Monday, February 23, 2004

Election Day – The play

Go to this post for related pictures.


Playwright : Huzir Sulaiman
Director : Krishen Jit
Actress : Jo Kukathas
Produced by : Five Arts Centre

“A hilarious and wickedly incisive look at friendship and secrets amidst the notorious 1999 Malaysian general elections.”

Showing at The Actors Studio, Bangsar until 29 February 2004.

It was very early in the morning on November 30, the day after the Malaysian general election day of 1999 and Francis was recounting the string of events that took place during the last 24 hours between himself and his two housemates, Dedric and Fozi. It all started with fighting sounds ensuing from Fozi’s room, which the ‘beautiful and enigmatic’ Natasha (Fozi’s girlfriend) stormed out of some moments later. Francis’ snooping tactics (very near to the door but not exactly there) revealed that the fight was over Natasha’s whereabouts between midnight and 6 a.m., and she’s not saying anything about it.

Later Francis went along with Dedric (an NGO fella, BA supporter) to help out in the campaigning of their local Keadilan candidate. The three housemates were subsequently together at the polling station, doing last-minute canvassing a.k.a memancing undi. After the polling ended, naturally waiting for the announcements of the election results was next on the agenda.

Along the occasion, the clashing personalities of the three friends became apparent, each with a different set of ideologies and principles, political or otherwise. Mutual issues persisted, matters of the past resurfaced and a few secrets were revealed.

The friends were pitted against each other and towards the end we’d see how one of them was actually very much more than what he seemed to be, having played an extensive part in the past that affected the present lives of his two so-called friends slash housemates. Heck, even the fact that they were housemates was owed to his ulterior agenda in the first place!

To make the assumption (as I did initially) that ‘Election Day’ is a play purely about political issues due to its title would be a mistake. It’s not. While political concerns are certainly very strong in the backbone of the storyline in addition to serving as the background setting of the whole play, issues regarding the lines crossed over friendship, morality and the clashing of principles made a compelling presence. A part in the closing scene lines lingered in my mind longer than the rest -
Francis: This is not a political story...... To have a woman like this, I will put two thousand of you away. I do not care. I do not care.

Reading the other works of Huzir in the book ‘Eight Plays’, it is an example of his thought-provoking portrayals of the inner-side of the human nature that peppered his work with a certain truthful and (a lot of the time) surprising manner.

The play started on an intriguing tone, sometimes quickening its pace with some scenes making me literally holding my breath; while at other times it came dragging a bit that I was wondering whether it’s almost time for intermission (there was no intermission though). There was a post-play discussion afterwards with the executive producer, Marion Cruz and Jo Kukathas, where I think about 30-40 of the audience stayed behind for that night (second show of the run). Most of the creative and production team was also present during the discussion, chipping in their responses at certain questions.

Jo Kukathas in action as usual was a visual and auditory delight to witness. Even while taking my seat before the show started I was still sceptical of the fact that it would be one actress portraying three different male characters, but at the end of the performance those doubts vanished into thin air. She created different voices, mannerisms and overall impression for Francis, Dedric and Fozi down pat to distinctive body posture and facial expression for each character. Coupled with Huzir’s articulate writing there wasn’t much room for confusion in the play whether it was Francis, Dedric or Fozi at the moment.

One of the things that I like to note while watching theatre performances is the stage design, where usually there’d be more than meets the eye. The set for Election Day seemed minimalist, the main feature being ten plastic chairs placed seemingly at a random distribution on the stage, with another ten similar pieces suspended from the ceiling at a spot that corresponds to each chair below. Patterns bearing likeness to the slots in ballot papers complete with the X’s criss-crossed in lines on the floor, and light bulbs hanging above head-level with a seemingly even distribution finished the picture. Jo transformed the chairs into tables, shelter, bed, car seat and other articles as the play flowed from one scene to another. Different bulbs went on at selected times to focus on one particular spot, and also served to show the ‘moment of truth’ when all of them came alight during the final ‘revelation’ scene, before dimming back again during the announcement at the end which I’d rather read as a depiction of the uncertainty of the future.

During the post-play discussion, Marion pointed out that it is up to the audience to read into the underlying aspects of the play, and that there shouldn’t be a definite set of assumptions and opinions for it as long as one has another to make. For that reason one person may perceive a completely different impression from the other although they saw the same performance at the same time. She drew on the opinion of an audience of the day before who saw the suspended chairs as a portrayal of the country’s fate hanging-in-the-balance, and the chairs denoting the different positions that the characters take when I put in my piece of mind regarding them as the portrayal of the contrasting principles and values as well as a symbolism of the reflections in oneself.

A big issue was of course the DBKL approve / not approve debacle, where the notion “Narrowing of the creative space” was discussed, of which many voiced as a backward step in the development of the local theatre scene. Personally, apart from the swear words (which I didn’t mind being crossed out), I found some of the rephrased lines rather ridiculous (stating the name of a bank and a pharmacy also cannot ah?), and reading the full actual script (so glad we bought the book) I think a lot of the Ooomph! factor from Huzir’s sarcastic lines full of acerbic wit were lost due to the review. Thanks to the list of the objectionable words / phrases and its replacements pasted outside the venue (a couple of pictures here), the audience were I was able to grasp some of the finer points which may have been I might've missed otherwise.

(Note: I shouldn't have generalized my own understanding with the rest of the audience. I profess of being not very familiar with the individual characteristics of the people in Malaysian politics apart from those very prominent ones, so I would've missed some of the references if not for said list. Thank you SM for making me aware of this.)

A well-spent evening for me in gearing myself up for the actual coming general elections - which would be my very first (if my name is not left out of the electoral list, that is). Ha.

Overall rating: 3.7 out of 5

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