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Censorship & the performing arts in Malaysia: a case study


Paula Vogel

This was supposed to be a straightforward review of a not-so-straightforward play, The Baltimore Waltz by the award-winning playwright Paula Vogel, directed by Rey Buono and produced by the Instant Café Theatre. However, external circumstances sometimes intrude and irrevocably alter the course originally intended.

The play was very nearly cancelled. Indeed, one day before opening night, The Baltimore Waltz was banned by DBKL (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur aka City Hall) which issues public performance licences for all shows staged in the Federal Territory. DBKL have thus far been, to their credit, fairly cooperative, easygoing and mature about this ruling – until the recent flap over The Vagina Monologues (which saw a very successful initial run, only to have its application for an extension rejected).

Producer Adeline Tan and artistic director Jo Kukathas filed an urgent appeal with DBKL and, after agreeing to extensive cuts, were given permission to stage the play as scheduled. This, in itself, is reason to celebrate: firstly, the never-say-die feistiness of ICT and the cast of The Baltimore Waltz, which saved the show; and secondly, the fact that the show did go on indicates that the people who work at DBKL aren’t TOTALLY unreasonable and are, to a certain extent, still open to a little give-and-take. After all, a tremendous amount of energy, time, money, and talent goes into a theatrical production of this caliber – and it only takes one “TAK BOLEH!” to see everything go down the drain. Theatergoers will be condemned to a boring plastic future of uncontroversial plays and harmless frolic – because potential sponsors will inevitably balk at any material that extends the frontiers of artistic expression.


Rey Buono

This is a good time for all of us, whether or not directly involved in the performing and cinematic arts, to reassess how we really feel about being told what we can and cannot see and hear on stage or on the screen. Who decides and why? Censorship, no matter what the excuse, ultimately serves only to retard us mentally and culturally infantilize us. This may suit you fine if you happen to be in business or the bureaucracy – after all, a bunch of docile, overgrown kids are easy to keep in line with candy and canes (or bread and circuses).

Malaysia’s censorship laws, like our notorious Internal Security Act, are a legacy of the British administration. Archaic, irrelevant and unnecessary though they be, these laws are a convenient foil against any attempt to change the status quo or overthrow the ruling regime through nonviolent means. I’d like to quote extensively from my review of Chin San Sooi’s heavily censored play, Morning In Night, published in the New Sunday Times of August 24, 1986:

Freedom of expression isn’t something one can take for granted. Even in merry England, the necessity of getting official sanction for all plays was a centuries-old thorn in the side of the theater community – until 1967 or thereabouts when Kenneth Tynan led a successful campaign to abolish the all-powerful rôle of the Lord Chamberlain in granting public performance permits.


Robert Walpole (1676 ~ 1745)

The history of secular censorship in the English theater goes back to a Playhouse Bill proposed by Robert Walpole in 1737. As First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Walpole was in a highly favorable position to amass great personal wealth through corruption; he was, in fact, unofficially England’s first Prime Minister and not without his critics, who often resorted to the symbolic weapon of the stage to lampoon his inflated political ambitions. Walpole’s Playhouse Bill passed into law and all scripts were subjected to the Lord Chamberlain’s scrutiny; the Lord Chamberlainship, naturally, was an office appointed by the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer. The fact that it took the English 230 years to rid themselves of this particular nuisance shows how difficult it is to unmake unnecessary laws.

I hear voices piping up: “But, but… there HAS TO BE some form of control over artistic output or the whole nation will be plunged into chaos!” Well, let’s remind ourselves that originally all artistic expression was regarded as the chief means by which Divine Intelligence (or the Collective Psyche) revealed itself to mankind. If we’re going to run around hysterically plugging up these channels of intercommunication just because some of them threaten our narrow understanding of life, would that not precipitate our worst fears and bring about a monopoly of the Truth wielded by vested interests? Humans, in their faithlessness and folly, love to make laws, which the smarter ones break. Wise is he who knows how to unmake laws.

So much for censorship. I don’t have anything positive to say about any form of censorship – and don’t give me that cynical crap about “multiracial, multicultural sensitivities.” The only chance we have to resolve any human conflict is through honest, uncensored communication; and the best people to attempt this task are our writers, thinkers, and performers – not bureaucrats and politicians!

How about the play itself? I didn’t care too much for Paula Vogel’s writing, although I think the play is an instructive study for aspiring playwrights in its clever use of cinematic devices, literary allusions and cultural clichés. Vogel’s insights and responses are circumscribed by the intellectual materialism of her academic background. Her script, which humanizes the experience of being gay and dying of AIDS, may evoke sympathy for AIDS sufferers in particular and homosexuals in general – but her typically American (Hollywood?) sentimentality about death and dying came across as trite. I’d have been a great deal more intrigued if she had at least alluded to the possibility that the HIV virus was a top-secret population-culling project of the WHO that went awry. Fortunately Vogel managed to poke some timely fun at Big Medicine, pharmaceutical companies and their professional quackery and chicanery.


Ghafir Akbar

Despite the initially amusing, then annoying, surgical excisions – goodhumoredly captioned with slide announcements like: “UNACCEPTABLE DIALOGUE REMOVED” or “UNACCEPTABLE REMOVAL OF CLOTHING REMOVED” – the play was elegant and sophisticated, and might well have marked a new level of artistic achievement in KL theater. Rey Buono showed himself once again to be an imaginative, intelligent, and inspired theater director who combines craftsmanlike competence with poetic passion.


Rohaizad Suaidi

The cast deserves a tremendous round of applause for the superhuman effort they put into entertaining their audiences, in the face of the dreadful uncertainties and bureaucratic stress they were all subjected to. Rohaizad Suaidi was credible and animated as Carl; Ghafir Akbar was remarkably versatile with his multiple quick-change characterizations; and Joanna Bessey was simply lovable as Anna. Theirs were technically challenging rôles – especially Ghafir’s – and I felt they could have fine-tuned their characterizations a great deal better without the help of DBKL’s censorship board. As things turned out, it was like going to the cinema and seeing a goondu’s hand blocking the projector every time an “objectionable” scene came up. Unwittingly, DBKL (as the symbol of official repression) became the fourth member of the cast and their performance was, frankly speaking, shameful.


Joanna Bessey

Malaysians are generally a patient lot but are we prepared to put up with mediocrity forever? Because that’s what censorship ultimately breeds. I certainly hope not. It’s like granting the butler the power to stop you from leaving home if he felt you weren’t “suitably” dressed. Or allowing the security guards to decide what books to order for the library and what books to burn.

An advanced culture loves and accepts diversity in all things and allows free exchange of ideas. It doesn’t stifle artistic expression and suppress truthspeaking theater. Seems like we’re a little backward when it comes to cultural maturity.

[First published in in June 2003]



Oscar Wilde (1854~1900)

Antares is provoked by GROSS INDECENCY


Moises Kaufman

Moises Kaufman’s multi-perspective courtroom drama, GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, was pulling in the crowds and winning the Critics’ Choice award for best play of 1998 – even as Malaysians were being titillated or outraged by their very own “Trial of the Century.”

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of “gross immorality” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol.  A little over a century later, Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy (among other offences), found guilty by patently partisan judges, and sentenced to fifteen years in Sungai Buloh Prison.  Anwar’s claim that there was a high-level conspiracy to topple him was meticulously ignored.

Wilde was a literary peacock and iconoclast; Anwar an orator and politician, but what both men had in common were their high public profiles, their growing influence on youth, and the perceived threat they represented to the Status Quo.  That both were accused of sodomy (“unnatural practices” or “sex against the natural order”) is indeed revealing.  For centuries, abstinence and celibacy in sexual matters had been promoted as godly virtues – but heterosexual sex within the legally, socially, or religiously sanctioned precincts of marriage was accepted (if only in the interest of procreation).


Rey Buono

And yet snide reports of rampant pederasty within priestly, public school, and even parliamentary circles were hardly uncommon.  Buggery, after all, goes back as far as the Spartan Army and was a fact of Athenian and Roman life.  Socrates himself, while married to Xanthippe, had a passionate affair with an athletic and youthful male disciple named Alcibiades, and every self-respecting Roman senator had his favorite catamite.  And in Victorian England, closet homosexuality had reached near epidemic proportions, so much so that the day after Oscar Wilde was sentenced, more than 600 scions of the upper crust caught the boat to Calais.

Indeed, the nation was plagued by nasty rumors of buggery and skulduggery in high places to the extent that it became necessary to make a public example of Wilde, if only to reassure voters that all was well with the Empire.


Jit Murad

Kaufman’s cunningly crafted script is a collage of text gleaned from news clippings, private letters, journal entries, original trial transcripts, and personal memoirs.  Bringing the philosophical and political subtext of Wilde’s trials and tribulations to dynamic life through ten actors, all male, and making it work as post-Brechtian theater was indeed a dramaturgical challenge that Kaufman met with aplomb.

The Instant Café Theatre production of GROSS INDECENCY directed by Rey Buono was staged in a nightclub (O*range), which effectively blurred the boundaries between actors and audience while adding a surreal edge to the proceedings.  Buono is to be heartily commended first of all for introducing KL audiences to this bitingly topical play; and for his confident, intelligent directorial hand, especially in working with the multi-tiered space; and lastly but not least for his illuminating program notes.


Reza Zainal Abidin

The cast was, on the whole, very well chosen, but I was particularly impressed by the tremendous conviction Reza Zainal Abidin brought to his multiple rôles of Charles Parker and the Judge, and especially his queenly cameo of Victoria Regina.  Chacko Vadaketh excelled as Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s attorney (and little wonder, as Vadaketh was formerly a practicing lawyer from a prominent legal family).

As the rough-and-ready Marquess of Queensbury and a couple of other characters, Patrick Teoh turned in a powerful performance with a highly charged dynamic between him and his rebellious son Lord Alfred Douglas, elegantly portrayed by Chowee Leow.  To say that Edwin R. Sumun, Rashid Salleh, Shamser, Ghafir Akbar, and Kurt Crocker (as the academic pseudo, Martin Taylor) did justice to their rôles may be saying too little, but each certainly deserved an individual round of applause.


Patrick Teoh

Which leads us to the casting of Jit Murad as Oscar Wilde.  I must admit I am still undecided about this pivotal element of Buono’s directorial vision.  Murad, a fabulous and much admired actor and playwright, was to many the obvious choice for Oscar.  After all, they appear to have much in common: both are known for their insouciant charm, irrepressible wit, and effervescent intelligence.  Indeed, there are some who regard Jit Murad as a Malaysian Oscar Wilde.  Perhaps it was the very obviousness of this casting option which, in the end, gave rise to a certain incongruity that subtly undermined the dramatic impact and intellectual gravity of the production.  Murad is such a distinctive personality in his own right that what transpired on stage was ‘The Three Trials of Jit Murad’ – not Oscar Wilde.


Chacko Vadaketh

The aesthetic ethos embodied in the life and work of Oscar Wilde raised very important questions about art versus politics; private versus public mores; individual liberty versus the conformative forces of a hypocritical society.  To a large extent, Buono succeeded in spellbinding the KL audience with a courtroom spectacle that was in no part dull or slow-moving – indeed it was rather like déjà vu to anyone who has been following the farcical trials of Anwar Ibrahim.  In this instance, Murad’s eternally youthful good looks (and his exaggeratedly camp mannerisms) made his Wilde a bit too much of a flippant fop to be taken seriously as an aesthetic revolutionary or intellectual beacon.  The lightness of his physical being gave the lie to the weightiness of the philosophical cross Wilde had to bear.  I can’t help thinking that Murad would have been absolutely perfect cast as “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas).

I emerged into the incandescent glow of the giant corncobs known as the Petronas Twin Towers, glad to have been part of this significant moment in local theater – when it appeared that the discreet but influential gay community of Kuala Lumpur had at last come together and declared their defiance of the fatwa against homosexuality implied in the vicious persecution of the erstwhile deputy prime minister for alleged acts of “gross indecency.”

And yet, will this event lead to the early release of Anwar Ibrahim and the dawn of a new, more enlightened, more compassionate era in Malaysian public life?  Or is all art quite useless, as Wilde himself incisively averred?

2 October 2001

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