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Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral


Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)

I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.

With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological.  The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal.  The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.


Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)

Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province.  When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth.  Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”

Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent.  Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees.  According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs.  The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.


Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century

The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed.  Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English.  If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.

Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.


Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral  in 2015

Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility?  A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of?  Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring.  Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet.  Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…


Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)

The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)

nooseAs a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race.  The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?

Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!

Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater).  Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time.  For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.


Ida Mariana

The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.

Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.

11 November 2000

Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

Charlene’s Chicken Curry


Five Arts Centre celebrates its 15th Anniversary this year [1999]. 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



Antares attempts 7 mini-reviews of 7 original “10-minute” plays directed by Krishen Jit  

I had the misfortune of stumbling across a malignant critique of 7 Ten just before I sat down to write my own. Though put off by what struck me as an unjustified and jaundiced attack on Five Arts Centre’s latest production, I was tickled by the disgruntled critic’s facetious reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (implying that Snow White would rather be offered seven inches at one go then an inch in seven servings). This crude comparison is undeniably funny, but the ungratified critic may as well whine, after attending a festival of short films, that he actually would have preferred a re-run of Ben Hur.


Krishen Jit & Huzir Sulaiman

For me it was a stimulating and rewarding evening, even if almost half the program didn’t exactly excite – and a couple of the plays were noticeably longer than the promised ten minutes. Without launching into a spurious discussion on the merits and demerits of packaging an assortment of playlets as a unified theater experience, I shall focus on each effort and my subjective response to it.

Leow Puay Tin’s Dinner For Two In The Best Of Restaurants was a scathing commentary on the death of marriage as an institution, performed in a surreal, semi-operatic style by Anne James and Lim How Ngean. Though no attempt was made at realistic acting, the tragicomic undercurrent of the dialogue was stark and vivid. Leow’s cynical view of the hollowness and sterility of the marital morass may offer cold comfort to couples undergoing similar torment, but the subject has been addressed since the early 1960s by playwrights like Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Yet, year after year, people continue to plunge headlong into the same old dilemma. I suppose the psychological pitfalls of institutionalized monogamy – and the emotional catatonia it invariably induces – will always be fair game for playwrights.

Not In by Alfian Sa’at – enfant terrible of Singapore’s literary and theater scene – was an impassioned attempt at pamphleteering against the intimidating powers of a fascist state (defined as a condition wherein business and government conspire to usurp the constitutional rights of individual citizens). Though animatedly enacted by Jerrica Lai (as a “kiasi” political science graduate working in a T-shirt boutique who refuses to fulfill her customer’s order for fear of political repercussions) and Melissa Saila (as an undergrad trying to express her political views by printing anti-war slogans on her T-shirt), the skit came across as something you might see at a consciousness-raising event organised by human rights activists. In other words, the message was laudable but the text a bit too literal, in-your-face, and one-dimensional. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to hear Alfian’s dissenting voice in the face of Singapore’s economically expedient pro-Bushwar stance in recent months.


Sumitra Selvaraj

Anne James and Sumitra Selvaraj did an impressive job of bringing to life Charlene Rajendran’s predictable exposé of the long-suffering Indian woman’s lot in a conservative patriarchal culture. Polishing rehashed some of K.S. Maniam’s pet themes in his short stories and plays about the Indian community. Two upper-class women from two different generations come to terms with their repressed feelings while waiting for guests to arrive at a social event. A row of servants hard at work polishing the silver provided some foreground dynamics and dramatized the title of the play – while the women dialogued, their inner anguish bleeding through their well-groomed façades. No doubt the issues addressed by Charlene’s tame but well-crafted playlet continue to hold currency for a great many women trapped in the Kali yuga – but for me the subject matter and style seem passé in the new millennium. Surely it’s time to move from chest-beating victim consciousness to more adventurous literary ground?


Jerrica Lai

The evening began to really take off with They Will Be Grateful – Huzir Sulaiman’s excruciatingly funny skewering of Malaysia’s brave new corporate-entrepreneurial ethos as the nation eagerly embraces its NIC (Newly Industrializing Country) status. Huzir’s clipped, sloganistic lines were delivered as a comic fugal counterpoint – like a barbershop quartet performing a tuneless opera co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka. Hearty applause goes out to Ghafir Akbar, Jerrica Lai, Lennard Gui, and Lim How Ngean for an impeccably timed and riveting ensemble performance. The synopsis for this gem of a playlet was probably lifted verbatim from an institutional ad for Malaysia Inc or a Cyberjaya corporate prospectus.


Melissa Saila

Malam Konsert by Jit Murad featured Melissa Saila and Zahim Albakri in a poignant scene from a contemporary suburban made-for-TV domestic drama. A divorced daddy arrives to pick up his kid for the weekend and, while helping mummy pack the little tyke’s satchel, the estranged couple discharge some residual tension over an unplanned bout of post-marital sex that resulted from watching their kid perform at a recent school concert. Considering the epidemic of divorces we hear about these days, Jit’s masterful and subtle study of a complex issue was charged with therapeutic value: it’s true, just being good friends is far healthier than being unhappily married if parents are truly committed to their children’s emotional stability. The dialogue, as was the naturalistic acting, was entirely credible and hit the spot. Zahim Albakri was a pleasure to watch and Melissa Saila certainly has the potential to blossom into a bi-lingual Meryl Streep.


Mark Teh as playwright

Mark Teh’s Daulat was a kinetic essay on the schizoid dichotomy within the national psyche – the perpetual conflict between biogram and logogram (the biogram being what the body instinctually does; and the logogram being what the mind has been programmed to believe). Jerrica Lai and Lim How Ngean were in excellent athletic form as they alternately boogied, mamboed, and twitched to the irresistible beat of their youthful lifeblood – and mechanically parroted official dogma and paid lip-service to the feudal, hierarchic mindset governing our mundane existence. With the minimum of verbalization, Teh ingeniously took the perennial non-debate between old age and youth to an illogical extreme, graphically dramatizing the absurdity of the contradictions between what “the authorities” say and what they themselves are inclined to do. It was polemical theater at its slickest and most poker-faced.

Mardiana Ismail

Operating Theatre by Jo Kukathas was pretty much Harold Pinter meets Monty Python. Zahim Albakri played the discarnate intelligence of a man who has been arrested by the Special Branch (Malaysia’s own secret police), interrogated and tortured to the point of unconsciousness, and then sent to the hospital where he expires – putting the doctors and nurses in a moral and political quandary. There were powerful echoes of the arsenic poisoning episode involving erstwhile deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim (imprisoned for 15 years on dubious charges) which no one now appears to remember. Lennard Gui played the dead detainee to perfection, while Anne James, Ghafir Akbar, Lim How Ngean, and Mardiana Ismail played the medical team as well as the secret police with efficient panache. It was a cogent piece of political theater, performed with a heady mix of Chaplinesque slapstick and Beckettsian sombreness.

Director Krishen Jit adroitly wove the seven playlets into a continuous flow by making the scene changes part of the entertainment (as he did, though not so successfully, in Manchester United and the Malay Warrior). Various elements of his dramaturgic explorations over the decades could be seen in each of the playlets – the overall effect being that one simply has to acknowledge that the man is totally dedicated to his craft and lives entirely for theater. Perhaps consummate mastery has thus far eluded him, but it’s far more useful to posterity for a creative flame to shine consistently and steadily over an entire lifetime, than for it to erupt in blinding brilliance, only to sputter out after a series of shortlived climaxes.

2 June 2003

Perfect Union of 3 Children

3 Children at the Shanghai Theater Academy: Yang Wenqi, Wu Wencong & Hou Zhongping

There we all were, on Row E, sitting proud and pretty: the unofficial Malaysian delegation to the 11th and final performance of Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children at the Singapore Drama Center.

A few seats away sat the playwright. And beside her was Chin San Sooi, the man who initiated her into the mysterious allures of playacting and playwriting; and who midwifed her brilliant entry into the forefront of Malaysian theater with Emily of Emerald Hill.

In July 1988, 3 Children was premiered in Kuala Lumpur, with San Sooi directing.  It came across well enough for TheatreWorks, a leading company in Singapore, to take it on as their first major co-production with a Malaysian group, Five Arts Centre.

The experiment entailed more than a change of cast and venue: Five Arts Centre co-founder, noted academician, theater critic and drama doyen Krishen Jit was engaged to direct TheatreWorks’ production of 3 Children.

He spent every weekend over a 3-month period commuting to rehearsals by plane (despite an inherent fear of flying).

In his absence Ong Keng Sen, TheatreWorks’ artistic director, functioned as co-director, getting the performers in shape by putting them through a rigorous regimen of improvisations – accompanied by training sessions in Chinese opera, voice, and tai-chi.


Ong Keng Sen

“I filled in the details,” Keng Sen told me later, “Krishen executed the bold strokes.”

Meanwhile, the playwright had reworked the material, though not to an unrecognizable extent.  Sequences were reshuffled, a few expanded, additional scenes written – with the result that we witnessed what San Sooi described as “an entirely different play.”

He was right, in a manner of speaking – but I prefer to think of it as the same play, radically transformed by a different energy and vision.

In the course of being transplanted from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, 3 Children had evolved and matured with the same miraculous swiftness that very young children exhibit in their development. Those who had seen the KL production four months ago could only shake their heads in wonder and exclaim: “My, my, my, but how you’ve grown!”

More than once I found myself fighting back tears. Not tears of vicarious grief as one engrossed in a soap opera might shed – but tears of poignant rediscovery and revelation, brought on by emotions and insights seeping from subterranean sources of sudden remembrance.

Only very sincere and very great art has the power to stir the ancestral memory; to reawaken cellular experience long encrusted with routine and trivia.


3 Children in New York (2005)

With 3 Children, Puay Tin dug deep into her own psyche and struck the motherlode of collective dream consciousness.  The further in one looks, the farther out one expands. The personal becomes universal, becomes transpersonal.

To call Puay Tin’s work “Joycean” is perhaps too easy and the most obvious thing to do.  But I can’t think of anyone else offhand who succeeded as well as James Joyce in fulfilling the role of shaman-poet for a entire civilization. The heavy-but-nourishing Irish stew Joyce concocted from disparate thought-clusters floating through the minds of assorted Dubliners can be said to contain an entire Cosmos.

Similarly, Puay Tin has cooked up for us a tasty Teochew porridge, if you like, of human experience drawn from a tiny puddle of life called Kappan Road in Malacca.

Her three children – two girls and a boy – undergo multiple permutations as two sisters and a brother; mother, father, daughter; husband, wife, mother-in-law; sister, brother, mother; old man, young woman, matriarch. And so on.

Their interactions are so intense and dynamic that Krishen Jit felt a more neutral party was needed, if only to take some of the strain off both audience and performers. Hence the introduction of a narrator – sort of an animated academic footnote-cum-Greek chorus ably played by Neo Swee Lin. In any case the narrator also came in handy moving the occasional prop about; still, I can foresee her role expanding, should the production be exported farther abroad (as it fully deserves to be). Audiences in, say, New York would surely appreciate having a few localisms like “jamban” and “ang tau chooi” explained.


The New York cast of 3 Children
perform in Hong Kong (2006)

Staged against a muted shadow-play-within-the-play enacted on huge staggered screens (how could Krishen resist this tribute to that most ancient of theater forms, wayang kulit?), 3 Children was an inspired synthesis of poetry, drama, dance, opera, and group therapy.

Never have I seen a more intelligent and effective blend of avant-garde and traditional elements; nor a happier combination of words, movement, music, and visual environment. (Justin Hill designed the quietly expressive set; Mark Chan created the sparing, tasteful musical augmentations; William Teo and Sebastian Zeng designed the versatile costumes; and Dora Tan did the superb lighting.)

Three metaphorical children ride imafinary horses through a symbolic jungle. They are played by Lim Kay Tong, Lok Meng Chue, and Claire Wong (Chui Ling) with extraordinary ability, agility, and skill. More need not (and, indeed, cannot) be said: their tight, disciplined, pull-out-all-the-stops performance (after such a protracted run) left me breathless.

Sometimes it seems the children are searching for something… a temple on a hill, spiritual truth, succor, enlightenment.  Sometimes they appear to be running from something… an unseen persecutor, inevitable punishment, damnation, death, demons.  At one point they find themselves horseless; at another, barefoot.


Lim Kay Tong

Perhaps they are trapped forever in hell. Quite possibly they are at the very gates of heaven. The sparse, suggestive dialogue resonates with significance.

“Look! We are free at last! The walls are gone, the gate is open, we are free to come and go as we please!” says the optimist.

“The fire is dying swiftly, soon it will be dead!” says the realist.

“It is dead, everything is dead, even the ghosts bare dead!” says the pessimist. “But what can we do?” They find themselves in a house, hunting for a key.

They find themselves in a theater, acting in a play.


Claire Wong

Interspersed throughout their dream/nightmare ride deep into the jungle, fragments of childhood memories from Kappan Road: And my grandmother said… pass water and the bad dream will go away… grandmother is old, she is full of feelings…

The Famous Five went on an outing to the Green Pool: naughty dog Timmy, he ran off with Anne’s sausage… Ang Tau Mooi sold ang tau chooi every day after school in the alley.

Tragicomic tales spun from working-class lives.  From the banal and the inconsequential to cruel twists of horrible fate.  Altogether forming an organic mass that spills over into different dimensions of time and space.

Aunt Ah Kim was given away as a baby; she grew up, married a taxi driver, and gambled her life away. Is she remembered with fondness, guilt, regret, shame? Does the softhearted porter in Limbo keep the gate open for her so she can linger longer, a restless ghost, among the living?

Within this writhing, seething morass of human experience – of laughter, pain, and madness – like a river the life-pulse courses. This river is Time and it receives the dead, as well as offerings for the deceased.

The ride through the jungle begins when the brother crosses the river (with the aid of his “yin-tuition”) to join his two sisters. It ends when they finally reach the temple on the hill, the court of last resort – only to find no Judge present, no one at all. But what difference does it make?


Neo Swee Lin

The history of Kappan Road remains a mystery – to the three children as well as to the 3,000 or so theatergoers in Singapore who came… and were bewildered, impressed, amazed, delighted, excited and very nearly enlightened by this epoch-making prodigy of a co-production. It was an experiment founded on solid theater experience culled from both sides of the Causeway, and presented with consummate attention to detail.

Obviously, the right spirit (bold, adventurous, exploratory) had found the right form (polished, precise, professional) to produce a perfect union.

[First published in the New Straits Times, 28 November 1988]

POSTSCRIPT: I’m happy to report that Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children has been produced in various countries by a variety of theater companies since this review was written.



Huzir Sulaiman & Joanna Bessey

The venerable Krishen Jit

THE OTHER ‑ a double bill presented by Five Arts Centre and directed by the venerable Krishen Jit ‑ lasted just slightly over an hour. But I’m sure nobody felt shortchanged by the brevity of the two monologues performed by the always impressive Huzir Sulaiman and the immensely gifted Joanna Bessey. The intensity of their performances more than made up for the textual obscurity of Huzir’s self‑penned tirade of a dead patriarch in THE SMELL OF LANGUAGE; and the unfulfilled promise of Joanna’s quirky dramatization of Tim Toyama’s “Karmatic Convergence” in WHO’S LOONEY, MAN?

Let’s take Huzir first: all through the routine I found myself wondering what could have inspired the man to embark on such a singularly highbrow exercise in arts festival fringe theatrics. Had he inadvertently ingested some fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) before sitting down to craft this high‑velocity, high‑vocabulary experiment in unmitigated verbosity? And was his runaway express train delivery calculated to prove beyond all doubt that Huzir is in possession of the fastest and best‑trained tongue in the Asia‑Pacific Rim? Or was he actually afraid of boring his audiences if he stretched his monologue by another ten minutes?

The text itself was dense and florid, chock‑a‑block as it was with sinister insinuations and suggestive references to topical events and political villains. The atmosphere he conjured ‑ merely by standing in one spot and moving his arms alternately like a marionette and mutant octopus while perspiring profusely in a double‑breasted suit ‑ was dark, macabre, and oppressive. It hinted at arcane metaphysical revelations quite beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. (Huzir’s sinfully priapic syntax is obviously contagious.) I confess I left The Actors Studio Box none the wiser about the ultimate meaning of life or death.

Of course defler was showing off again; but amidst such an endless ocean of mediocrity, Huzir Sulaiman continues to shine like a beacon even when he seems to be sneering at his audience. This time around he was impersonating Peter Ustinov as Yahweh ‑ in a script concocted by Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Special mention must be made of the extremely effective lighting by Mac Chan and the quintessentially elegant set by Carolyn Lau. And the live “harpsichord” overture was a particularly classy touch.

Darkness & Doubt

WHO’S LOONEY, MAN? explores the genetic vagaries of hybridization ‑ the blessing and curse of being a “karmatic convergence” of Asian and European. The fine line between fit and misfit, clairvoyance and cloud cuckoo land, this world and the other.

Joanna Bessey, the youngest and most promising serious actress in the country, deserves the heartiest applause for the authenticity she invests in her performance. Another year or two on the boards will see her attaining full mastery of her craft, but for now, the delectable Ms Bessey does very nicely, thank you. True, more than once, it appeared that she was trying a little too hard. For the most part, however, she was pretty much up to scratch.

Bits of the text seemed patchy: there were puzzling divergences and details that made me lose the narrative thread. She starts out telling us about a girl child born to an English father and a Malay mother; then frenetically fleshes out the saga of a Chinese and Irish genetic convergence in Singapore. I was distracted by repeated references to a mental hospital in Woodlands (surely she meant Woodbridge?) There were poster‑sized drawings and charts scattered about the stage floor ‑ but these were hardly utilized to their full potential.

Tim Toyama, Japanese American

There were quite a few epiphanous moments. Joanna’s fresh‑faced beauty and her focused portrayal of a confusion born of transcontinental fusion made the time pass quickly. And yet so much more might have emerged, one feels, if the text had been a tad less “post‑colonial.” It was a fairly well‑constructed internal monologue, but perhaps that was its weakness, too. Oftimes it came across on a purely literary level and I felt I was in the British Council listening to earnest poetry read with unnecessary earnestness. I haven’t heard of Tim Toyama but I strongly suspect he’s an academic poet who’s been published in some tediously self‑conscious cross-cultural anthology of young writers. Many in the audience must have wished there was some hard copy to take home for careful scrutiny; why not?

THE OTHER was a celebration of words and the ideas they conceal or reveal. But as neither text was on sale in the foyer, I’ll probably never know… unless I run into Ms Bessey at the Eurasian Club (a most unlikely prospect, as I’ve never set foot there).

25 March 2000



Taming Sari, a 500-year-old keris reputedly belonging to Hang Tuah, the legendary Malay warrior (photo: Casey Ng)

Antares plays Red Devils’ Advocate at MANCHESTER UNITED AND THE MALAY WARRIOR


Rani Moorthy, Malaysian-born Mancunian

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.


Krishen Jit, Malaysian dramaturge & theater doyen

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:


Hang Tuah vs Hang Jebat,
Apollonian vs Dionysian

“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.

Elaine Pedley, livewire performer

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.


Manchester’s Red Devils may encounter visa hassles in Islamic countries…

7 May 2002

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