By Patricia Tobin
( 700 words, 5-minute read)
It starts with a song. Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri strums the ukulele and gently sings about hope and the future. For a lecture-performance, A Notional History, a work in progress by Five Arts Centre, is filled with pockets of tender moments like these. Together with journalist Rahmah Pauzi and filmmaker-activist Fahmi Reza, the trio take on a self-reflective investigation of Malaysia’s violent history, all with heartfelt sincerity.
A Notional History chiefly draws from two sources: firstly, an unfinished documentary from 2008 on the unfulfilled revolution launched by the outlawed Malayan Communist Party, and secondly, from old history textbooks in Malaysia. This is in anticipation of a new history textbook to be produced in 2020, under an entirely new government, elected in 2018. Like the two-faced god Janus, A Notional History looks to the past, with hopes for the future, seeking for answers.
Rahmah tells us about the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), a guerrilla war where the Malayan Communist Party were fighting for independence against colonial armed forces. In that period, communists were depicted as mainly Chinese, violent and highly dangerous. As they faced defeat, the communists disappeared into the jungle or were exiled to south Thailand. Forty years later, Fahmi and his team interviewed these old communists for a documentary.
Rahmah admits the initial surprise she had, 10 years ago as an 18-year-old, when watching the interview footage – the same footage playing on a large screen behind her as she speaks to us. They were Malay-speaking, just like her. One wore a headscarf, just like her. She points out how Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and public enemy number one, was now bald, wrinkled, slow-moving. Rahmah’s personal take on her national history effectively allows her to dispel myths: that communists are human after all, not exactly the villainous caricatures ingrained in the national mindset.
However, this mode of presentation can be deemed didactic, further reinforced by the set’s classroom setting. Tools like a digital overhead projector, a video camera, textbooks, a desk and stools are used. A Notional History attempts to subvert its practical physical layout with moments of vulnerability. As Fahmi introduces the secondary school history curriculum, he points to a Form 3 textbook and asks “How many times do you think the founder of UMNO, Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar, appears in this?” The answer is 15.
He later reveals getting embroiled in a controversy for highlighting the nationalist propaganda found in history textbooks at a public panel in Kuala Lumpur last year. Screenshots of hateful Facebook comments towards Fahmi are splashed on screen. A Notional History ends with a mock interview between Rahmah and Fahmi addressing his controversy, as large video projections of their faces are displayed behind their figures. This manipulation of media messages and displays alongside personal confessions shows an earnest endeavour to dismantle notions of storytelling, and more effectively, in showing that with history, wounds can still be raw.
This re-examining of Malaysian history can also be found in director Mark Teh’s previous work 2015’s Baling, about the Baling talks in 1956. Faiq even explicitly mentions starring in Baling in A Notional History. The common thread explains how A Notional History very much feels like a work-in-progress. As it seeks to convey that history is not set in stone, the production retains this similar fluidity, by being cross-referential and self-reflective. A Notional History shows promise for different iterations and diverse approaches, with outlines of textbooks drawn in chalk on the dark floor, reminiscent of classroom doodles. The textbooks are subsequently drawn in with different faces or filled with text that reads, “a history written by mothers,” “a history lost”, and other subsequent variations. Arguably not unsubtle, but it efficiently conveys how history, like A Notional History itself, can be re-assessed and re-examined.
A Notional History pulls from various modes of documentation, be it text or video, and purposefully reframes them, constructing a deeper analysis and understanding about nationhood and identity. The end result is like three-dimensional found poetry, its origins are intact but now it swings between two poles. In a post-truth world, A Notional History clings on to its factual sources with tremendous empathy, pushing for old tales to emerge, and paving new stories for the future.
This review is based on the presentation of A Notional History which took place on 16-17 February 2019 at the KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre Middle Studio as part of the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM). For more articles on TPAM 2019 presentations, please click here.
Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.