By Dhinesha Karthigesu
(1,330 words, 5-minute read)
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
At the end of the play AIR CON, the character William (Nick Davis) asks the character Asif (Ryan Lee Bhaskaran) this question.
This stuck with me because I found myself asking the question: What happens when a play grows up? Does it? Are plays allowed to grow and age? How do we view and reflect on work after an entire decade or more has passed?
AIR CON, the critically acclaimed and much beloved play from The Instant Cafe Theatre Company (ICT) was recently screened online from 24 to 26 September. Via the online screening platform Cloud Theatre, audiences got to watch an edited and subtitled recording of the 2008 run of the play.
The play written by Shanon Shah was directed by Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi. It featured a cast made up of Amerul Affendi, Zahiril Adzim, Dara Othman, Firdaus Che Yahaya, Hazarul Hasnain, Nick Davis, Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, Nam Ron, Chew Kinwah and Iswadi Wakiri. Accompanying the online screenings were virtual reunions with the original cast on Facebook, and post-show discussions, all of which were made available to a global audience.
These questions feel even more pressing when considering that, in a way, this very screening is a time capsule. It captures not just the archival footage of a play but every single audience reaction. Every laugh, gasp and emotion the audiences went through is felt and noticed. On one hand, it can feel like you are right there with them. On the other hand, when they laugh at things that you don’t find funny, you can’t help but wonder why.
Are we as audiences no longer the same people we were in 2008?
If yes, then how do we view a work from that time?
AIR CON is the story of a group of characters in an elite boy school in Kedah. Chep (Amerul Affendi) and Burn (Zahiril Adzim) are top students in SM Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah. Burn is the school’s golden boy and his best friend Chep is both feared and admired by the younger boys. The school is well respected for its strong academic and sports record. However, the discovery of the body of a sex worker by the name of Aishwarya (Dara Othman) near their school unravels the status quo. We discover a less golden world of bullying, sex crimes and violence. Best friends William and Asif go from innocence to involvement and later, awakening, as they are caught up in the repercussions of the murder.
Entering my own viewing of the play, I approached it with a fair amount of trepidation. My personal and past experiences of rescreenings and restagings have not been positive. I often find that some plays do not hold up to the test of time. We all grow, adapt, evolve and become different people. How do we then expect plays to stay the same?
The second reason for my apprehension was the amount of love and hype this play has received. The play originally snagged 8 nominations at the 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in 2009, winning Best Original Script, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Lighting Design and the Kakiseni Audience Choice Award. Many people I know have watched the original run and have praised and talked highly about the work.
So it begs the question, does the play work? In moments, it does. The play succeeds in its smaller and quieter scenes. The interactions between the group of friends made up of William, Asif, Mimi (Firdaus Che Yahaya) and Mona (Hazarul Hasnain), for example. Their banter made me wish I had a group of friends like that in school, with the space to authentically be ourselves and share who we are, without fear of repercussion. Whether intentional or not, they built a safe space between themselves. Other scenes include the vulnerable moments between Chep and Burn, especially during a powerful prayer scene. Watching two Muslim boys pray together and hold space for one another in a religious setting really made me pause. I found myself asking if that was the first time I had seen such vulnerable forms of Muslim and Malay masculinity on stage.
AIR CON, and Shanon’s writing, further succeeds because of its heart. You can sense that these are lived experiences, and they are written with such earnestness. The various shades of masculinity and gender expression that are put on stage. The topic of male boarding schools as a pressure cooker of patriarchy. The honesty of what it is like to grow up male and struggle to fit in and find your place.
The play however falters when it comes to its treatment of the femme/feminine bodies on stage, the usage of comedy and its choices around violence. There were many moments when the audience of 2008 would laugh at something traumatic and violent. Whether this was the intention of the production is definitely debatable, but watching it and hearing the laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were laughing at the trauma the characters were experiencing. If characters are set up to be comedic foils or to provide all the jokes, are they then not allowed to also talk about their humanity? To show that they too can suffer? At which point do we make our audiences realise that sometimes the ones making the jokes are using it to hide their pain?
In 2021, I believe we have a responsibility to go beyond just showing violence on stage. The sexual and physical violence that is showcased via this recording was brutal and uncomfortable to watch. I think in the age of Netflix content warnings, a basic content warning is no longer enough. Audiences need to know clearly what they are in for. I also believe that as artists we have taken the adage of “show, don’t tell” too far when it comes to theatre. There must be and are better ways for us to talk about violence and its effects without having to replicate it on stage.
The transwoman character of Aishwarya (Dara Othman) spends the first half of the play lurking as a haunting presence. I couldn’t help but question if audiences then and now would truly leave feeling any level of difference towards trans bodies. Her story arc seemed to exist mainly to serve those of the main characters. And that, unfortunately, is disappointing when looked at with a 2021 lens. The production did attempt to paint her as more than a spectre by giving her a glorious monologue moment about her first time presenting as a woman in public. However, it felt too little, too late. I believe we have definitely come to a point where the violence against trans bodies cannot be used as a growing mechanism for cisgendered male characters. Especially when evidence shows that violence in real life against trans bodies is linked to their depictions in the media.
It is really hard to fault ICT’s choice to bring back older work. Especially with the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, theatre companies from all over the world have brought out older work from their vaults. We have seen countless recordings and restagings in the past year or so alone.
However, I wish that as theatremakers we can find ways to acknowledge that maybe we have grown. And as such expecting perfection of our earlier works is unfair. Not just from us but our audience as well.
I ask all these questions not just as an audience member but as a fellow Malaysian theatremaker and playwright. I ask these questions as a queer person who has struggled with his femininity. I ask these questions as someone who knows that he is no longer the person he was in 2008.
If we are allowed to grow up and become different people, perhaps as artists we need to find ways to do the same with our work too.
This screening of Air Con was presented online by The Instant Café Theatre Company on Cloud Theatre from 24 to 26 September 2021.
Dhinesha Karthigesu is a multi disciplinary storyteller, theatre maker and coach. He is Malaysia’s first and only National Poetry Slam Champion. His work has been featured at festivals and on platforms like HowlRound Theatre Commons, Vice India and Vice Asia. In 2021, Dhinesha and his play RAVAYANA beat a thousand other entries to be selected as one of five plays/playwrights to be part of The Playwrights Realm’s International Scratchpad Series of 2021/2022. He is also currently one of the directors for Theatresauce’s Emerging Directors Lab of 2020 – 2022. You can find him online at Dhinesha.com.