Earlier in April, I watched Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at’s Madu II performed at the Actor’s Studio Lot 10, directed by U-En Ng and featuring sisters Elza Irdalynna and Inessa Irdayanty. It was quite brilliant: the word play sharp and witty, the acting admirable, the staging inventive. I enjoyed its frank and clever portrayal of two wives who share a husband and household, but it did not resonate deeply on an emotional level—polygamy is a concept, at least in practical terms, quite removed from my daily life.
Parah, Alfian’s latest play, also written entirely in Malay, is a very different animal to Madu II. I managed to catch its recent showcase directed by Jo Kukathas of the Instant Cafe Theatre Company at the Annexe Gallery after it’s staging in Singapore. Its facebook event page described the play as a mash-up of the late Yasmin Ahmad’s swan-song Talentime and national laureate Abdullah Hussain’s controversial book Interlok. I was piqued by the blurb but thought it did sound slightly gimmicky. I wanted to catch the play less for it’s novel premise (no pun intended) and more to see what this talented Singaporean could write about his pesky neighbours up north.
The Annexe isn’t a “theatre” theater. This has nothing to do with the quality of its productions, merely an observation that its set-up isn’t (nor is it meant to be) that of a traditional, bells and whistles theater stage. On the night I watched Parah, seats were arranged so closely that I was in contact with others to my front, back and sides, almost indecently. Yet despite all this, and with a less-than-perfect view, I experienced one of the most profound playgoing experiences of my life.
The play opens in the living room of high-schooler Melur (played by Farah Rani), where three of her friends Hafiz (Iedil Putra), Kahoe (Gregory Sze) and Mahesh (Mervyn Raj) are hanging out during the holidays. Melur has discovered that in her mother’s copy of Interlok, a page has been mysteriously torn out. It must have been one of the boys: no one else had come to the house. But who was it? Hafiz, Kahoe or Mahesh? None confess.
This fairly innocuous question opens a Pandora’s box of more. In the their school, a new crisis emerges. All four Indian students in class, including Mahesh, have objected against the use of Interlok as a compulsory text in their Malay literature component, due to the its insensitve labeling of early Indian settlers as “pariahs”; the very word was in the page missing form Melur’s mother’s book. When the objectors face their schoolmaster, they are met with a racist remark, which leads them to lodge a police report. From here on end, strains pull and tear at the relationship between the characters.
Alfian, in using character names and profiles from Yasmin’s sentimental Talentime (the ever-familiar tripartite of Malay, Chinese and Indian), deconstructs, subverts and rips to shreds the convenient archetypes and stereotypes they represent, removing the rosey tint of the tourism poster conceit. The contents and controversies around Interlok form the canvas and reference points to our contemporary world: spring boards on which the heady issues of race, religion, language, identity, history, nationalism and politics are explored and commented on. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that these very issues and thoughts pervade Malaysians’ consciousness daily.
Our collective history, or lack thereof, is also explored. The play is not “about” Malaysian history per se (nobody is in traditional costumes coming off a ship in Malacca) but of how history, or, more accurately, our perceptions and paradigms on history and our use and abuse of the nation’s narrative, have led us to where we are today. If we come from different roots, can we ever grow the same tree?
Melur, Hafiz, Kahoe and Mahesh are, without any attempt at masking, tropes by which the psyches and histories of different races are projected and explored. The relationships between them are clearly used to convey the complex relationships between races in this nation. Their story is very much the story of Malaysia. Through them we see the private and communal stings all of us have inflicted and received. As their friendship disintegrates, we see the prejudices we ourselves flaunt or hide, the fears we plant and spread and the anxieties we exacerbate. The growing discord between them mirror the ceaseless, callous and poisonous pitting of “us” against “them”, “kami” menentang “mereka”: in our homes, our neighbourhoods and our country. We see the human cost of our petty taking of sides, our politiking, our obsession with delineating racial boundaries and our tolerance of fundamentalism: rational discourse grows every rarer and living in the country becomes unbearable for some.
Yet despite their obvious roles as metaphors, Melur, Hafiz, Kahoe and Mahesh struck me as frighteningly familiar and real—as much as their story is the nation’s, it is also one I witness daily in the people around me. I saw myself, my childhood, my school, my neighbourhood, my neighbours, my parents, my family, my friends, my race, my community, my city, my country, my fears, my dreams: I saw my world. The pathos in Parah comes not from the tragedy of its story, but from of the tragedy of its inherent truth; we see not a photoshopped poster of what we wish we were, but the reality of what we are, and that reality is truly heartbreaking.
Parah’s language is clear and simple, and its plot isn’t very complex, yet it is anything but shallow or simplistic. Its power comes perhaps precisely because of its unapologetic and unsentimental approach to tackling knotty issues. Our failures as Malaysians are laid bare before the audience’s eyes, forcing us to confront them. My guts were punched again and again, because what I saw didn’t just seem real, but felt real.
At first it was a bit surprising to me that it took a Singaporean to write such an honest Malaysian play. But perhaps it’s because of some level of outsider detachment, a freedom from any communal agenda and a calm objectivity that allowed Parah to be written so deftly, with an emotional “tightness” which never felt heavy-handed. Alfian has observed and grappled with our demons, and distilled down to words the essence of our national consciousness, along with its attendant complexities, fractures, ironies and hypocrisies. That the play manages to do this on both personal and broader, metaphorical levels is quite astounding.
That’s not to say Parah’s script or staging is perfect. It is still a work in progress with some rough spots. The monologues, each character giving a report to their class on Interlok, did slow the pacing. There were lighting and sound touches which seemed odd or superfluous. Most obviously, the resolution of the original question of who tore the page seemed slightly forced, at least in relation to the rest of the play. Yet this is purely nitpicking, because Parah’s strengths surely outweigh its weaknesses a million to one.
The line “It was a pain to watch” in any review is usually not a welcome one and yet for Parah, I could not find a more suitable or gushing compliment. I do not think I have ever experienced a play where I what I heard and saw entwined so completely with my heart-strings, struck so dangerously close to home or reflected so frighteningly the reality of my past and present. I was literally shaking and tearing at many points.
Congratulations to Alfian Sa’at and Jo Kukathas for their courage, as well as to the four young actors who all showed immense talent and potential in their commitment to the characters. I am glad to be counted amongst the first few to have watched this lucid and honest play, especially at a time when the political realm of the nation has gone past the point of rational comprehensibility.
Jo Kukathas has mentioned that Parah will be staged here again: make sure you catch it then, because in my opinion, it’s compulsory viewing!