention he deserves). Second, I decided on the spot to join Amnesty International (membership is only RM10 a year); and third, I shall henceforth keep close tabs on Repertory Twenty-One’s theatrical output (there’s crisp, refreshing intelligence and lots of exciting young talent at work in this dynamic outfit).
The Actors Studio Box was the ideal venue for this timely excursion into political theater. It is tiny and claustrophobic (or intimate, depending on what you’re watching), and the stark performance space inspires tremendous inventiveness. A giant handshake for whoever designed the set and the sound: they got it absolutely right, and the cold unfriendly lighting by Teo Kuang Han brought home Pinter’s police state torture chamber nightmare.
Lots of fresh faces in the cast, names new to me – Dennis Leong, Edmund Lau, Jaclyn Bain, John Yang, Loh Wei Leong, Melissa Leong, Mubin Jamil, Nicole-Ann Thomas, Renuka Veerasingam, Sean Augustin – the only one I recognized was Jerrica Lai even though she looked terribly aged (she plays an old woman who’s forbidden to speak with her detainee son in the only language she knows). The ensemble went through its paces on opening night with practiced intensity, focus and precision. Everyone was equally disciplined (pun unintended) and perfectly cast – which reflects favorably on Christopher Ling’s directorial savvy. They all did chilling justice to Pinter’s clipped, surrealistic poetry.
Two short Pinter plays (written in the 1980s in response to state-sanctioned police violence against intellectuals in Turkey and in support of Amnesty International’s campaign against torture) were cunningly interwoven and compressed into 60 minutes of unmitigated hell. And yet what came through was the indelible line that separates the human from the inhuman; those that feel from those that have killed their own feelings in pursuit of ambition, petty power, or career security.
I’m not particularly enamored of polemical theater myself, but I concede that there are times when subtlety doesn’t do the job. There are issues so pressing, so crucial to our essential identities as human beings, and to the future well-being of our communities, that they impel us to shake ourselves out of our collective trance and, if necessary, stick our faces in our own moral stench. The hell we fear is of our own making and it doesn’t occur in the afterlife – but in the power we surrender to external emblems of authority, and the trust we misplace in the hands of those who privately do not concern themselves with the public good.
Never was there a more appropriate moment to introduce the activist Pinter to local audiences. The media-orchestrated fear of “terrorism” is the perfect excuse to crush once and for all any possibility of dissent – and thereby thwart before it reaches the palace gates the rapidly growing grassroots movement for honesty, corporate accountability, environmental health, press freedom, justice, and participatory democracy. Pull the wool from our own eyes and it becomes obvious that the greatest perpetrators of terror are the ones that commit brutal acts in the name of national security and public order while fulfilling their own secret agendas for increased control of the collective psyche.
Whilst the mystic in me knows that the perpetual war of opposites can and must be transmuted into an exhilarating dance of unified polarities, the pragmatic opines that random acts of kindness don’t stand much of a chance against institutionalized, systematic, heavily armed cruelty and violence perpetrated against all those who stand in the way of megalomanic egos and their monolithic will to power.
What else can a concerned individual DO except direct his or her talents to communicating a sense of urgency to others about the dark and dire situation we’re in; to alerting the public that the greatest heist in history is happening right under our noses. What’s being stolen from us is our autonomy, dignity and intellectual freedom. All we need to do is shout loud enough, stand our fearless ground and laugh in their faces, and the monstrous tyrants within us will panic and flee from their usurped thrones. But first we’ll have to find our public voices and acknowledge that the real enemy is our terror at the thought of knowing who we truly are.
Amnesty International and Rep21 found a forceful voice in the brave new poetry of Harold Pinter. A few among the audience found their voices too in the lively discussion that followed the performance. No torture, no hell!
* Read “Arthur Miller’s Socks” – an amusing anecdote by Harold Pinter on his visit to Turkey to campaign against torture.
17 November 2001