When a new play is premiered, the focus of the criticism is on the text. Is it original? Is it relevant? Is it spelt out in a way that makes sense? The team’s technical abilities are secondary to the idea being presented.

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Once the play has been alive for a while or becomes famous, subsequent productions struggle with the fact that the focus is now on the production and how it compares to the debut. Have they said redundant things, or did they discover anything new? Did they do the text justice? Have they succeeded it making it relevant to its new time and place?

Instincts and bravery

Rumah Anak Teater’s daring approach

Rumah Anak Teater’s M.Butterfly falls somewhere in between being a new work and a new staging of an old work. Director Mislina Mustaffa planned to stage her Malay translation of David Henry Hwang’s opus.

“The resulting lecture-performance was very roughly defined but daring and exciting.”

In the journey she found herself becoming more interested in the themes than the text itself. Deciding that perhaps over 700 productions worldwide had exhausted possibilities of saying something new with the piece, Mislina and her team created a new work using M. Butterfly‘s backstory as a frame to explore her thoughts on lies, sex and the politicisation of both. The resulting lecture-performance was very roughly defined but daring and exciting.

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The cover for Mislina’s translation of M.Butterfly

What better way to talk about lies than to hit the audience in the face with one? Except for a few people who read the interview in theSun, most people came to MAP’s Black Box on opening night expecting a straight play — we were privileged to experience it before knowing the twist, which would define the piece. Instead of playing Rene Gallimard and Song Lilling, the actors were seated as panellists in front of a projection screen, lecture assistants to Mislina, who told us of the real-life affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese spy Shi Pei Pu. They had an affair that spanned decades, until it was discovered that Shi Pei Pu was actually a man.

The story was peppered with mini-presentations, illustrations that would pop up whenever the narrative hit something relevant they wanted to expand on. For example, they wanted to demonstrate that religious/public authorities cannot have control over people’s sexualities under the guise of morals because they have problems with moral behavior as well. The illustration here was a slide show of Zeus and various lovers generally being unfaithful to Hera (with whom it is presumed he had a monogamous arrangement). When the story came to the ambiguity of Shi’s gender, they showed a video from ASAPScience’s Youtube channel about how we all start our lives as female foetuses before Y chromosomes kick in and turn would-be ovaries into testicles and so forth.

“Everything I have just shown you was copied and pasted from the internet. It might be a lie.”

M.Butterfly was organised into four parts, based on the lies presented, and ended with a small conclusion by Mislina about being critical with information. This was buttoned by the phrase, “Everything I have just shown you was copied and pasted from the internet. It might be a lie.”

This is brave. These are artists who [risk] losing their money or fans, or of being arrested or criticised. I understand that they had angry comments on their preview night and were accused of cheating the audience since the actors were “not acting”. I also believe that the unceremonious departure of Remy Ishak, leaving the team desperately in the lurch just one week before opening, resulted in many fans demanding refunds. So it was a tough time, but they went for it anyway.

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Previous M.Butterfly promotions featured Remy Ishak, who withdrew from the production a week before its opening

There’s further gravity to this when you consider our current climate. People have vandalised churches. Asmara Songsang is making the hate-spreading rounds at schools. Sex scandals are the weapons of choice, and we’re about to have a very high-stakes and probably dirty election. This may be the best and most crucial time to be pointing out puppet strings behind this manipulation, but it may not be the safest. These people aren’t afraid of anything.

“Here, Mislina literally gutted the text of all irrelevant parts; she almost cut out the play altogether, so the show was composed solely of relevant components.”

On another important level, this show succeeded in being extremely local without even trying. When adapting a text to be more “locally relatable”, the easy way is to change some names and tack “-lah” onto sentences willy nilly, hoping it will stick. The hard way is to look for the point of contact in the text, study and emphasise it. Here, Mislina literally gutted the text of all irrelevant parts; she almost cut out the play altogether, so the show was composed solely of relevant components. There’s no apologising for it. There’s no condescension. There’s no “the audience isn’t ready for this.”

The Absent Truth

A challenge for the audience

I’m not saying it was perfectly executed. The lecture itself was really quite messy — there were too many elements vying for attention rather than a nicely supported thesis, and the illustration material was sometimes tenuous. If there were concrete comments being made about the issues they were very unclear. They did have a get-out-of-jail-free card with the caveat about it being all about lies anyway, as well as Mislina’s claim that she set out to challenge her audience not to simply believe what they are told. However, that very caveat may have been more effective if the presentation were tightened and cleaned up.

“Now, the question is how the show might better achieve its goals in terms of educating a wider audience.”

I still left the show feeling inspired because it was so honestly presented and such a strong and radical ideal. Now, the question is how the show might better achieve its goals in terms of educating a wider audience. The boldness of doing this according to instinct without being patronising may mean that the people who will understand and appreciate the work are a privileged few. Even though the aim was to challenge and promote dialogue rather than impose ideals, it’s difficult to do this if the most of the people who are even willing to listen are the ones who already get it. This is quite stuck between a rock and a hard place, but that’s art for you.

If the team is so inclined, they could easily turn this into something really revolutionary. I look forward to seeing what Rumah Anak Teater comes up with next.

For more updates on Rumah Anak Teater, read their blog or follow them on Facebook.

Disclaimer: This production of M.Butterfly is one of the recipients of the Grant to Reduce Production Costs, facilitated by Kakiseni.