Checkpoint Theatre Checks Out Some Electile Dysfunctions
By Richard Lord
In this year packed with crucial elections, including those for the world’s largest democracy as well as the only superpower still standing (however uneasily), it was most appropriate that Checkpoint Theatre elected to bring back Huzir Sulaiman’s 1999 opus, Election Day, which used the that year’s Malaysian national elections as both backdrop and spicy plot thickener.
(Probably not coincidentally, the play ran just after Malaysia’s first national elections. Moreover, possibly not coincidentally, the show graced Singapore’s new Arts House centre, itself the former Singapore parliament building. The relevance factor was palpable as we, in the audience, took our seats.)
As Prime Minister Mahathir’s bitter Last Hurrah unfolds in the background, the main drama of Election Day rolls out in a smallish single-storey terrace house in Kuala Lumpur. Here, three devilishly mismatched housemates are preparing to engage the momentous vote going on in differing ways.
Playwright Sulaiman chooses to make his three housemates representatives of Malaysia’s three major ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese and Indian. The Indian, Francis, is narrator and the only one we actually see, though his gifts for mimicry are so finely tuned that we have the sense of having met all three protagonists as the play moves along.
The Chinese roommate, Dedric, is an official for some typically salutary N. G. O. and thus committed to seeing the opposition make some significant dents in the power of Malaysia’s ruling party (that of the aforementioned Dr. Mahathir). In fact, he is signed on as a poll-watcher for this day, and has somehow convinced Francis to help him out in this predictably futile endeavour.
Fozi, the Malay representative, is a British-educated architect who is so dedicated to his art that he can no longer be bothered to actually design anything real. A bounced member of Malaysia’s largest Islamic party (the main opposition party, as it happens), the hard-drinking, libidinous Fozi is more of a sidelines observer of this election, though he does eventually prod himself into making an appearance at the polling station where his friends are serving.
(I wonder if Sulaiman, who actually knows a smattering of German, is aware that the name Fozi resembles the German slang term for the female genital organ.)
Francis plays his part in the small internal drama like a cool cosmopolitan, casually slipping in a racial slur when he puts down the trio’s Indian landlord. But at other times, the narrator’s ethnic pride briefly breaks through, as when, on announcing the Indian percentage in the constituency, he cannot resist giving the thumbs-up sign.
Strangely, although he is the narrator and hence our only window on the action, Francis is in some subversive ways the most enigmatic of the three, keeping his ultimate motivations and concerns hidden until the closing minutes of the action. For instance, until those final moments, we get no hint of what Francis actually does with his time except observe his roommates. At the conclusion, we discover that this is, in fact, his job and while he nefariously turns it to his own ends, observing Fozi and Dedric is precisely what he is supposed to do.
The larger drama for this discordant trio involves some unresolved issues in their relationships and the mysterious behaviour of Fozi’s girlfriend, the beautiful Natasha, during the night before and early morning of election day. Being the sly craftsman he is, playwright Sulaiman ties all these rough strands together by the end of the play to reveal how each has played a part all along.
Playwright Sulaiman himself played Francis in this edition, having taken over the part shortly before the opening when the original actor was forced to withdraw for health reasons. The author modestly mentioned in a pre-run interview that stepping in at short notice was no great challenge, as he had played the part before. Nonetheless, Sulaiman delivered a thoroughly commendable performance here, making this wordy and complex monologue work in a way that I feared it would not. Indeed, some lines that seemed flat, even weak, on the page worked their charm when lathered with perfectly pitched irony, as was here the case. Director Claire Wong clearly deserves a certain portion of this praise for her work in bringing the text to life.
Especially praiseworthy in the performance was the marvelous way Sulaiman managed to conjure up all three characters merely with a switch of accents, a changed timbre of voice, and a little twisting of his face.
Sulaiman’s Dedric was a delightful rendition of a wimp puffing himself up in an attempt to fit his own convictions. Fozi’s contemporary chic, naff English accent worked beautifully, especially when it first spilled out as he deliberately mispronounced “nasi lemak” in that assured way the British take pride in mispronouncing foreign names.
The set, designed by Lim Wei Ling, was minimalist, consisting mainly of nine small wooden crates, backed by different coloured cloths sewn inside. (Apparently reflecting Francis’ assertion that much of the furniture in the shared house is remodelled packing crates. This is the only practical work architect Fozi can bring himself to do.) Larger crates serve as backdrop, and backlit illumination filtered through the coloured cloths of these crates. The lighting design, which lent a fittingly cool atmosphere to the proceedings, was the work of Yo Shao Ann.
Sound effects, devised by the author himself in collaboration with Robert Devine, also played an effective side role in this production. A heavy rainstorm sets a mood as well as the narrative description, while an ominously clicking clock that first taps lightly on our awareness early in the show and then picks up in intensity at the end serves as a fine corollary to the intrigues Francis has been brewing.
Election Day had its premiere back in 1999, about ten days after the elections it tracks. The intervening years have been kind to the piece: the Malaysian political landscape has not changed so much that there is any real sense of irrelevance to its political pokes. And human nature, of course, never changes, so the psychological wrangling between the story’s four main characters remains absolutely fresh.
Some lines from the original, printed text do seem to have been cut, however, and new laugh lines added. (Such as Francis characterising certain groups as “the political parties that disgruntled Malaysians start on Monday and disband on Thursday.”)
But the end of the play, unchanged, remains rather too pat, a quickie way out of all the machinations that Francis has skillfully set up for us. This is when we discover that our trusted narrator is really an undercover police agent who had been snooping on his two mates since they were all in Ipoh together.
Nevertheless, the narrative journey to that pat conclusion was quite pleasant, even if at times I questioned the level of Francis’ language, scintillating though it may be. This undercover thought cop speaks like a highly articulate Princeton grad (which playwright Sulaiman just happens to be). Far be it from me to demean the linguistic abilities of Malaysia’s security police, but would these gentleman have phrases such as this just spilling off their tongues: “He notices the two of us, and nods and smiles indulgently, like the bloody Emperor of China smiling at the eunuchs attending to their ablutions”? But then again, would Francis have held our attention so well for over an hour if his language had not been so rich? Better, I am sure, to suspend our disbelief than to be plunged into tedium. Now if the author could only devise a cleverer wrap-up to the absorbing tale he lays out for us here.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004