Opening the windows on our lives in an affluent Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood.
By Bilqis Hijjas
‘A performance in the neighbourhood’ was the tagline of 2 minute solos, a recent production by Five Arts Centre, because the work was presented at the headquarters of the arts collective in the heart of Taman Tun Dr Ismail. With admission at only RM15, it was designed as an accessible and affordable foray into theatre for the denizens of the surrounding terrace-housed suburbia. But an alternate tagline might well have read, ‘A performance of a neighbourhood.’ Watching the 2 minute solos’ vignettes of people in small homely spaces was like driving through a suburb at evening and looking into uncurtained windows, seeing snatches of private lives, with people arguing, grieving, singing, preaching, and praying. Every light left on tells its own story. As the poet John Joy Bell described it, ‘They tell of care, of watchful eyes / Of labour, slumber, hopes and sighs – / Of human joy and woe.’
Marion D’Cruz, who conceptualised 2 minute solos, has recently become obsessed with making structures for performances, and the unusual format of this work, both charming and challenging, is omnipresent. Eleven people – chosen from among Marion’s acquaintances, and including fledgling performers and non-performers as well as experienced ones – each present a two-minute solo, performed in a small space in the shophouse headquarters which is allocated by chance. Audience members in groups of four watch each of the solos according to a set sequence. For each show there can be a maximum of 44 audience members, and each soloist performs a maximum of 11 times during a show. A large brass gong is struck as a signal for every round of solos to start and stop.
The immediate impact of 2 minute solos is its very immediacy. The first work that I saw was Tercicir by Anne James, in the smallest space of the 11: a tiny upstairs back room with a miserly window placed high up. It could have been a storeroom, or a maid’s room. Bent over and clutching a broom and dustpan, wearing a faded old top and sarong with her hair pulled back sternly, Anne started in silence, sweeping around our feet as we stood non-plussed, embarrassed to be so physically close to the performer and not knowing where to stand.
Then Anne puts us on the spot even more. Without preamble, she looks up and demands, ‘You boleh baca? Boleh tulis?’ These are not rhetorical questions. Those of us who can understand her nod. As she begins to tell her story – of a poor, illiterate Indian woman who was mistakenly registered as Muslim, and who is now in a bureaucratic bind because she cannot register her children whom she wishes to be Hindu (it is the true story of a woman recently reported by online media) – the feeling of guilt and responsibility only grows. Clearly it is we – the educated ones, who can read and write, and who have come to gawk at her as she carries out her menial labour – who are responsible for the world in which she suffers. We are making her job more difficult by standing in the way of her sweeping, and we are making her life more difficult by opting to be silent onlookers.
This is the most convincing performance I have ever seen from Anne James. On a proscenium stage, she is sometimes too much the performer; her careful articulation and rounded vowels seeming somehow affected. But in this claustrophobic space, and speaking sometimes in BM, sometimes in Tamil, she has an urgent naturalism that instantly elicits sympathy. One of the greatest problems with the time limits of 2 minute solos is the difficulty of building an audience’s sympathy for the characters, and it takes an experienced performer to know how to tackle this.
Fatimah Abu Bakar, another seasoned actress, succeeded with Lights, camera…, her tribute to the ‘makcik’ extras on call for their little parts in television and film work. The work starts with a middle-aged lady sitting on a stool in a room crowded with racks of costumes, wearing a ridiculous golden cape and clutching a plastic flower. In the moment before the gong clangs and she launches into speech, we get a measure of her character from the resignation inscribed upon her drooping face. Her story – a tear-jerker in which she finally fails to land the miniscule part on offer – is uplifted by its ending. Having got off the phone with her unsympathetic agent, she glumly starts to take off her costume. But with a jerk she remembers the open louvre windows through which we, the audience, are watching, and she bustles up with an exclamation of motherly disapproval, to close them and protect her modesty. The ending is not only a conceptually inspired use of theme and space – treating the audience like voyeurs, and subverting the idea that paparazzi only spy on celebrities – it also solves the technical problem of how to signal the end of the play without dropping a curtain. And it serves to increase our sympathy for Fatimah’s character of plucky, endlessly optimistic, women somewhat undermined by their studious respect for social convention.
But speaking of convention, in my opinion it was the more orthodox dramatic scenes in 2 minute solos which worked better, perhaps because the enveloping format is experimental enough. Introducing other experimental methods in the space of two minutes results only in bafflement. But one of the works managed to turn conventional expectation neatly on its head, resulting in what can mildly be termed a mind fuck. At the beginning of High Speed Car Chase, a courteous Charlene Rajendran welcomes us into a little front room office, to relax on easy chairs draped with batik sarongs. As the smell of aromatherapy wafts about, Charlene introduces herself and starts on the familiar script of a guided meditation. She invites us to close our eyes and listen to the rhythm of our breaths; anyone who’s ever been to a yoga class knows what happens next. But behind the soothing sound of Charlene’s voice another soundtrack – which I initially took to be spillover from the roadway outside – rises in competition: the high-speed car chase of the title, with screaming breaks, growling acceleration and the crash of sudden unseen impact.
The balance between the two soundtracks was so perfectly calibrated that you could not get a fix on either one. The loudest sound, in fact, was the RAM in my brain, desperately trying to capture either this narrative or that, and stalling as it switched between processes. My yogic friend Caitlin likened it to a challenge to discipline the mind, one which she willingly accepted, and described the work as the one that made her feel most present. All I know is that when the gong rang and Charlene pleasantly asked us to open our eyes and take our leave, I wobbled out the door feeling as if my brain had been run over by a truck. Two minutes is a very long time spent in psychological chaos.
Noises intruding from elsewhere formed a significant, though accidental, element of 2 minute solos. Listening to Fikri Fadzil’s delicate song about parting, we could not help but hear Carmen Soo rushing screaming down the stairs. Jacqueline Anne Surin’s soliloquy on loss was punctuated by Vernon Adrian Emuang in the courtyard next door, pounding rhythmically with his granite mortar and pestle, after concluding his Catholic prayer. These sounds, as much as the anticipated gong, became a regular feature of the night, settling in like the half-heard conversations of neighbours in a crowded block of flats, noises that we take for granted but which are also gently comforting, reminding us that we are not alone, and that living, breathing humans are only a hand’s breadth away, through the wall.
The noises also reminded us that as the audience traipsed from room to room, marveling at every novelty, the performers were resetting their works again and again and again. Throughout the weekend of shows, each performer presented his or her work a total of 88 times. Carmen Soo, who screamed so faithfully every two minutes, almost lost her voice. As well as physical stamina, the show required real courage of conviction. To dedicate yourself so thoroughly to something you have to do 110 times in front of an audience (no matter how brief), you really need to believe in it. Zahim Albakri’s Tumpah!, which presented the audience with a menu of different options, tikam-tikam style, seemed to duck the issue.
The works that were conceived and directed by one individual but performed by another also generally lacked conviction, and to me had a slight tinge of exploitation. But one of these works – David Wong’s Toilet, performed in rotation by Amur Hossain and Hedayat Hossain – took exploitation as its theme. The audience watches a man, dressed in a high-vis construction vest and helmet, who enters a toilet and starts scrubbing items in a tub of suds. From it he pulls a laminated photo of a family, which he lovingly wipes clean. From this small detail we assume he is a migrant worker, missing home. He pegs the photo on a line to dry with other odds and ends, then dons a mask and turns to resume his day job: waving a Malaysian flag repeatedly up and down, like a motorised highway mannequin. We never see his face; to us he is an anonymous migrant worker. But the work is an eloquent reminder of the personal aspirations behind the tedious, repetitive, and often dangerous, labour on which this country is being built.
Like much of Five Arts Centre’s repertoire, many of the 2 minute solos were either overtly topical and/or politically liberal. They remind us to think of ‘how the other half lives’, as my grandmother would have said. Only live theatre, and perhaps only live theatre in so small a space, can give us the intimacy of these short confessions. Only in this format would we, with so much rapt and respectful attention, ever watch a man carefully wringing a wet shirt above a bucket of dirty suds. And this, more than the calls for us to pay attention to particular instances of unfairness, exploitation and neglect, is the broader humanist and truly democratising message of 2 minute solos: that every human gesture, no matter how prosaic, can be a performance, if watched closely enough, and that everything is worthy of an audience.
Also, every place can be a stage. Marion is happy to share the structure that she has devised with 2 minute solos with the world, free of charge. Its modest technical needs mean that it can be mounted anywhere. (My friends Caitlin and Gabriel are hatching plans for it next year in Queensland.) But that doesn’t mean that 2 minute solos is easy. As Marion points out from her experience of advising on student choreography, a three-minute solo is one thing. In three minutes, a dramatic arc can be rounded out nicely and brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Two minutes, by comparison, is a real challenge. A work must be boiled down to its very essence, and yet retain its humour, interest, mystery and depth. Not much can be left to chance, and not a moment can be wasted: every word must be considered, every gesture weighed, every unnecessary sidelong glance mercilessly eliminated. It makes you wonder, if you had two minutes on stage, how would you condense yourself down to a single shining point of light?
Thanks to Caitlin MacKenzie & Gabriel Comerford for their input, and to June Tan for her insights into the production process.