Lighten Up: “Terbalik… Mesti Kena Mata” by Five Arts Centre

By Ann Lee

(1470 words, 10-minute read)

Terbalik… mesti kena mata was billed as an “experimental workshop” performance that attempted to “displace the normal hierarchy found in performance-making” by having the lighting designer, Mac Chan, as the principal artist. Co-directors, Marion D’Cruz and Ivy Josiah, marking their first collaboration in these roles, adhered to the principle of  “performance … created based on the lights” designed by Chan.

The ethos of Five Arts Centre is worth elaborating on to understand more of the progeny and promise of Terbalik. In Malaysian performance, Five Arts Centre might well be said to be the most associated with intellectual experiments – particularly, experiments in form. This is largely due to its co-founder, the late (Dato) Krishen Jit, who was an academic as well as practitioner and critic (not to forget also D’Cruz’s late husband and collaborator). In its 33-year history, the collective has sustained its focus on exploring and discovering original Malaysian or indigenous forms and stories; a longevity supported by many of its members also having roots in academia with access to formal study, theorization, and networks. This ‘longue durée’ also makes for a long shadow over the group since Krishen’s untimely passing in 2005. It may account for the group’s continued approach to ‘experimental work’ largely reflecting, but not exploring with much levity and abandon, his intellectual preoccupations, including the multicultural body, importance of vernacular, and “passivity” of audience.

chi too. Image: Five Arts Centre

Not for nothing does lighting designer, Mac Chan, state in his Notes, “Krishen, I know you would say that it is not good enough, that’s why I am still here, and I keep pushing.”

Just over one month beforehand, Chan, fellow member of Five Arts and award-winning lighting designer who has deftly lit small and large spaces from black boxes to huge stadiums for well over the last decade, had provided the co-directors with a ‘narrative of lights’ comprising 36 light bulbs and 30 cues.

Before us then were four rows of long black cables, each extending from ceiling to floor, with a naked light bulb at the end, roughly at waist or calf height.  The light bulbs came slowly on and off in sequences that created smooth, flowing movement on a mostly longitudinal but also latitudinal plain akin to a kinetic sculpture. Occasionally, there were sudden bursts of apparently random gatherings, like small tantrums, or single light ‘sulks’ usually on the edges of the grid. The straight lines brought to mind literal evocations of an airport runway, a room with mirrors, more code.

Out of this mystery of morse, four upright human bodies became apparent; distinguishable as two female and two male, they moved forward, slowly. The dynamic of their body shapes – lean, bulky, tall, short – altered with their forward, occasionally backward, movement. Janet Moo Tein Ni, Wong Tay Sy, Syamsul Azhar and chi too struck first as uncertain characters, then increasingly steadier, as they progressed in a straight line towards the opposite end of the room. With no other sound than the brushing of their feet on the floor, the search for meaning found answer in simply observing their slow progress (not so ‘minute’ as to be at butoh pace), knees often bent and arms straight as they reached across. Their gaze usually forward, they moved fluently onwards, but seemingly oblivious to the lights’ own machinations.

Janet Moo Tein Ni. Image: Five Arts Centre

The second section saw the performers lying down in a haphazard pattern, but each under an individual light bulb. They lay still. When they began to call out words, one at a time, disconnected at first, slowly the words – names – began to add up. The first few names came as jolts. ‘Canny Ong’, the young woman who was abducted from a high-end mall and found raped and murdered, ‘Jyothi Singh’ the woman who was gang-raped and murdered on a bus in New Delhi, ‘Kevin Morais’, the deputy public prosecutor abducted and also murdered. More followed: ‘Bruno Manser’, the Swiss environmental activist who, decades on, remains missing in Borneo, ‘Datuk Mazlan Idris’, the Pahang state assemblyman who sought the services of bomoh Mona Fandey to boost his career but who was beheaded and dismembered instead; ‘Altantuya’, the murdered Mongolian translator, one of whose killers remains in Australia, refusing to return home. ‘MH17’ was also blurted out.

Unfortunately, this ‘long listing’ of names lost gravitas, shifting from gross to grocery. But this was where the most direct metaphor could be drawn, as these were people who died or disappeared under suspicious circumstances, leaving most Malaysians ‘in the dark’.

The third section began with a lullaby in Mandarin (or what seemed like a lullaby because it was dark and therefore ‘bedtime’). Dialogue was spoken by the performers, each took on a character, but it was not naturalistic. Each story sounded like so much ‘personal journal’ entry but delivered emotionlessly in that particular declamatory yet monotone manner that might be named ‘Five Artsian’. This monotone delivery usually signals that other performance-making hierarchy – of movement over text. Here, words were accessory and almost incidental, an all-too-familiar kind of deconstruction. The cats of chi too’s character brought out welcome humour, whereas Syamsul Azhar’s George had a dilemma that arguably just needed to be better written. Each script needed its performer’s composite skill to remain compelling, resulting in more uneven performances unlike the earlier fluency in first moving across the room.

In the fourth, final and most physical section, the performers moved at much faster speeds and broader rhythms across the room, becoming reckless and breathless as they picked up the cables and light bulbs to swing them – like Syamsul’s hard rocker singing in what sounded like Tamil from his light bulb mike – or to hold a light bulb delicately in the hand as if it were a firefly.

Syamsul Azhar. Image: Five Arts Centre

The show ended, as it began, with lights down.

Being billed as a ‘workshop’ and ‘experimental’ performance, the audience was correctly cued to expect an early exposition. The naked light bulb has been ‘leitmotif’ for Chan for well over a decade now and his schema for Terbalik recalls the lighting design for the 2006 Five Arts Centre production of ‘In 1969’. The fascination with filament lives on – and on! The orange-toned wattage remained the same throughout, although its intensity altered from warm to oppressive. It seemed ironic that the first of 30 cues for all the naked light bulbs began with simply bringing all the lights down with a glimmer of house light behind. Asking people who are ‘sensitive to light’ to wear sunglasses or be unable to see the show can be seen as another irony of some cruelty, if not also some black humor of ‘techie’s revenge’ (dark glasses in a black box, badaboom!) This interpretation of the subtitle’s ‘kena mata’ (eye pain) was surely rather literal even as it met with the typical Five Arts practice challenge of ‘difficulty’ for a ‘passive’ audience.

With credit to the co-directors and performers, each section counted as a different response to the light bulbs – from almost arbitrary counterpoint in the opening section, to a more direct symbol of transparency in the second section, and then to oppressive mood-setting and literal centre-staging in the last sections. Any one of those sections can be further developed.

Wong Tay Sy. Image: Five Arts Centre

In fact, they would have to be to get beyond superficial displacement of hierarchy, and the novelty of turning a thing on its head. Simply replacing (or ‘displacing’) one hierarchy – director first, lights second – with its opposite, or another, is not intriguing in any lasting sense, especially when much work in the Malaysian context is devised within a non-hierarchical or flat system of power. For another outing, just as any modern director or co-director cannot force her will but negotiate with performers and their contributions, the current 30 cues for 36 light bulbs might well have to undergo more intense negotiation and interpretation, as with any text. That is, from the point of view of this member of the audience (sometimes shaded), it is unclear what negotiation took place between the lighting designer, co-directors and performers to privilege the original number of bulbs and cues. In his Notes, Chan thanks the co-directors for “responding” to the lights. There was an opportunity to attend a dialogue between the lighting designer and co-directors, but this was not a prerequisite to attending the performance.

The early promise of beginning with a ‘narrative of lights’ remains, and for this reason, the ‘Terbalik project’ might be the better moniker for suggesting more inclusive and expansive possibility. (It’s not difficult to imagine, for example, giving the same light bulbs and sequences to various people to see what they create.) Certainly, the idea of ‘terbalik’ is anything but stale as a strategy to stimulate and instigate. Few other theatre groups are as rightfully committed to ‘workshop’ production and ‘experimental process’ to create deeply critical, original Malaysian work whereby all makers, including audience, come to see the light.

Terbalik… Mesti Kena Mata ran from 10 to 13 August at Kotak @ Five Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

Guest Contributor Ann Lee has been writing in mainstream and online media about the arts in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for over 25 years. Former artistic director of Kuali Works, she is an award-winning playwright and sometime performer and director. Her latest play ‘Tarap Man’ is published in ‘Southeast Asian Plays’ (Aurora Metro, 2016). She is also currently pursuing a PhD in Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

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