By Richard Lord
The great chronicles of a people being separated by political fiat are those of the Irish, the Germans, the Koreans, the Palestinians. These are also, of course, the most painful and dramatic, and such partitions of a people have rightly inspired some fine writing and other art.
But there is another chronicle of separation right in this region; indeed, part of it right here on this spectred island. After less than two years of federation, as the union between Singapore and Malaysia was severed, the Malays of the two countries suddenly found themselves cut off from each other. They were then streamed off into two different paths of education, social development and political culture. The results of this separation also laid a fertile ground for artistic exploration. Someone very well placed to sow this ground, Singaporean Malay writer Alfian Bin Sa’at, has dealt with the theme frequently in his work and now serves up an entertaining concoction thereof in his contribution to the 2002 Arts Festival.
Sa’at’s piece, Causeway, is an updated version of his 1998 edition of Causeway. There has been a lot of water under that bridge, of course, so Sa’at decided to spin out another, post-September 11, post-terrorist plot version of his work. Furthermore, to infuse the new production with a more full-blooded authenticity, this comes as a collaboration between Singapore’s Teater Ekamatra and the Actor’s Studio of Kuala Lumpur. Not at all inappropriately, Causeway is performed predominately in Malay, with odd dabs of English to make a point about linguistic divisions between some Malays in this region.
The causeway of the title is also the evening’s central image, allowing Sa’at to explore a key question for many Malays and non-Malays: is the Causeway a concrete and steel umbilical or a long, thin wall that keeps the two knots of a clan at a cool distance? Sa’at pokes at this question from various angles, in a string of episodes that sometimes bear no or only tangential connection to one other.
Before we go any further, I have to admit that I found myself at a disadvantage here. Having almost no knowledge of the Malay language and also being unfamiliar with certain Malay legends which are played with here, I know I missed a lot of the evening’s charms. The hearty laughs of fellow audience members who obviously did not share my disadvantages told me how much I had missed.
By the way, let me make a suggestion for those who, like me, are largely ignorant of Malay. The English translations presented overhead make it hard to concentrate on the important action and facial subtexts going on below. Sitting five rows from the front, I often had to choose between watching the actors or reading the text. Plus, I did get a sore neck and slight headache from staring up at the translations from an uncomfortable angle. It would be far better for non-Malay speakers to sit in the balcony, or at least far back in the stalls so as to have a more integrated view of both stage and translation screen.
The episodes which make up this Causeway involve material such as the aforementioned Malay legends, sometimes crossed with Chinese myths; terrorist attacks upon the causeway itself or the towering landmarks of KL and Singapore; the Survivor TV show, this one a special cross-Straits Malay edition; the tudung issue; a mismatched family reunion recast as a televised football match where gaffes become goals for the other side. The various sketches are largely entertaining (though not uniformly so), and even make occasional cogent points along the way. However, Sa’at never plows too deeply below the surface on any of these matters, so the putative central point – examining the complex relations between Malays in the two countries – also never reaches a level of compelling investigation.
The episodic nature of the show, with many of the episodes rolling out a new departure, also prevents this Causeway from pressing any major point. Just a more solid structure, where the episodes were carefully built upon each other to achieve a strong, consistent thrust, would have made the evening a better forum for such investigations of cross-Causeway relations. But with rare exceptions, it is the entertainment value of the pieces which get full play, leaving emotional and intellectual impact lagging far behind. Even so, not every episode here is entirely free of some moments of tedium.
But keeping a large audience entertained for over two unbroken hours is no mean feat, and Sa’at reaps a good measure of praise for this achievement. Nonetheless, abundant praise must also go to director Aidti’ Alin’ Mosbit and her energetic, talented eight-member ensemble cast, all of whom assisted in devising certain of the sketches performed. Mosbit took a group of young actors and welded them into a tight team which gives added force to just about every scene in the show. From the hyper-functional set (a collection of storage bins stacked on top of each other, stuffed with costumes and props) to the fluid staging and use of lighting and sound to enhance the sensual impact of the scenes, Mosbit shows quite a deft hand and an impressive feel for the possibilities of low-budget theatre. The octet of performers – I would do an injustice to all by citing just a few – are equally impressive, displaying a command of body language, facial gestures and text delivery that many older, more experienced could only envy.
While Causeway is not to be taken as a major document in the discussion on cross-Straits relations, it is to be recommended for those seeking an entertaining look at this matter, one that will at least start you thinking. Malay-speakers will find it particularly enjoyable. If you have not mastered Malay, sit far back, or be sure to bring your masseur along with you.
Causeway plays at the Drama Centre on 21-23 Jun 2002 (8pm). Tickets are available from SISTIC.