Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When art mirrors reality's harsh truth

TO have two plays by the national laureate staged within a month, in these days of high-profile theatrical extravaganzas, is a rare treat.
  Intan Yang Tercanai, staged at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka recently, received the experimental-theatre approach, with minimal props in a multipurpose hall, while Mana Setangginya, with a budget of nearly a million ringgit, was staged at the proscenium theatre of Istana Budaya.
  It is almost impossible to translate these titles by national laureate Datuk Noordin Hassan, now 80. "Intan" means an uncut diamond, while "yang tercanai" means cut and polished. Yet, "diamond" in Malay is "berlian".
  "Setanggi", meanwhile, can refer to an aromatic wood or resin, but does the word "mana" preceding it translate the phrase to "where's the resin"? Not quite, I think.
  A more liberal translation might opt for "frankincense", but that would be "kemenyan" in Malay, which shares neither the connotation nor the sweet scent of setanggi.
  In both plays, Noordin departs from bangsawan elements and abandons subtlety when delivering his subtexts. He has instead reached for the brute rotan for his swashbuckling ideas on piety and deliverance. Would anyone else dare compare the haj pilgrimage with carrying a kavadi, or blatantly to ask of those performing the haj whether they're doing it for the promise of paradise in the afterlife?
  That was Intan, Noordin's latest play: only eight written pages, filled with poignant soliloquies about a girl gone missing in a haj stampede tragedy.
  The provocation is verisimilitude in the more folklorish Setanggi, a play commissioned to open Istana Budaya 10 years ago but retracted after Noordin refused to make changes to it in accordance with the political volatility of the time.
  Never before in Malay theatre has a prime minister been depicted marrying a catamite in leather pants, a "Minister of Reproduction" marrying three underage girls, and a chief priest marrying a belly dancer.  
  And Noordin goes even further by breaking more taboos, such as having a
roasted pig and drunken palace guards paraded on stage.
  Exhumed on the very stage where it had first been buried, Setanggi seeks to capture the political and economic climate in 1998-1999. 
  While both plays received rave reviews, some critics accused Noordin of deviating from his theory of "teater fitrah", a six-point list of fundamentals, which among others calls for all forms of theatre to revert to the origins of the Creator, i.e., fitrah.
  The two plays are uncannily sequential. Even though Intan was written 10 years after Setanggi and at least two other staged plays, they are linked by the Sodom-and-Gomorrah theme.
  Both plays draw deeply from the ancient tales of the two kingdoms mentioned in Torah: their greed, politics, prosperity and humanity.
  Of course, in the end, the protagonists of Intan (a man looking for his lost love) and Setanggi (a girl whose nation is devoured by a giant eel) return to their Creator.
  The plays may be in Bahasa Malaysia, but their themes are universal. Setanggi, for instance, is neither about the Malay community nor Islam as perceived by tradition.
  In Intan, Islam does not belong to the Malays - this may sound obvious but is sometimes not so in practice.
  Intan's director, A. Wahab Hamzah, said he had many visits from "religious officers" on various scenes of the play, especially the kavadi procession in which a non-Muslim character utters "astaghfirullah" and "subhanallah".
  "I can't and won't change the script," Wahab insists. "Intan Yang Tercanai was published a year ago. Why didn't anyone protest then?"
  While it is easy to be dazzled by the floating fairies sprinkling stardust in Setanggi, or get goosebumps as the red satin covers the bodies of pilgrims after the stampede in Intan, it is far more challenging to accept the harsher truth of societal decadence, here or anywhere else.
  How do we pray? To what rewards?
  How do we govern? To what appraisal?
  How do we forgive? Against whom have we sinned?
  Do we believe in God?
  According to Rukun Negara, yes, we must.

New Straits Times, July 21, 2009