By Patricia Tobin
( 700 words, 5-minute read)
“GE14 will be the arts festival to outdo all arts festivals,” said performer-politician Fahmi Fadzil. He is referring to the live spectacle: from theatre productions to political speeches, performativity is a constant. All the world’s a stage, as the production of GE14 shows, from the car parks of Bangsar Village to Nihon Odori street in Yokohama.
In 2018, Fahmi was elected Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai in the historic 14th General Election in Malaysia. He is also a theatre practitioner, most recently seen in Baling (Five Arts Center, 2015). His dual public personas are fully merged in the production of GE14 at TPAM 2019. In GE14, there is no tension between art and politics. All art is political, and politics is at the very focus for this artistic piece.
GE14 consists of Part 1: a lecture-performance by Japanese choreographer-performer Zan Yamashita, Fahmi’s collaborator and friend, who followed him on his campaign period, followed by Part 2: live speeches from Fahmi and guest speaker Keiji Haino. Part 1 begins in a dark room with two parallel walls covered in Malaysian political party flags. Zan is on a seated podium, and a video recording of a dark stormy night in Kuala Lumpur plays on screen, a literal foreshadowing that he explicitly highlights. Utilising a slideshow presentation, Zan paints a brief, concise background of Malaysian politics in 2018.
He eventually departs from campaign reporting and reenacts long portions of speeches by Fahmi and Prime Minister Mahathir in Japanese. Zan stands up from his seat and walks towards centrestage. The projection of Fahmi is cast upon Zan’s billowy white button-up shirt. With his eyes closed and palms wide open, he recites Fahmi’s speech with religious fervour. This heightened performativity is comical, drawing attention to the theatrical farce in politics.
In Part 2, we move outdoors to Nihon Odori street, a Yokohama attraction rated four out of five stars on TripAdvisor. Now, we witness diplomacy in action. Fahmi, clad in a slick grey suit and freshly gelled hair, comes onto a makeshift wooden stage. He thanks numerous Japanese government bureaus and public agencies, from the Japan Foundation to the fire brigade. The audience laughs. He also expresses his gratitude to the people of Lembah Pantai, “If not for them, I will be on trial.” The crowd is silent. There is a certain discomfort conveyed during Fahmi’s speech, and it is not just due to the cold evening air. Until GE14, opposition politicians were at risk of punitive actions by the then-ruling party – though the performance does not have space nor time to go through this.
Fahmi’s GE14 speech so very closely follows his previous speech’s format found in his campaign trail, as seen and reenacted by Zan in Part 1, that it becomes difficult to tell if this is real or not. Fahmi ends his speech with a rousing call to arms, directly drawing from his David-Goliath tale mentioned in his campaign. With GE14, all attempts to replicate comes close to a farce. All performative acts come with a pretence, the audience wonders: is he for real?
Famous noise musician Keiji Haino then finishes GE14 in a seemingly incoherent rant about musical notes and conventions. With wispy silver hair that frames his face, Haino’s speech is unexpected, almost entirely disconnected from GE14 in every way possible. It subverts any purposeful duplication found in Part 2 with the real event, while also enhances its deliberately unreal form.
Despite this, the thread that binds GE14 is its endearingly lo-fi aesthetic. Party flags and colours are found in the spaces of both Part 1 and 2. In Part 1, pasar malam (night market) lights are hung on the walls, and are lit when Zan announces Fahmi’s victory. This provides a certain analogue warmth, grounding the production’s surrealist manifestations.
GE14 does not aim to demystify art or politics, it is a postmodernist simulacrum of the two, resulting in an art-political mega hybrid. By continually drawing focus on theatricality, the speeches and reenactments serve as a meta commentary on the act of the performance, and in turn, the nature of politics. The end result is perplexing – GE14 is arguably an appealing, informative and diplomatic production, but like a politician’s winning smile, you wonder what’s beneath GE14’s shiny veneer.
This review is based on the presentation of GE14 which was part of the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM). Part 1 took place on 16-17 February 2019 at Kosha33 (Kanagawa Prefectural Housing Supply Corporation), and Part 2 took place on 17 February 2019 at Nihon-Odori Street (in front of Kosha33). For more articles on TPAM 2019 presentations, please click here.
Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.