theatre review


Knew that I can’t miss this production after hearing about its premise. In a nutshell, it revolves around an ailing Chinese Father who in a state of dementia or delirium, finds a new lease to his desires when he starts to view his Malay son in the image of his dead wife. The Malay man strives to know who his mother is, and sublimates this desire through a ceaseless love for his father, caring for him till his death. A simple premise conjuring so many taboo issues, from gender, age to racial politics, all percolated through a simple familial relation.

Upon entering the space, we are assaulted with the image of the Malay Man (Yazid Jalil) and the Chinese Father (Michael Tan), both wearing only their briefs, staring at each other with such intensity and at such close proximity. The audience sits around a narrow t-shaped platform, much like a laid down crucifix, which is to become their performance… or perhaps… sacrificial space. The two men hold their bodies in place, uncannily rigid like fleshy mannequins, and their gaze is fixed and filled with the depth of a single emotion. From this opening image, their subjectivities are established: The Malay Man with his blank expression, searching in vain for his mother through his Father, whose gaze is charged with a psychotic and tragic yearning, of harbouring both the loss and discovery of the one his loves in an other. Their skin colour, and the difference in their physique –  the man’s athletic body and the father’s wrinkled skin – are amplified by their nakedness. If anything, this is the crystalline and defining moment of the play, and it could go on for an eternity.

As the father raises his hand slowly towards the man’s face, a set of motions begin. Soon they are caressing each other’s faces, first gently, then more violently. At one point, the man carries the father, in a scene of pure physicality and escalating eroticism. The man bathes his father; the father strips and dresses him in a kebaya, the man attempts to feed his father, who rejects his food. This sequence is then repeated a second time with more intensity, and with a few devices that propel the perversity of this peculiar coupling, such as when the son scrubs the father much harder, when the father puts on lipstick on his son, and at one point, even pushing him down into a submissive position and tearing his kebaya.

No words are spoken, except at a later point in the play when both characters mumble out a chinese song for children ‘世上只有妈妈好’ (what a fascist song!). However, we have a third character, a Malay woman – perhaps the manifestation of the mother –  appearing as an apparition at a corner of the theatre, illuminated sporadically when she sings in gibberish to accentuate the actions on stage. Asnida Daud’s vocals is a force to be reckoned with… wide in range and volume, from the gently melodic to distortion inducing banshee shrieks. Her voice bends, quivers and pierces through the silent atmosphere, forming figures that bind the body-to-body sounds let out by the men through their wrestles. The sheer intensity of her voice and the fact that she is singing gibberish transforms her singing into pure physicality, a non-linguistic sonority that is as violent as the tug-of-war happening on stage.

Time passes really quickly when a piece unfolds so minimally. At the end of one of the repeated movements, the father breaks into a desperate wailing and the malay man convulses on stage in possession, and the piece abruptly ends. At that point, I was overwhelmed, but can’t help feeling a bit short changed. I was expecting more to happen, and hoping for the political layers of the piece to be explored further… In fact, I realised that they were not developed at all (in a narrative sense) but just implied.

But after a few days… thinking about it further… I realised that this is impossible considering the essential form of the production, a theatre of cruelty with its disavowal of language for an agitation through gestures and actions. The Malay Man and His Chinese Father was successfully hypnotic in this tangent. It has the potential to conjure unconscious associations through its theatrical display of S&M. But most importantly, it awakens certain tensions that have been artificially held at bay (and perhaps even in place in an unspoken manner) through governmental administration… tensions that are taboo and prone to censorship. And i’ve come to appreciate how this piece does not position these tensions as a result of some kind of evil inherent in human nature. Instead, it conveys these tensions with tragedy and pathos, showing us how it’s in fact an undeniable potentiality within the fabric of communal living.

Now I kinda wish that this piece could have gone on for much longer in its repetitions. I’m also very curious about how the three hour durational performance that was cancelled would have played out.