Performance Performing Arts Reviews

Version 2020: Losing Sight

Recently I caught Version 2020, a generative play about Vision 2020 at Five Arts Centre’s TTDI black box. It is a play that looks back to Vision 2020 and attempts to suggest alternate versions of Malaysia’s future. Directed by Mark Teh, Version 2020 is part of The Complete Futures of Malaysia, a generative series of projects that kicked off on 2017 that will unfold locally and internationally over several years in multiple chapters and formats.

I enjoyed it a lot. There were plenty of high points for me, and I came out admiring some of the executions, wishing I had been a part of it.

Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre's facebook page.
Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre’s facebook page.

The first thing that caught my attention was how compact and concise the entire play was. It clocked at around 70 minutes. There were 5 main stories interspersed with each other, lasting no longer than 10 minutes each. They all had distinctive tones, utilizing unique storytelling or theatrical devices to set them apart. It was a collection of urgent, cheeky and contemplative pieces that came together to evoke memories and questions.

The structure above resulted in a fragmented form and feel; vignettes of scenes, visions and moments coming at you in a visceral manner. It was as if you were watching a montage of Malaysia’s recent history (and future) and your mind was hit by images of Malaysiana, conjured up from nostalgia and reality as it tries to make sense of what was happening.

My favourite was Fahmi Reza’s. His was a story I particularly resonated with. Structuring his piece as a recollection of his middle-class journey, it was crafted very well. It was part auto-biographical and part-commentary. I particularly loved how he framed it within punk music and inserted punk elements into the piece (the music, a punk gig, the slideshow of punk albums he collected from his time studying in the US); both an homage to the music of his youth and a nuanced social commentary to those who shared his background.

Another memorable bit was when 3 narratives were told in parallel, each becoming the others’ backdrop. One was a hilarious reenactment of a former Malaysian prime minister’s speech (delivered brilliantly by the charismatic Faiq in a standout assured performance), another was a story about a girl who was told to run and the last a recount of the actor’s own experience participating in Bersih 3.0.

The Bersih 3.0 piece stood out to me – its had actor Roger Liew running around the stage performing his piece by interjecting the other ongoing pieces at opportune moments with his lines, written as a film trailer where Bersih 3.0 was the last in a trilogy; biting and cynical, its sharp humour was charming.

Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre's facebook page.
Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre’s facebook page.

“A city where the lines don’t connect and the dots are misplaced.”

“A city with many signs but no direction.”

“A city that generates headlines but no readers.”

“A city that speaks to me a language that I no longer understand.”

Those were some of the lines recited by the actors throughout the entire 70 minutes. They refer to Kuala Lumpur. Written by the actors themselves, they came during a stretch of days where Mark insisted that nobody can leave rehearsals until they have written 20 lines each.

It is just one of the activities or exercises that Mark used in the generative process of developing the play.

“We collected of documents that were relevant to Wawasan 2020. It was hard because we couldn’t find many. The paintings in the background for Imri’s story were the few Pendidikan Seni paintings we managed to collect. And not many from the cast had a direct connection to Wawasan 2020, so we had to find other narratives that could be used instead.” Mark shares in a conversation after the play.

One of them was utilizing the cast’s recent memories such as the TN50 and Expo Negaraku 2017. Imri Nasution’s story, which was about how he was one of the dancers in the Hari Kebangsaan parade back in 1991, was discovered by accident during this process, before it was eventually devised into a piece.

What we got was the personal and documentary combining with the fictional and speculative to represent alternate versions of Malaysia’s present future (and past). While they are based on actual stories, they were made into an authentic narrative – introspective, abstract, fluid and ultimately, resonant. This was how Version 2020 is generative.

That is why Fahmi Reza’s piece caught my eye – it featured a wide range of documents (old photos, student ID card, indie Punk albums and even his scholarship agreement letter with Telekom Malaysia) that served as the background and storytelling devices. Him going through these items in almost chronological order showed how he progressed and evolved as a middle-class of his generation.

Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre's facebook page.
Pic by Bryan Chang, taken from Five Arts Centre’s facebook page.

When I learned about the play, I felt expectant. Sharing the first 22 years of my life with the entire Mahathir administration meant that my formative years were shaped by him. Vision 2020 became a fixture throughout my schooling years – Pendidikan Seni paintings of skyscrapers flanked by snaking LRT tracks, Wawasan 2020 karangans and even an obnoxious KRU single. The play was an opportunity to retrace my youth and the nation’s promise, making sense of my lamenting 90s nostalgia and sense of unbelonging.

Watching Version 2020, I realized that I am no closer to any of the numerous futures I may have imagined in my youth. The answer is becoming even more obscure; I could not answer if this present was the future I saw years ago. More importantly, the narrative of that youth has been lost to me – I can no longer go back in time (a-la Fahmi Reza) to track where did I lose sight of Vision 2020. That in itself was a damning verdict on our identity and direction as a nation, as Mark eloquently observed:

“The future is so disposable for us. We launch and market it with so much hype, and then when things change we just throw it away for whatever new future presented then. There is no continuity. And when the years pass and we lose our bearings, we could not go back because all the things that marked our pasts are gone, because we’ve thrown them away all those years ago.”



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