MERDEKA Awards short plays at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Stor Teater went outside the box, concludes SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI - who watched all 16 of them.
THE Kamus Dewan Bahasa defines "Merdeka" as being free of foreign occupation, independent to be self-ruled or managed, free from being caged or imprisoned, and being able to do as one likes.
That meaning has been challenged by the dictionary's very own publisher, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), an organisation revered as the authority and steward of Bahasa Malaysia - through its recent project, the Merdeka Award Short Plays 2009.
Sixteen short plays were staged to explore the meaning of Merdeka and the result was nothing short of explosive.
DBP and joint organiser Merdeka Award Secretariat had selected a delectable array of surrealism, realism and magical realism plays for the audience. With a venue like Stor Teater DBP, a "black box" with a capacity of only 100, an intimate and immediate stage-audience rapport was created, producing an exhilarating vibe.
The 15-minute short plays, penned, directed and headlined by an impressive list of stalwarts and newcomers, undoubtedly redefined the conventional register of Merdeka.
Over three nights, from Aug 17, the hall was packed with theatre buffs drawn together by word of mouth.
Ladin Nuawi, as the exiled Sultan Mahmud Shah in his Selendang Tun Fatimah Sundang Melaka, shed tears of regret after the Portuguese took over his Malacca kingdom.
While sharpening his keris in a vain effort to win Malacca back, the Sultan openly admitted that he had first "colonised" the rakyat through his corrupt court.
His statement certainly reversed the concept of being colonised by foreign powers. A corrupt system is equally oppressive.
In Reyok, Nafas Bangsaku, Rahimah Muda from Kesuma-i of Johor Baru, ingrained modernity within the ancient dance form of kuda kepang and barongan, exploring the concept of being free consciously or reined unconsciously by outside powers, just like a kuda kepang dancer going into a trance but held fast by the invisible rein of the bomoh's whip.
In Maafkan Aku, by Iryanda Mulya of Stefani, five youths marched to Nordin Selat's song, Anak Kecil Main Api.
It was disturbing to listen to the lyrics "bumi dipijak milik orang" (the land that I step on is owned by others), sung apologetically by youths who felt indifferent about Merdeka.
The same sentiment was echoed in Sehelai Surat Berkisah: a youth received a letter but did not understand its content and therefore, refused to accept it.
The play significantly contrasted the different viewpoints of two generations, those who had fought for Merdeka and those who lived it - the Merdeka generation.
It questioned if the younger generation was receptive to the burden of Merdeka struggles.
In Satu, Mazlan Tahir, Mardiana Ismail and Engku Nur Zalifah took a critical look at the Satu Malaysia concept. Between them, they dissected the fundamentals of 1Malaysia, including integrity, ethnicity and productivity. The segments were seamlessly put together as the characters wove in and out of various roles.
The same technique was applied in Merdekakah Kita?, written and directed by Azrul Azizi Amirul of Abad, played by newcomers Mohd Rosland Radzi, Mohd Harfiqi Arshad and Khairol Azhar Abdul Jalil.
The play explored the popular meaning of celebrating Merdeka, from attending rock concerts to taking part in illegal races, dangdut karaoke and clubbing with alcohol or Ecstasy pills, intermittently spoofing the by-election campaigns, the misplaced adulation of communism, and the Japanese capital punishment of "potong kapara" (decapitation) - all at blinding speed. Laugh too long and you'll miss the next punchline!
Mat Arshad Mati Dibunuh was an interesting jab at intrigues. Although
set around the time of the killing of James W.W. Birch in 1875, it was not about the death of Perak's first British resident. Instead, it dwelled on the obscure character of Mat Arshad.
Mat Arshad was a kain pelikat-clad man posting tax notices in the middle of the night. He was an odd-jobs man (maybe even foreign, judging from the heavy Indonesian accent) paid by the political parties to put up posters during the by-elections.
He died too, but the audience doesn't know who the real Mat Arshad was.
Was he a spin doctor? Apparently, he lived through history, Merdeka and all.
Award-winning film director Mamat Khalid, known for the zaniest features such as Zombi Kampung Pisang, Kala Bulan Mengambang and Rock, made an impressive debut in Merdeka Apa? (Free of What?)
As the title bluntly asked, is the nation actually free, and if it is, free of what? It opened with Vanida Imran and Khir Abdul Rahman, a Malaccan warrior who is about to go to war for his kingdom and his wife who questions his purpose. Is he doing it for glory or patriotism? An actor seated in the audience, to everyone's surprise, rudely interrupted their dialogue.
The man in the audience, played by first-time stage actor Pekin, criticised the warrior for being too melodramatic and overzealous in his quest for glory when there would be none.
The contemporary man squashed the warrior's soaring spirit by pointing out that his primitive javelin is no match against De Sequeira's cannons and guns.
"How do you know all this?" asked the warrior. The contemporary man's sullen reply was, "From the history textbook."
The warrior frantically asked if his name or that of any other warrior who fought for Malacca was mentioned in the history books.
The contemporary man shook his head. Obviously, Mamat took a stab at the poor representation of the nation's history in our school's syllabus.
Ironies were abundant, but one lingered long after the curtain call for Lampu Suluh Jam Dinding, penned, directed and played by both Wan Azli Wan Jusoh and Hushairi Husain.
It was too simple at first, but the subliminal irony bugged one's consciousness. It was about two brothers locked up as thieves who, while in jail on the eve of Aug 31, tried to peddle the two items they inherited from their father, a torchlight and a wall clock.
One tells of existence; another marks the passing hours. "Would you buy existence and time, dear free citizens?" the two convicts asked. The audience had difficulty laughing at the act. Was it supposed to have been comical?
The Merdeka Award Secretariat plans to develop the three most outstanding plays into longer plays. It would be interesting to see which will get the grant, considering that the plays were written for a specific stage such as the Stor Teater and a more elaborate play would be more suited for a different hall.
The festival has significantly raised the standard of the short play as a mainstream genre in the performing arts. Perhaps next year, the organiser will consider introducing street theatre to the mix.
New Straits Time, August 26, 2009