Azmyl Yunor is my current frontrunner for the quintissential urban-Malaysian multihyphenate. The multihyphenate is commonly found in cities like ours where there is a demand for sophisticated or globalised ideas, art and other consumables, but still not big enough to sustain all of the talent. Put another way, the brain drain is so pervasive that the outstanding talents who do stick around have lots of room to stretch and work. Specialisation as an artist in KL is often both unnecessary and unfeasible — smaller fish means you don’t have to fight so hard for that one job, and at the same time there won’t be enough work if you only do one thing. Azmyl is a true many-hat-wearer as he’s achieved distinction in many of his fields. And when you’re that good, sometimes your friends stage a musical based on your work.

Something I Wrote

All pics by Huneid Tyeb, courtesy of Five Arts Centre

Something I Wrote was presented by Five Arts Centre at the Black Box in MAP Publika. Grudgingly labeled a documentary-musical, it was conceptualised by director Mark Teh partly in reaction to the swathe of nostalgia-focused local musicals that have appeared such as Tunku, Puteri Gunung Ledang and P Ramlee the Musical. Devised from research of written work by and about Azmyl, the play was structured as a medley of vignettes presenting a selection of songs, journalism, academia dan lain-lain turned into theatrical pictures. Like a best-of album or Wikipedia page, we learned a little bit about the man’s early life, discography, academic work and political activism.

Teh and his cohort of able actors are adept at crafting beautiful moments, living images full of context and thought that present themselves honestly and dissolve gently. The set and cast were amorphous like their image of Azmyl. Pieces of scaffolding were pushed, pulled, locked and split to make vans, podiums and projection screens in a welcome change from wooden black cubes; and the actors were journalists or demons or seven copies of the man himself.

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Paired with varied and imaginative arrangements of the songs, the piece presented several delights. One song was sung while the actors just created circles of candlelight or wound fairy lights on bars, made lamps out of tubs and generally made small islands of illumination, vigil-like against the dark. A speech made at an UndiMalaysia event was delivered by an actor dressed entirely in flags — flags became a kain sampin, a tanjak, a cape and other things.  He was joined by actors dressed as superheroes with colour-coded costumes made mostly out of plastic bags and T-shirts tied in various ways . After the speech, they slowly stripped their many layers and tossed them into the air. The black air and ground were filled with falling colours. Pretty, poignant and funny.

The humour in the piece was generally sidelong and sarcastic but with compassion – “This is my Malaysia, warts and all,” it seemed to say. In the much-highlighted segment about an incident at Paul’s Place, where police broke up a punk show by claiming to be doing a black metal raid, actors flipped roles according to whose perspective they were viewed from. To the police they were delinquents; as normal participants they were scared and confused; to the Utusan journalist they were winged-sex-fiend-demons with masks and capes. Hilarious but not judgmental. To my mind, Five Arts has a pretty healthy handle on dealing with our various issues of race, identity, globalisation and so forth.

The peaks of the show were thoughtful and strong, but the connecting threads in between lacked a consistent direction. Since it was difficult to get a feel for where we were going, each peak moment had to work harder and harder to regain attention. Interestingly, the most gripping parts near the end were projected recordings of Azmyl himself, which makes the tribute succesful while unfortunately upstaging the actors. Unhelpfully, the Black Box has no soundproofing, and there was loud music coming in from outside (the musicians were valiant in staying in time with the cast, who dealt with this bravely).

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It is hard to see what it’s all about or trying to say. One possibility is simply, “Hey, check out this cool person.” Perhaps it’s a meditation on many-hat-wearing. Or just glimpses of the contemporary intellectual artist and their challenges. Speaking of contemporary intellectual artists, it’s interesting to note that the readiest applauders were exactly such people — songwriters, theatrefolk, filmmakers, and people generally recognised as being “in the scene”. The other half of the audience, by the end, was a bit fidgety. An anecdote — one sequence was a fake open-mic night with the stereotypes you get at those. One person imitated singer-songwriter Peter Hassan Brown, and I laughed and felt the warmth of inclusion. But when another referenced Reza Salleh, who was in the audience, I wondered if it was still funny if you didn’t know that he runs a fortnightly open mic. The specialisation of the target audience becomes a question then. Is it a show created mostly for one gang? Most of the actors came from one school, where Teh is a lecturer. The only podcasted radio interview I could find was from BFM. There was literally an interview conducted by Azmyl Yunor featuring Mark Teh about the show about Azmyl Yunor.

Something I Wrote is a strong, thoughtful and daring piece in the vein of Five Arts’ work which has always been of high quality.”

Is it important? If it’s really full of inside jokes then perhaps it becomes a celebration of this community — we are here, we are still here and we are numerous enough to be a market. Worthy things. Conversely, it asks whether theatremakers are responsible for insistently reaching out. Insularity within the English-language KL theatre scene is more or less endemic, and it’s up to the creators and next generation artists to decide how much they feel the need to address this.

All in all, Something I Wrote is a strong, thoughtful and daring piece in the vein of Five Arts’ work which has always been of high quality. I will continue to watch their shows and probably most importantly, I am now inclined to buy a stack of Azmyl Yunor albums.

SomethingIWrote