Diari Wanita

Diari Wanita…Episod Kak Ani & Nyonya is a production that deals in doubles. Presented in February at Istana Budaya, it tells the stories of two women from two different countries told in tandem, as guided by the vision of one director, Rosminah Tahir. One story illustrates the journey of YB Dato’ Rohani Abdul Karim, our Minister of Women, Family and Community Development (the ministry supported this production), with anecdotes from her childhood, teen years and young adulthood presented through monologues. The other is a comedy by Indonesian writer Wisran Hadi, staged for the seventh time – our very own  Madea! – telling the story of Nyonya, a young matriarch trying to protect her wealth from both a wily antique dealer and the determined grandchildren of her sick husband.

Producer Siti Rohayah Attan had said that they were restaging Nyonya due to what she saw as a lack of new ideas that could stand up to the production’s established merits, but that the inclusion of the Kak Ani story would reinvigorate the delivery and storytelling. It would have been delightful had this been the case, but unfortunately the two stories were so tonally and thematically at odds with each other that Diari Wanita was, for this reviewer at least, a rather confusing and dissatisfying experience.

Let’s start with the more “senior” of the two stories. Nyonya opens with the title character (Sherry Alhadad) and Tuan (Shahrul Mizad) bickering, flirting and haggling over the price of the marble outside of Nyonya’s lavish home. This world is completely removed from the world before it, from language to time period to atmosphere. Nyonya is a sensuous and cheeky woman who speaks in innuendos and riddles, giving as good as she gets in every interaction, able to go from stern and forbidding to coy and wheedling in a second.

She’s also surrounded by other wacky characters, played expertly by a cast of experienced entertainers such as Amy Mastura, Misha Omar and Juhara Ayob. The three play Keponakan Anggun, Cantik, and Beautiful, grandchildren to Nyonya’s elderly husband determined to claim their inheritance, which they insist is in Nyonya’s hands. They employ all manner of tricks to achieve their goal, from emotional blackmail to legal threats to straight up pulling knives from their dainty purses — each one bigger than the last with Misha Omar eventually wielding a cleaver.

Every time Nyonya is done dealing with them, she’s again besieged by Tuan, forever in pursuit of her belongings and then Nyonya herself, growing steadily bolder and sleazier as he moves from buying her sofa to buying her bed. Tuan himself is pursued by his wife (played by Dina Nadzir) calling after him with coquettish meows that grow increasingly irritated as she becomes more and more jealous of his work and the other woman pulling him away from her and their children.

“Sherry Alhadad in the lead role is a delight to watch, effortlessly engaging and creative in her physicality — playing with both her body language on stage as well as her voice and vocal delivery.”

Nyonya is a classic soap opera played for laughs, and the audience (myself included) responded accordingly. It isn’t anything groundbreaking (despite the fact that Amy Mastura beatboxed at one point), but as far as slapstick goes, it’s well-executed, and Sherry Alhadad in the lead role is a delight to watch, effortlessly engaging and creative in her physicality — playing with both her body language on stage as well as her voice and vocal delivery. All the actors have great chemistry together, and the three actors playing the Keponakan especially have wonderful little moments of improvisation between them that keep their scenes light and enjoyable. These factors enlivened the sometimes static scenes and thin storyline.

In between the slapstick, Diari Wanita asks its audience to switch back and forth from the comedy to the more serious monologues of the Kak Ani story, which does not share Nyonya’s large cast of characters or elaborate set, depending solely on the actors playing YB (Dayang Kartini) and the Secretary (Nad Zainal).

The Kak Ani story is supposed to highlight the humble beginnings of YB Dato’ Rohani as the child of a cleaner and cook — what can now be taken as inspiration considering all she’s achieved and how far she’s come. The stories have the potential to be entertaining — quaint tales of hiking to Gunung Ledang, hitchhiking to the city, losing a football in a graveyard — but this potential is undermined by the choice of delivery. The monologues not only strain the audience’s attention but it put us at a distance, making it hard to relate to the stories or make sense of them as a complete narrative when they were presented as disconnected chunks (almost like ad breaks in the Nyonya story).

The disconnect increased with the odd choice to have the Secretary present almost all of YB’s childhood stories, having apparently heard them so frequently that she can tell them from memory. Nad Zainal truly did her best with what she’s been given, throwing herself fully into re-enacting the stories, embodying different voices, ages, and moods. For one scene, she proves herself truly game for anything by playing imaginary football on stage against an imaginary army of children by herself, all while clad in slacks and kitten heels.

“…I must call a spade a spade – this was the pre-packaged speech of a government official with something to sell, and the audience politely sat through it because we had somehow paid to do so.”

YB appears on her own in a single scene, where she’s been invited to speak in front of an audience of single mothers. She delivers a speech on how we should not shun single mothers, the importance of mothers in society, how lucky she is to have had the support of both her parents. She finds the space also to mention the “10-second family hug” programme, which is apparently something the Ministry is doing to encourage affection in families. Dayang Kartini embodies the YB role with grace and presence, working to humanise a public figure, but at this point I must call a spade a spade — this was the pre-packaged speech of a government official with something to sell, and the audience politely sat through it because we had somehow paid to do so.

The promotional aspect of the Kak Ani story is set up from the very start with the Secretary empathetically telling us what life is like having to manage every detail of her boss’s life, mimicking the voices and mannerisms of those that pester her about YB’s schedule, moods, and temperature. Don’t they know YB is busy attending to the recent East Coast floods? she asks. An image of said relief efforts is projected onto the screen behind her, followed by…an actual PowerPoint slide outlining the objectives of the YB’s office. The Secretary sheepishly asks the audience to read through the points, because it’d be too long for her to read out herself.

The intention to present educational information and messaging about motherhood, parenting, and the importance of familial relationships is a noble one that was sold short by the decision to do it in such a ham-fisted and shoehorned manner, and this above all made the Kak Ani story hard to connect with. I’m sure the production team and their supporters had a vision of success for this double pairing, but Kak Ani and Nyonya are unfortunately no peanut butter and jelly. The inclusion of a secondary story alongside Nyonya also increased the running time to two and a half hours, which disrupted Nyonya’s snappy pacing — so this arrangement didn’t seem to do any favours for anybody. Should Nyonya return for an eighth staging, one can only hope they stick to the original flavour (already proven to be quite popular), or find another taste that shares even one complementary note with it to create something with a little more zest.