By Nabilah Said
(1000 words, four-minute read)
The most powerful moment of akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s Cerita Cinta is the end.
To be perfectly clear, it is a dream of a production. The six-person ensemble is tight, the design is exacting, the 90-minute runtime breezes by. Credit goes to presenter The Esplanade for restaging this 1995 work and opening it up to a new generation of audiences.
But with depictions of violence of various kinds – both apparent and implied – between family members, Cerita Cinta is not exactly enjoyable to watch.
In akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s world of Crocodile-brand underwear, ritualised feasts of the acrid-smelling asam pedas and skin-on-skin-on-skin contact, the end comes with the realisation that you have witnessed something unspeakably horrific that has touched the very core of your being.
Perhaps, more than an end, Cerita Cinta closes with an open wound.
Cerita Cinta was first staged in 1995 at Drama Centre Room A/B, then-located at Fort Canning Park. This version, in the Esplanade Theatre Studio, is presumably swankier.
The set, an exquisite prison comprising the complete frame of a house done up in chicken wire is functional enough to hang bamboo poles to dry clothes. The floor is wood-panelled. There is running water to scrub one’s skin clean.
As per the style of the show’s writer and director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the language is sparse but affecting. He shares in the post-show discussion that he deliberately chose the word “cinta” in the title, as opposed to “kasih” or “sayang”. Each stands in for “love”, but it is only “cinta” that expresses romantic love. The other two can be used in other instances, such as “terima kasih” (“you’re welcome”) and “sayang” as an expression of regret or longing.
There are also motifs in the production that resonate if you are familiar with his past productions – the co-dependent father-son dynamic between Roslan (Saiful Amri Ahmad Elahi) and Haji Osman (Joe Jasmi) in The Malay Man & His Chinese Father (2015/2016/2018); the general veneer of mannered civility of Bilik Ahmad Berdaki (1995/2009). The homoeroticism of, perhaps, all of his work, most seen recently in Cinta Tuah Jebat (2018), in the unspoken carnal interactions between Rizal (Kaykay Nizam) and Roslan.
This is Noor Effendy with his big-boy pants on.
Behind the “love story” of the show’s title, hide multiple incidents of violence.
The overt kind between Roslan and his long-suffering wife, Maslina (Dalifah Shahril), when he pins her to the ground and pummels her. The implied violence in the rhetorical question “Awak sihat malam ni?” (“Are you well tonight?”), which quickly becomes shorthand for sexual violence. And the kind that is inherited from father to child and perpetuated in the inappropriate interactions between Juliana (Shafiqhah Efandi) and her younger brother, Zaki (Al Hafiz Sanusi) and with her boyfriend, Rizal.
There is also violence in the spaces in between, that is – through the collective efforts of set designer Noor Effendy, lighting designer Emanorwatty Saleh and sound artist anGie seah – by design.
That devastatingly small red light of the rice cooker that continues to burn bright even in darkness. The echoed red also of the sour/spicy asam pedas, heated and reheated ad nauseam. Seah’s haunting vocals and that clever switch between upright piano and toy piano midway through the performance.
Noor Effendy inserts himself into the performance by playing the piano, embodying that collective male gaze alongside the four other men in the play. But if this is so, then the audience is, if not equally culpable, then complicit as silent witnesses watching from all corners of the theatre. This type of voyeurism, film theorist Laura Mulvey argues, is also a kind of male gaze.
But it is not quite to do with gender as it is power. The centrality of Roslan in Cerita Cinta comes at the expense of characters such as Haji Osman and Rizal. Roslan’s booming voice overpowering his son’s resultant sputtering one. Juliana’s dominant position over her brother. The relative silence of Maslina, caged in by her obligations to her family.
And then there are other, smaller thoughts on violence, like: one year of choreographing violence, of bruises sustained in rehearsals, culminating only in a five-show run. That expansive set which I hope can be recycled. And the strangest thing to haunt me: that sharp line of Saiful Amri’s beard that I hope grows out, so that he can start to look less like Roslan.
In the post-show discussion I attended on the first night, moderator Charlene Rajendran touched on the performance of violence on the stage. The actors shared that they would ask for consent before initiating physical contact and constantly check in with one another. The post-show talks themselves are in a sense curative, giving audiences the opportunity to parse through the play’s issues together with the artists and close some of the wounds that might have opened in the course of watching.
It made me acutely aware that while the theatre may be a safe space, life is less so for some.
One stage picture burned in my memory is Maslina on all fours under the dining table, cleaning an unseen bloodstain like a subverted Lady Macbeth – while the rest of the family eats. It might have happened once, twice, maybe even multiple times.
Cerita Cinta is thus not so much a performance that starts and ends, but a master stroke of a story of a family trapped in an ouroboros of violence – one that happens onstage but carries on in real life, in real homes, in real tragedies.
What Noor Effendy manages to do with expert skill is keep the edge of his knife right in that sweet spot between pleasure and pain. It is that slash between human/beast and child/adult. And, implicating the audience, the one between witness/accomplice. That slash that simultaneously means “and” and “or”.
But rather than a single slash (/), the show ends with two precise cuts – a caesura (//). A slight pause, to take in a sharp inhalation of breath, as we brace ourselves for the next blow.
Cerita Cinta by akulah BIMBO SAKTI was staged at the Esplanade Theatre studio from 1 – 4 November 2018.
Guest Contributor Nabilah Said is a playwright, arts writer and poet. She recently completed her MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London as a recipient of the Tan Ean Kiam Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities. She is currently working on projects in Singapore for the M1 Singapore Theatre Festival 2019, as well as in London. She is a writer-in-residence for Sing Lit Station in 2018/2019.