Director and playwright Ridhwan Saidi packs his punches like poetry – soft, colourful and with a determination to answer big questions about what it means to love and what it means to be an artist.
It’s difficult to know what to expect when you enter Teater Normcore, introduced to the audience only as two one-act plays that run for 70 minutes in total. You don’t know what to expect even as you make your way up the steps to RAW Art Space, the venue where Teater Normcore premiered. And as you finally find this hole-in-the wall gem and make your way past walls covered in playbills, posters for art exhibitions and flyers for theatre productions, you realise you’re in for an experience.
And it is definitely an experience worth your night.
Asking the Big Questions
I watched it on opening night and spent my time guessing whether it would be a play with a straightforward and linear storyline or some type of abstract and experimental devised piece I was so used to seeing these days. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a piece called Teater Normcore, something I associated with conventional or unremarkable things.
What I did experience was a pleasant mix of both and something I can only describe as refreshing. In an artistic society saturated with Western influences about the way we script our plays or a lot of our creative projects, some stories can find themselves sounding a lot like each other. It can at times be enjoyable but, predictable. Hence, it’s when I watch pieces like Tiada Cinta Selama Muda (No Love for the Young) and Matinya Seorang Birokrat (Death of a Bureaucrat) – the 2 one-act plays that make up Teater Normcore – I’m pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful and poetic a contemporary Malay approach to scriptwriting can be.
The entire play is performed in Malay but has English subtitles at the back to cater to a more diverse crowd and which I naturally paid more attention. Going back and reading through the playbill though, I noticed the poetry within the Malay language that enhanced my experience of the piece, giving it a more dreamy and distant feeling, the same place reading a good poem will put you.
At parts emotional and visceral and at others, downright hilarious, Teater Normcore for all its poetic twists and turns, is anything BUT a normal production. It’s interesting to note that Ridhwan’s justification for calling it “Normcore” is that the entire production is about elements of a contemporary and normal life. A man and a woman who seem to be in love in the first play and a conversation between an artist and a bureaucrat in the second play. All simple affairs that have a bigger philosophical meaning underlying its tone and for the most part, at least causes us to turn over the answer to those questions in our brain without necessarily answering them. But to pull off a piece about simple reality and infuse it with poetry and philosophy? That’s the true appeal of Teater Normcore.
Tiada Cinta Selama Muda (No Love For The Young)
With a cast of only two people – Amirul Syakir as The Husband and Adena Sams as The Wife – there is a heavy focus on dialogue between these characters, and the underlying subtext it adds to the play. And it’s honestly quite beautiful. Some fans of this style may recognise it in films like Sunset Limited or The Man From Earth or Hemingway’s short stories that describe little, but cause the audience to probe further.
It’s the recurring theme of infusing poetry within the storyline, so that what comes off as abstract and slightly disconnected, eventually reaches a climax of poetic justice. With a limited cast and props being cut down to the bare minimum (a lamp, two small chairs, a stool, a cloth), this play shows us the value in theatrical dialogue and themed colours.
And that was frankly where the play shone best. Amirul and Adena’s performances were careful, each slight hesitation and movement coming off planned and precise so I found myself immersed in the lives of this young, troubled couple. Amirul and Adena’s slow back and forth was engaging in its sincerity and personally, I enjoyed the poetry in every line. The play could come off as one long poem about the nature of being in love and starts that way as both characters recite lines from Amir Hamzah’s poetry collection Buah Rindu 2.
The play was segmented, capturing different moments that different couples go through. It was a move that can be easily missed the first time you watch it but becomes significant if you run through the scenes again. Its primary colours were red, yellow, blue and white and it’s no coincidence that these are the colours of the Malaysia flag. Director Ridhwan used the meaning of each colour – yellow for royalty, white for purity, red for conflict and equality and blue for knowledge and unity – to signify the different times in the husband and wife’s lives.
It was simple and definitely not the most amazing visual spectacle on stage, but its simplicity was full of heart. The colours and the props became more meaningful, with the tender expressions, conversation and actions shared between the characters, punctuated by longing looks as they quietly rearranged the furniture, hoping to get noticed by their love. Tiada Cinta Selama Muda is melancholy and sincere. One of its most heart-wrenching moments is watching the couple’s happy moments mixed with their turmoil only for the Adena to close the piece with a heartfelt, searching question, “Tetapi bakal suamiku manatah dia?” (“Where is my love?”)
Matinya Seorang Birokrat (Death of a Bureaucrat)
“Kami anak seni.” “I am an artist.” Roshafiq Roslee as The Actor utters these words throughout the play, inspiring pride and integrity at first and laughter as it becomes his stock response to the question of the merits of bureaucracy and business. If the first play was a slow-paced and sincere question about love, this piece was a brisk and linear story arc that cuts out a fancy visual affair, aiming to specifically answer one thing: can bureaucracy and art get along? Ridhwan reveals in a later Q&A session that one of his inspirations for this play was in fact Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. There are similar questions of selling artistic integrity for a more materialistic life, performed with less somberness and a delightfully Malaysian sense of humour, brought to life by the sharp and comic delivery of both Roshafiq and Mia Sabrina’s portrayal of The Bureaucrat.
That’s where the similarities end. While Miller’s play is a search for identity amid the consumerist vaccum that is the American dream, Death of a Bureaucrat took a different artistic direction, and this decision was one of the best parts of the play. The use of satire showcases the stuffy rigidity of bureaucracy and the idealistic and sometimes ungrounded dreams of the artist. What made it interesting is how we, the audience, are compelled to look at how alike art and bureaucracy are, “same same but different” as The Bureaucrat puts it. While we laugh at the all too familiar Malaysian jokes and the excellent delivery the actors give to their lines, the audience mulls over the question of art and bureaucracy, oil and water, two elements that never seem to mix and yet, must. It encourages a much-needed conversation on the issues that a contemporary artistic society must deal with – being paid fairly for work that isn’t considered “serious” while maintaining the freedom to build upon a unique artistic vision despite censorship and commercialisation.
And yet social themes aside, the events of the plot can come off as a little rushed, having been driven to a sudden and unexpected conclusion, so unexpected that it can come off as out of place. The climactic struggle between The Director (portrayed by Amirul Syakir) and The Actor in retrospect, seems a little…unnecessary. But while it doesn’t do much good for the storyline’s coherence, it’s a great turning point for fans of symbolism in theatre, as the The Actor finds new perspective in the power of good civil service and The Bureaucrat sheds her skin and old longings to become…an actor herself. This dose of poetic justice does a great job in driving home the point about the blurry lines between “artist” and “bureaucrat”, a future that Malaysia’s artists are soon going to have to come to terms with.