The New Play Project: Book 1 (Review)

One piece of advice I leave to you before watching The New Play Project: Book 1 is: throw your expectations out the window. When a group of playwrights, all unique in their own talents, influences and inspirations, get together and create a show, the best thing you can do is sit back and enjoy all the stories they have to offer. In our previous article on The New Play Project: Book 1, the director of KLPAC’s latest theatrical project Tung Jit Yang described the process of crafting these plays as the inside of a large Hadron Collider. The playwrights Adiwijaya Iskandar, Terence Toh, Ridhwan Saidi and Juno Hoay-Fern would meet each week and have ideas that challenge and critique each other, while pushing the boundaries of what Malaysian theatre can be.

While they are all accomplished playwrights in their own right, it is their individual interests and different inner stories they want to tell that makes the whole project so dynamic. They were not so much plays as they were staged readings, and while this may put audiences off with the question, “How am I supposed to pay attention to an actor who just reads their lines out?”, I beg you to attend anyway.

These limitations were just opportunities for the plays to be performed in a new type of environment, working with different ideas of what staging, lighting and performing can be. From the 1st– 5th of August, each day was a different play with its own changing dynamic, and the contrast between stories could be stunning. I would laugh along to Terence Toh’s slapstick piece on restless spirits one night and the next afternoon, I would be afraid to move during the haunting dystopia of Bukit Famosa that Ridhwan Saidi laid bare for us.

If you attend theatre to hear the kinds of stories important to you, this may not be your cup of tea. The perspectives in each piece are honest, sprinkled with slices of the playwright themselves. I found myself laughing and crying at strangers I had never met before, and there was something wonderfully human about that experience. If this is something The New Play Project: Book 1 sustain, expect to see me there in the front row for Book 2.

Restless by Terence Toh

Terence Toh (center) pictured with the other playwrights Adiwijaya Iskandar (left) and Ridhwan Saidi (right). Credit: KLPAC
Terence Toh (center) pictured with the other playwrights Adiwijaya Iskandar (left) and Ridhwan Saidi (right). (Credit: KLPAC)

Terence Toh was inspired to write Restless from a life-long enthusiasm of horror and a question that always lingered in his mind: why are horror movies so unfair to ghosts who cannot leave their own homes? Restless is more than just a story of floating specters and terrified residents. The story of Jenny, George and Daniel living together, trying to get a grip on their own lives amid their anxieties of the future and their ghosts of the past were played by Hannan Barakbah, Vincent Lai and Jad Hidhir respectively. Their slapstick performances had just the right amount of self-awareness and emotion so it didn’t appear over the top. This is a great piece to bring your less serious theatre-loving friends to watch and enjoy.

But while there were many comedic and/or slapstick sequences intended to make the audience laugh uproariously at (the scenes involving the Exorcist played by Freddie Tan are the best examples of this overly exaggerated Malaysian humour), Restless wasn’t lacking in emotional appeal either. Sandee Chew and Sukhbir Cheema who played the wistful, sensitive ghost Natasha and the deceased “terrifying gangster boss of Klang” Edmund Santiago respectively gave remarkably profound performances.

Sandee in particular stood out as Natasha as you could hear the tragedy of her past shake in her character’s voice, as she spoke of the suicide that drove her family apart and caused her to haunt this realm since the 1970s. Another notable scene is when the “terrifying” Edmund, who up until this point is an exaggerated horrific spirit that still manages to be funny enough to work with this audience, quietly asks Natasha not to ascend to heaven. He is a lonely, broken man as the events of the play reveals and Restless asks the audience to think of the real tragedy of life after death: the loneliness of existing in a world that’s no longer meant for you.

While the play itself maintained a pretty fine blend of emotional and comedic, it did not prove anything new or special for a full-length play itself. But as a staged reading, and the first one I watched from The New Play Project: Book 1, I was blown away how engaging a reading could as well as setting a great tone for the rest of the project. Restless really came to life with its dynamic lighting and staging that indicated transitions or shifts in action. Whenever Daniel was in his room by himself and the ghost of Natasha came to him, he was surrounded in a circle of light that she could not enter.

It was a great visual prop that acted as the boundary between the living and the dead, and highlighted the loneliness Natasha and Edmund must feel from the people living in their own home. The action-packed ghost extermination scene could have been a simple reading of the stage directions, but was made truly captivating with flashing lights and the actors’ chaotic motions and staging. It was the most energetic of all the readings, and I would not be surprised to see a reincarnation of it in Book 2.

Rating: 4/5


Mautopia by Ridhwan Saidi

Ridhwan Saidi has made a name for himself in the Malaysian theatre scene since his acclaimed Teater Modular, going on to creating his own indie publishing outfit Moka Mocha Ink and creating one of my favourite local productions ever, Teater Normcore. I went in to Mautopia hoping to see that distinct absurdist and powerfully poetic commentary on politics, sex and religion that he has cemented for himself since Teater Normcore. And while Mautopia took plot turns that diluted its strength rather than worked to its advantage, I was not disappointed.

Mautopia was an original novel written by Ridhwan Saidi himself. (Credit: Moka Mocha Ink)
Mautopia was an original novel written by Ridhwan Saidi himself. (Credit: Moka Mocha Ink)

Mautopia was initially a novel written by Ridhwan Saidi about a dystopia set in Bukit Famosa, revolving around the students and teachers of a strange school that introduces a new banned word each day. The students Kamariah (Hannan Barakbah), Xulaika (Fatin Syazwanie), Nabil (Nabil Musawir) and Rashid (Faliiq Amin) learn that the words ‘kasih’, ‘cinta’, khalwat’, ‘haram’ and ‘Amerika’ among many others are controversial and lead them down a path of hellfire and brimstone. At each turn, the children are cornered by the Ustaz (Zul Zamir), Guru Disiplin (Omar Ali) and Doktor (Farah Rani), enforcing rules created by a sinister and unknown Guru Besar who lurks in the shadows.

“The land will never know the pleasures of the sea. We will never know the pleasures of plants. But no other being will know of our pleasures.”

The power of Mautopia comes directly from its beautiful poetic verses and the actors’ excellent delivery of their lines. Omar Ali and Zul Zamir controlled the stage with their presence and gravitas, exuding the type of authority and control one would expect from these dictator-teacher figures. The adults seemed to have a certain sad wisdom that came with their rigid rules, and this poetry would not have flourished if not for Farah’s, Omar’s and Zul’s delivery. The teachers tell us in a prescient tone, “Tiada yang betul selain kebetulan” And with that, we are aware of how easy it is to believe in their punishments are strongly as they do.

The downside to the eloquent prose from the novel is that is does not translate as well to theatre. The cast can only do so much to create an engaging performance; thus, the consequence of scenes with long conversations drowning in hypotheticals is that it makes for draggy scenes. The visual elements of the reading were static, so there is a tendency for audience engagement to falter. The play takes many turns to show us in an Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’ style how easily the children become their own tormentors but it is done in a weird and far too drawn-out style, a conclusion that does not fit the strength of its beginning.

But you know this sucker for poetry will come back each time for the beauty of poetry performed in its original Malay language.

Rating: 3.5/5


Mixtape for Maz by Adiwijaya Iskandar

What started as a synopsis in 2012 became a fully developed piece under The New Play Project and Adiwijaya Iskandar has devoted his time to capture realistic dialogue and interactions, in order to colour this play with maturity and truth. The characters’ stories were based on interviews with people who attended Islamic boarding schools, those who were forced to tone down their uniqueness in a rigid society and for the most part, infused himself and his own sister into the main characters of Maz and Edi.

A comedic scene that highlights Ashraf Zain's performance in Mixtape to Maz that prefaces the drama to come. (Credit: Farah Rani's Twitter)
A comedic scene that highlights Ashraf Zain’s performance in Mixtape to Maz that prefaces the drama to come. (Credit: Farah Rani’s Twitter)

Though they were limited to staged readings, there were spectacular performances from Farah Rani and Ashraf Zain, who played Maz and Edi respectively. The most powerful scenes the actors delivered were the opening and epilogue, in which it was just a dialogue between Maz and Edi but notably, were also the only scenes in English. They are the only parts of the play not to be performed in a northern Malay dialect; it was an added layer of genuine sibling closeness that shed away the very cultural norms and impositions Maz tried to run away from.

Farah Rani plays Maz as a teenager in the alt-rock era of the mid-90s, struggling to be her own person in a world still learning to appreciate a very headstrong and very different woman. Ashraf Zain’s portrayal of the naïve Edi makes the audience laugh uproariously and there is a sweetly childish tone to the play’s early scenes. But the audience realises too, there is something more ugly lurking in the background: the children’s father who is only called Ayah, whose temper terrifies them and is something Edi casually says he inherited before disappearing back into innocence. The play’s conflict starts slow and grows into a tumultuous classroom scene where brother and sister must stare each other down and fight. In all these ugly adult struggles, we still remember they are only kids, learning to cope in a world they didn’t fit into.

Mixtape did not have the type of dynamic staging or poetic verses that keep the audience’s attention. It did not have any abstract elements or experimental bits of many present theatrical pieces. All it did to make the audience feel and connect to one another was a great sense of humour, personality and plenty of heart, much like its title character. There was nothing pretentious or forced about the performance. It’s a story of triumph, a brother and sister who take on their parents and the rest of the world. And after all the punches Maz must take, you wait for the moment of catharsis, where she gets what she wants and finally belongs. I won’t tell you if it happens but I will say that I left Pentas 2, KLPAC that day with a little old tear in my eye and thought about it all the way home. And all it took were real, raw emotions coated in nothing but simplicity.

Rating: 4.5/5


Plays Without Words & Actions by Juno Hoay-Fern

If you were to go into this play without knowing what it’s about, you would still not know what it’s about until a few uncomfortable silences and periods of frantic action later. If you had read about it before attending, you would likely still be scratching your head, trying to figure out what the playwright is trying to tell you. There is roughly 5-10 minutes of a body lying down, illuminated by a spotlight in complete silence as no one says anything before 10-15 minutes of constant and repetitive motion between all 4 actors that makes zero sense on its own. Juno Hoay-Fern knows this and cleverly reveals it as a subtle and meta middle finger to an audience who demands a meaningful story, when sometimes, there really is nothing but the writer’s own dissatisfaction with their work.

The cast, known simply as Actors, consisted of Theyvapaalan Jayaratnam, Jad Hidhir, Sandee Chew and Vincent Lai and to their credit, made strong performances. Theyvapaalan Jayaratnam was notably the strongest physical performer, never stopping a beat in his endless and fruitless running in place sequence and his tightly wound movements and screams, making the audience uncomfortable with whatever pain the character was going through.

The silent and agonised figure is played excellently by Theyvapaalan Jayaratnam. (Credit: Warwhorelian)
The silent and agonised figure is played excellently by Theyvapaalan Jayaratnam. (Credit: Warwhorelian)

As it began as a dark and experimental physical theatre piece, the pieces of the puzzle eventually fit together. A memorable, if confusing, moment was when the performers began nonsensical movements and running in place as another Actor watched and tried to control their movements, eventually being replaced by their victim, replaced by another Actor, replaced by another victim, continually in a never-ending cycle. It evoked the nature of working for something, but there was a sense of desperation that begs the question: do we really know what we’re working for?

Marvelous moments like these were lost in a sea of rituals and metaphors that did not really let us breathe for a moment. While the playwright’s intent was likely to create such a jarring atmosphere, intimacy and meaning were pushed aside for reaction. The end result left me sitting in confusion wondering why I was here in the first place. However, it redeemed itself in the final section, Play on Play, where all the theoretical arguments came to fruition. As the actors began stripping down the process of writing a play and screaming existential questions at one another, it was at this point I asked myself, “Wait. Is this play degrading itself?”

The light began dawning on me; these were a series of hyper self-aware, absurdist sketches! They screamed frustrations at each other, the very same frustrations that many of us have when we create something and must struggle with doubt in our creations and ourselves. There questions on why we write, act and do theatre became more exclamations and there is a sense of lost-ness from the scriptwriter herself. As the Actors wonder, we wonder too – why do we have these dreams in the first place and what does that say about us? The randomness in each piece is almost like the Writer themselves is trying to figure out what is the successful and meaningful thing she wants. The play ends abruptly at the Actor’s call and they throw their scripts and stands together in one space, as if burning it like an effigy to the creative process. In one line, it is a play about getting everything you want in the end, but not knowing why you want it or if it’s something you can ever be happy with.

Rating: 3/5

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EDITORIAL NOTE: Quote was changed to on 15.8.2018 1.15pm

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