Antares at PULAU ANTARA ~ THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN
Five hours after leaving the Citra Istana Budaya auditorium – a grandly named island of culture amidst the woeful disarray of the National Cultural Complex – I am still haunted by PULAU ANTARA ~ THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN.
“Did you know Kompleks Budaya was undergoing massive reconstruction when you chose this venue?” I asked co-writer/director Jo Kukathas. “That’s part of the set. It wasn’t cheap!” she quipped. I guess excavators must cost a fair bit to rent. The van shuttle between car-park and theater was certainly a novelty: no one expects to cross a muddy construction site to see a play, but that’s precisely the desired effect, the blurring of boundaries between “real life” and theater, between history and mystery, between the living and the dead…
PULAU ANTARA is a disturbing play, populated by characters from different times, different cultures, different worlds. A collaborative effort involving the Tokyo-based Setagaya Public Theatre and Malaysia’s own Instant Café Theatre, the cross-cultural project was generously funded by The Japan Foundation.
Having witnessed the recent rape and ruin of the Selangor River Valley, the play’s theme – of trampling on the past and denying the present to build an illusory future – struck an immediate chord with me. A beautiful, mysterious island in the Malacca Straits has been earmarked for development as a cyber-city, simply because it’s located at the mid-point of a colossal suspension bridge linking the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra: another megalomaniac scheme to get Malaysia into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Would-be world-conquering architect, Datuk Zainal (an old boy of the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, of course), arrives on Pulau Antara to stake his personal claim to fame and fortune – aided and abetted by an ambitious young Japanese engineer, Ryo Tsushima. They are soon joined by a female architect, Aida Ariffin, who quickly succumbs to the mysterious allure of the island. Apart from Marvin Sung, a superstitious Chinese engineer on the bridge project; Mantok Pui, a sagely old man who seems to live between dimensions; and Ryo’s pregnant wife Mayumi – who unexpectedly arrives on Pulau Antara, never again to leave – the rest of the cast consists of ghosts and memories caught in a time warp.
There’s Colonel Okada, who died serving Emperor Hirohito in the 1940s; Englishman George, an affable failure in everything; Ananda the scribe, a relic of the Majapahit Empire; Oichi, a 19th century Japanese prostitute; Daiko, a “curse doll” (who represents all bad memories that won’t go away); Asif, a native lad forever dreaming of adventures on the high seas; the schoolboy Harun (a lost fragment of Zainal’s MCKK memories); a couple of other Sungs (Tze Toh, a eunuch emissary with Admiral Cheng Ho’s fleet and Kit Yeng, a jazz musician killed during the Japanese occupation); and there’s the Penanggal, the resident ghost of Pulau Antara that floats around as only a hideous head with gory entrails, dragging mothers-to-be to untimely deaths.
With such a motley crew of human and phantom characters jabbering away in three languages, the plot tends to become a crazy collage of absolutely brilliant bits mixed in with some murky, elusive moments. Add to the complexity of the multidimensional drama, the need to “subtitle” the Japanese dialogue with back-projected text (in tiny fonts most unkind to the vision-impaired), and what you get is “ambiguous audience response.”
Many elements were outstanding: the use of magnified leaf skeletons as large scene-shifting screens, suggesting intricate life-webs, neural circuits, arterial networks, topographical maps (harking back to the universal tree-of-life motif); the adroit lighting by Mac Chan; the intensely evocative music by Saidah Rastam; the elegant audio-visual effects by Bernard Chauly; even the meditative sound of lapping waves that preceded the action. All these were examples of impressive stagecraft that lent the production a memorable luster. The multicultural cast was a spirited and talented lot, but the non-linear, trilingual text and episodic scene changes made convincing characterizations well-nigh impossible at times.
Underpinning this cogent drama of conflict and reconciliation between magical and scientific world-views is a metaphysical commentary that makes PULAU ANTARA a very serious work indeed. However, the heaviness is offset by a generous sprinkling of barbed witticisms. For instance, Aida Ariffin wryly reports that some minister thinks the bridge “isn’t Islamic enough.” And when Zainal claims the island on behalf of his race, he is challenged by the ghosts of many would-be colonists before him – which leads George (impersonating Mr Evans, the British principal of the MCKK) to assign Datuk Zainal a C-minus for history.
PULAU ANTARA is a breathtakingly ambitious cultural bridge between Japan and Malaysia which deserves to be warmly applauded, even if it leaves some theatergoers a bit confused and disoriented.
14 August 2001