Where do I even begin with this work?


Firstly, the set is gorgeous. I have to say that the home is uncanny, almost frightening in its structure, yet welcoming and warm, illuminated by amazing lighting by Emanorwatty Saleh, in mixture of bulbs, coloured washes, and a warm glow that is seemingly reminscient of our typical hdb homes. We are no stranger to sitting in warm yellow light, or fluorescents. In contrast with the fluorescent that light up the house from beneath floorboards, dark and menacing even in its light, making the home more sinister. It is as if this home is straight out of a nightmare dreamscape, floating in the blackness of the theatre studio, as audience members fill up spaces that allow us prime spots in being voyeurs to a seemingly normal family.

The actors are preset in the space, warming up to their narrative curves, reaching the moments of terror. To top it all off, is Effendy on the piano, delivering haunting chords that seem to be melodious. anGie Seah opens the performance with an aching melody, sometimes incongruent with the chords, sometimes blending so beautifully that is emotionally triggering all at once.


What about this performance frightens me? It is the lengths that actors are willing to go for Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s work to gain flesh and rhythm. It brought to mind the question of consent within the performance arena, how much would we go for a director to allow such abuse and violence on our bodies? How much conviction must we have for this narrative, that we would go lengths to portray these characters onstage. There is no stage combat, or choreography. The actors thus live these characters for all 5 shows. What are the ethics of such a performance arena? In recent months, much light has been shed on Marina Abramovic’s ethics. Known for her durational performances, her dancers spoke up about how she had treated them badly. Read the article here. 


However, the circumstances of the performers in Cerita Cinta were different of course. Audience members were not allowed to intervene or act upon the bodies of the performers. But what if an audience member had stepped into the house? I admit I was very tempted! It was a beautiful house, the decking was immaculate. I imagined taking off my shoes, and entering this space (also because the set is a dream for any actor). And the violence, so awful, that one would be motivated to stop Roslan from hitting his wife. There must be dialogue, trust and ensemble rapport to allow the safe space of performance. Because I would not have felt the things I felt in the space, if the violence wasn’t played out the way it was done in this show.

While it was not choreographed, it is clear that each character arch was defined so precisely, that the journey each character took was clear and coherent, always reminscient of the transgenerational violence that had occured in this family. Transferrence from father to son, to daughter, to wife and to an outsider/pet. The violence that was displayed onstage through the various members of the household manifested in so many ways, yet they all tied back to its source at some point: Roslan.

The sphere of performance here becomes blurred, because the characters are so visceral and physical, it becomes difficult to divorce the body politics from the character itself. The characters are so heavily hinged on the idiosyncrasies of each actor. Each character is a burden to bear, full of despair, terror, fear and just pure fucked-upness, for the lack of a better word. Each character’s energy is worn so plainly on the actors’ faces and skins, especially Dalifah Shahril, who carries the weight of Maslina, a woman who is so heavy in her fear, and entrapment in this gory household. The tables and stools, a minimalist kitchen with plates, cups and all the standard fare, and a working tap at the back of a house for the performance of ablution. What is it about these rituals that trap us against our will, like an uneasy lover? The symbolism is so rich, it became a large jigsaw puzzle to me, deciphering the connection between the asam pedas and Roslan, the kite and the dog, the daughter and the son, the wife and her cigarettes, all the white underwears hanging right above the boiling stove, the sour and cloying smell of the broth slowly filling up the theatre space. The plates piling in the sink, the plates refilled, less and less rice as the play progresses, fish bones digested by a man eating from a plate on his fours, the belt, everything was inextricably linked.


I hate to admit that I was triggered. These scenes of abuse and violence were commonplace in my family, extended and otherwise. Women stood by their aggressors till the day they died, never whispering about the terror, the pain and the agony of continuing each ritual and mundane routine, knowing that there was no way out, or rather they had taken an oath to stick by the men who did this to them. I never understood why, but then, the psyche of survivors are difficult to comprehend. Zaki was the textbook example of a child so moulded and shaped by trauma, he seemed to be low functioning, he seemed to have cognitive difficulties, his development so stunted by fear. I could have been a Juliana, if I had not taken certain paths in my youth. Juliana, who creeps around the house fulfilling the role of the absent mother (only because she is in so much pain she cannot move, and half the time, she is grieving for her loss of space) towards Zaki, and then smacking her boyfriend in a ruthless gesture, without thinking, without remorse.


How is it that Noor Effendy is able to peel back these layers, to reveal these sores and wounds of our society, in a way that is poetic, poignant and beautifully layered all at the same time? These festering blisters are painful to watch, but so intriguing because I could not take my eyes off them. I was absorbed fully into the drama, emotionally attached to the characters, feeling every blow and smack, feeling each heartbreak, every plea for help and attention, even though we knew what was going to happen. The violence became routine, Roslan’s ups and downs became routine, the ghost grandfather. The psyche of the abuser was captured accurately here. Roslan had good days, he had bad days, everyone else tiptoed around him, and he was a time bomb. It is really insane that shit like this still happens in households, and people continue to remain blind and oblivious. Aside from the fact that this piece highlighted a very real issue, the play itself was never preachy, or advocating for sides to be taken. There was an openness to the narrative, a text that contained multiplicities and several entry points that allowed for various interpretations and connections between physical gestures, symbolic routines and the unsaid.


This play was also an amalgamation of all the symbolic physical vocabulary portrayed in Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s physical work. It was as if Si Ti Kay, Si Woof Woof and the Malay Man and Chinese Father had a threesome and gave birth to this horrific composition of family violence. And like loving mothers, anGie Seah and Noor Effendy breathed life into the work with their music, so carefully composed to create just the right breeding ground for us to tangkap our grief, our sorrows at our own pasts, and the sorrows that is the reality for so many women out there, still stuck in a cycle of suffering.

(images courtesy of Tucky’s Photography and the Esplanade Co. Ltd, gleamed off akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s fb page)

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