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Interview with U-Wei: On ‘Pokok’, morality and the immediacy of theatre

‘Pokok’ is a story that welcomes renown director U-Wei’s talent back to the theatre stage from the 7 December – 16 December 2018 at Auditorium Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Known more for his films such as HanyutKaki Bakar and Perempuan, Lelaki &..? (from which he won the Best Director Award in the 11th Malaysian Film Festival), U-Wei has also honed his craft through plays, his last one being Wangi Menjadi Saksi back in 2008. We get to talk about why he chose the story written by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar, his decision to dwell into theatre once more, and the moral reason why films should exist.

The play Pokok tells the story of Darwis, (Ebby Saiful) who lives in a tiny house at the edge of the woods with his wife Mardiah (Haliza Misbun), a pregnant ex-convict. While contemplating their state of living and the future of their child, Mardiah expresses her hesitation regarding their small house, canopied by a large tree. Complications unfold when she talks about leaving, as Darwis is tied to his employment under Tuk Kaya (Rahim Jailani). His long-time friend, Amud (Buyung Zadar), who also works with Tuk Kaya, offers his assistance and company. All while watched over by a lone giant tree.

Johan Jaaffar’s script unravels serious questions regarding poverty, classism and the plight of a woman striving for independence and stability. Below, U-Wei shares with us his insight into those matters, and the process required to bring it to life.

ZIM AHMADI: It’s been 10 years since the last play that you staged. Is there any complication for you in getting out of film mode into theatre mode?

U-WEI: My main discipline is film but I do understand the theatre medium. There is a difference, but basically it shares this one basic thing, which is capturing a performance. The mechanics is where they differ, the needs of the platforms, and the form. In film, it’s a simple transition from capturing the performers and putting it on cellulite. You witness whatever that’s going on, a direct journey from the eye to the heart.

Another obvious difference is that film is a director’s medium, but theatre is more of an actor’s medium. You can’t control it anymore once they’ve rehearsed it. In a way it’s the purest form of acting.

ZIM AHMADI: Even though Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar first wrote ‘Pokok’ with theatre in mind, did it ever cross your mind to turn it into a movie instead?

U-WEI: I didn’t want to stray to far away from the author’s intention, and since Tan Sri intended as a theatre, I had to challenge myself to get into that mindset.

Z: What is challenging about that mindset?

U: For me, every new work – whether film, art installation or theatre – needs to be challenging or I’ll never do it. In the case of ‘Pokok’, the immediate challenge is to conjure and to realize the essence of the story. The next step is in how I would present it. In a way it’s a simple text, but at the same time it’s very profound. I love the simplicity, and sometimes to be simple is very hard. After that, I take another step further and envision the angles. For most theatrical performances, there’s only angle – the stage from wherever you’re sitting, but I want to show to my audience three different angles. In the most literal sense.


Z: You mean, at the same time? Or consecutively?

U: No, I’m not talking about it conceptually. I mean, literally. The challenge was figuring out how to do that – to show the back, the front and the side of the stage. I think I managed to do that, if you would like to know come and see the play!

Z: Some people like to categorise your work into ‘arthouse’ like Kaki Bakar & Jogho and ‘realist epics’ like Hanyut? Do you believe in those categories? If so, which category does Pokok fall into?

U: Oscar Wilde said, “To define is to limit”. I’m not going to limit yourself.

Z: Johan Jaaffar’s script is purportedly based upon a real life bartender that he once met. As a director, do you feel any added pressure in visualisising a real person on stage?

U: Let me put it this way, when it falls into my hands, this is what I say to them (the writers) even for Joseph Conrad’s Almayer Folly (the novel that inspired Hanyut) – this is my story now. *laughs* . Tan Sri Johan really knows where it stops too. He’s a wise person so he really let his story go when he gave it to me. For him to let it go like that means he trusts me. Since he trusts me, I must take that responsibility.

Z; It seems that you also apply that level of trust when you approach your actors, since you’re known to give your actors freedom in embodying their characters.

U: It’s mostly age. *laughs* Well that’s not exactly right. I actually do set parameters, but whatever I do is a collaboration. Without the actors I can’t do anything. They are already creative people. They must enhance my vision. I give them an area to cultivate them, but they still can’t cross their borders.

Z: Besides ‘Pokok‘ being very simple but profound, did any other themes drew you in to Pokok when you first read it? Themes like a strong leading women undergoing many struggles, for example?

U: When we hear the word ‘Pokok’, it’s not really about the tree. I’m not interested in the tree. I’m interested in the people that live around the tree. That’s what art and writing is all about. It’s talking about humanity. The pokok means nothing without the people. Titanic, unfortunately, means nothing without the love story. Not enough people care about a sinking ship. It’s about the people. It just so happens that a man happens to live around the tree, and we use it as a reference. A focal point. But without the tree you can put anything else. Humanity. It’s about humanity.

Z: But what about those people in the story that interests you? Their relationships, personalities?

U: The writing. What’s interesting about the writing is that Johan Jaaffar deals with the sensitivity and the silaturrahim (human connection) of a local society in which the totem of that society is that people tend to repress their emotions. I’m brought up as a Malay, I live in a society that is very good at ‘memendam rasa‘. I’m interested in that, because I know these sort of people. I’m interested to know more. A society that is repressed.

Besides that, if someone asks me what Pokok is about, I tell them that it’s about strength. People searching for strength in a damaged society, struggling to find the future.
All of them are content, except for the woman who’s asking for something that transcends her fate. It’s almost Nietzsche-like, since she’s trying to defeat her destiny.

Z: You talk a lot about how plays and films should teach good moral values, but a lot of your plays talk about moral grey areas. Do you think that’s a challenge to teach people a value but yet say that morality is complicated?

U: I’m not a moralist, but the best thing I can approach it for now, is that I approach it in a realist way. I talk about things that are plausible. Things CAN happen this way. Usually after evaluating that I push it to a next level of surrealism. For Pokok however I try to make the characters as ‘life-like’ as possible. I stick to the realism. I just show people things as they are.

Z: Did you use any references in honing the characters in the play? Other characters in life, other performances?

U: A lot of things influence me. I’ve also come to a point where I’m not afraid to use my influences. I even steal them. Creativity is about learning how to hide the fact that you stole it. In the world right now, nothing is original. Tropes and references are only tools.

Z: What do you want people to take away from it? Will the audience come out of the theatre thinking that it’s a hopeful play?

U: That’s a good question. I wonder how they would feel about it, because I’ve interpreted it as very optimistic. But then the ending however, I’ve made it very vague. The future is dark and uncertain anyway. It’s up to the audience. For example – I’m going to sound really self-centered referring to my own work…can I do that?

Z: *laughs* You can go on and reference your own work, I don’t think that’s a problem.

U: I think I’ve sworn to myself not to. I can’t stand my own work. Anyway, in Almayer’s Folly, the house is a symbol of all of the problems in the story. The best way to solve everything then is to burn it. But then when he burned it, it rained. It’s saying that you can’t change the future.

If an audience asks though, I’ll tell them it’s up to them.

This article is written by Zim Ahmadi. The interview is also carried out by Zim Ahmadi. Pokok’s last shows would be this week! Don’t miss it at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. For information on tickets click here:

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