The best forms of art are the kinds that speak to you. The kinds that make you feel you’ve formed a sort of connection with the artist. The kinds that then leave you believing the piece was indeed made for you.
Marina Tan’s What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? is one such piece.
What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? is a one-woman play directed by Christopher Ling and written and performed by Marina Tan. It is presented as part of theatrethreesixty’s annual wearethreesixty arts festival and will run from the 19th of July to the 26th of August at Lot’ng Space.
The thing about a one-woman show is that it’s quite the test for the woman involved. Unlike most narratives, we can’t pick favourite characters or choose whose story we want to follow. Instead, the lack of variety forces us to invest all our attention onto a single woman. It’s the kind of format, largely depending on the woman involved, you’ll soon find you either love or hate.
But what audiences will quickly come to note is that Marina Tan is worth the attention she beseeches.
I was instantly drawn to the allure of Marina. As she sauntered in, her voice filled the room with a booming aura. She delivered all her lines eloquently — enthralling me more with each word.
The play is essentially an intense and elongated monologue, where Marina plays the role of Mimi; a strongly opinionated teacher who begins to struggle with her beliefs after assigning her students with what she considers an easy assignment. She performs her monologues in English, Malay, and Hokkien, and manages to articulate each language ardently.
The play has a sort of ‘Malaysia Baru’ theme to it and takes pride in being among the first of the local performing arts community to address the new change in government.
Reality has a strange way of distorting in Mimi’s world. We see her in modern-day settings being able to somehow communicate with colonial women from Malaysia’s past and even talk to a voice that seems to be coming from above. It is all a little bizarre at first but is ultimately pulled off impressively, giving audiences a poignant tour of the oppression and struggles women have faced for centuries.
What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? is not a play you are simply meant to observe. Mimi performs her monologues directly to her audience and makes you feel as though she really is talking to you. At moments, when she spoke to me with direct eye contact, I was almost sure she expected a reply. How convinced I was (and likely the rest of the audience), is really a testament to her prowess as a performer.
Some may recognise Marina from her other roles such as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (penangpac, 2016) or the tacky hairdresser Chanel in Shear Madness, for which she received a Boh Cameronian Arts Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor (2014-2015).
She has been known to deliver exceptional performances in roles she is given and demonstrates commendable emotional range. The act of centring the play onto just her thus allowed a far greater connection between audience and artist and greatly amplified the play’s message.
Accompanying Marina’s performance was Harits Agustin’s work on the play’s soundscape. Sitting down right by Marina at the end of the stage, where she even occasionally interacted with him, he was almost his own character. His work on the score was refined, serving splendidly to accompany Marina’s poise and allowing for elegant transitions between scenes.
In excavating the stories of women from Malaysia’s past and present, What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? evokes our empathy for the shared hurt and oppressive circumstances women have suffered for centuries as a result of ongoing patriarchal systems. It is a visceral exploration through the eyes of Mimi who, in turn, pursues her own journey of self-reflection and empowerment.
It is the kind of play you walk out of wanting to experience again. What Am I, A Bloody Banyan Tree? is indeed a bloody good piece, largely by virtue of its passionate and sole performer, Marina Tan.
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Featured Image Source: New Straits Times