“If the government doesn’t trust the people, why doesn’t it dissolve them and elect a new people” ~ Bertolt Brecht
As an early member of the Amir Muhammad Fan Club, I was naturally curious to see how the nation’s most precocious (and waggish) wordsmith would fare as novice playwright and director. I caught the final performance of THE MALAYSIAN DECAMERON at The Box, perched uncomfortably on half a plywood step (the house was so full we had to share seats), having arrived just in time to get an earful of the choicest obscenities multilingual Malaysia has to offer.
A row of Barisan Nasional buntings adorned one wall; and just below it was a desk overspilling with Barisan Alternatif insignia, the most prominent being the KeADILan eye of justice.
Soon the guy and the girl were joined by another couple: a grumpy fellow in a pink shift and a sophisticated girl with a red rose pinned to her dress, carrying a shopping bag. It was all a bit confusing and rightly so: our four characters – Orange, Purple, Pink, and Red – were hiding from the Royal Malaysian Police and the Federal Reserve Unit who had just run amok on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators at Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square).
Well, you can’t go very far wrong with an opening scene like this. Even if the rest of the play comes across like a school skit devised by the brightest kid in class. Hey, I used to write stuff like that when I was in Lower Six – and I can brag about having my skit canceled by order of the headmaster, who described it as “subversive.” That was way back in 1967 – about nine years before the glint in Amir Muhammad’s dad’s eyes translated itself into one of the brightest sparks on our literary scene.
So Amir’s debut play brought home a lot of memories for me. Ah, the bawdy humor we used to sneak in at every opportunity! The irreverent asides. The unabashed silliness (like Amir’s discofied scene changes) that we managed to get away with – simply because the audience consisted of our peers with whom we could comfortably wink and nudge.
Inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron? Must be highly intellectual or at least boringly literary. No way! Amir Muhammad has enough life force (and inner child) left in him to glibly twist a potentially pretentious polemic into a fairly edible muruku of engaging ideas. A reporter foolishly asked Amir what message THE MALAYSIAN DECAMERON had to convey, giving him the opportunity to quip: “If I wanted to deliver a message, I’d be working for Pos Malaysia.”
But when you’re as gifted a writer as Amir Muhammad undoubtedly is, no matter how flippant or inane you attempt to sound, there’s bound to be a kernel of truth to be found beneath all those gaudy, glossy layers of tomfoolery. Amir chose The Decameron as the perfect vehicle for a storytelling binge. And even the stories that seemed quite pointless or downright fatuous revealed a whole lot about their tellers, who represent a cross-section of Malaysian society.
The cast (with Sue Tan as Purple, Megat Nizam as Orange, Ahmad Ramzani Ramli as Pink, Catherine Leong as Red, and Amir Muhammad himself as the irrepressible and ubiquitous Voiceover) proved an entirely lovable lot, even though a bit raw and raucous (but that only added to the skittish fun of the proceedings). The one who stood out in terms of characterization, delivery, and timing was Megat Nizam (and it’s interesting that Orange would prove the most accomplished and mature performer of the lot, as will be evident when you get to the end of the review).
Ms Purple, the Reformasi activist, has a penchant for happy endings. She’s the idealist, the romantic, who believes in true love, perfect justice, and the possibility of people living happily ever after. Her stories of the ardor of youthful romance rippled with a giggly undercurrent of eroticism, allowing the audience to read whatever it wanted into her enthusiastic flights of fancy. One tale about a would-be saint who enlists the services of a sweet young lass to help him “put the Devil back in Hell” provoked a spate of insights into the dangers of sexual repression. Another tale about a bird in hand being better than a burning bush had a somewhat Pauline corollary expressing universal parental concern: “Tis better to marry off thine randy daughter than to let her sunbathe nude on the balcony and risk skin cancer, if not scandal.”
Mr Pink’s woeful quest for a long-lost sister leads him straight into the cesspool of existence: hence his stinking stance of gruff cynicism and ill manners. “Life is shitty” becomes his credo. “Unless you win a lottery or find yourself a rich household to be born into.” What does Mr Pink care about politics and social issues? He just wants to make good and get ahead in life. Mr Pink is your typical kiasu drudge who spends his life complaining about his lot and dreaming about that high-rise condo that reaches above the clouds in heaven.
Ms Red is “the poor little rich girl” with a macabre fetish concealed in her shopping bag: her life is a hopeless admixture of trivial pursuits and a serious devotion to truth (as symbolized by the head of her dead lover, which she has painstakingly severed from his corpse with a medium-sized nail clipper). She found truth and joy in the embrace of her lover, who happened to be the gardener; too bad her class-conscious brothers had to kill the poor lad to save the family from dishonor. As it turns out, Ms Red is actually Mr Pink’s long-lost sister – but I won’t be goaded into a thoughtful discussion about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how all men (and women) are ultimately long-lost brothers (and sisters).
As for Agent Orange, the secret policeman in the dark basement of our political reality, his stories are laced with an almost poetic poignancy and tell of love unrequited and the pain of sacrifice. His quiet stoicism is that of one who has been misunderstood or overlooked by society. And therefore he must needs be the still waters type, the wild card in the poker game of life. Yet he may be our only hope of salvation from the diabolical machinations of The Voiceover or Dr Z (for Zalim – an Urdu word meaning cruel, ruthless, oppressive). Dr Z is the evil mastermind behind the Forces of Law and Order and also the Director of Theatrical Proceedings. For he, Agent Orange, knows the real story behind all the stories, all the lies, all the cover-ups…
Suddenly the storytelling is interrupted by loud explosions from above. Mr Voiceover or Dr Z has ordered the bombing of his rebellious citizenry in a Neroic fit of vindictiveness. Agent Orange is aghast at what is happening. During the exchange of stories he has perhaps grown a little fond of his companions-in-hiding and has found his own humanity. He suddenly realizes that they are not the Enemy whose ranks he has been assigned to infiltrate…
Rising to the occasion, Agent Orange walks slowly towards the audience. “Let ME tell YOU a story,” he says with deliberateness as the play concludes. Now, THAT’s truly profound and cuts chillingly close to the bone. Good work, Amir! Well done, Colorful Cast of Thousands!
29 February 2000