Wary Asians on a Theme: Dramatising in the Near North
Article by Alex Buzo in Quadrant Magazine, Volume XLVIII Number 11 - November 2004
"WARY ASIANS on a theme," observed Ranjit Fernando, broadcasting from Sri Lanka. He meant "Variations on a theme", but although he is a television personality, like most inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent Ranjie has a VW problem, in the same league as those better-publicised screen Nazis whose philosophy was "Ve don't do Dubya here!" In the Asian theatre, literary theme-based plays are not the dominant genre, but when they do an Australian play - and this is happening increasingly - interesting, even conclusive variations can happen "across the sea vall".
Most Asian theatre is tradition-based and dance-based, and Asia's cinematic infatuation with fantasy and animation grew out of computer games. In science fiction, there is little or no censorship on political or sexual grounds; well-exposed babes are okay as long as they're in outer space and don't exhibit the wrong kind of ethnic or social characteristics. No one in sci-fi or musicals or sci-fi musicals has ever been arrested. It was Schindler's List that got banned in Malaysia, not Scooby-Doo, Matrix or Legally Blonde.
When the Actors Studio produced my play Norm and Ahmed in Kuala Lumpur, however, they had to pay the police a $500 deposit, which was returnable if the piece had nothing offensive in it. I reflected that it was lucky I used the name "Ahmed" in this Muslim world, where Israel is the perennial villain, the Indians are "Hindu bullies" and (Chinese) Singapore is a "poisonous shrimp". Westerners are called "Matt Salleh", blow-ins, exploiters and dudes who are likely to powder at the first whiff of the durian. At least I stuck it out for the season.
Some productions in Asia are unmistakably "racey", and Norm and Ahmed was definitely this, but Australian director Pauline Furlong's production of ‘Big River’ was "non-racey" and had an ostensibly mixed cast that represented pretty much all you could find in Malaysian theatre. "The actors loved doing it because of its themes of family responsibility," Furlong told me. "That's still very big in Asia." The play is a Federation-era comedy-drama set near Albury and her main challenge as director was balancing the levels of acting in a culture that has little understanding of the psychological realism required for text-based theatre.
Many of the films of Singapore and Hong Kong contain "indicating", or external illustration rather than Method-derived performances, and this is largely true anywhere outside the West. Fans of flapping externals will love the 1995 Egyptian "biopic" Nasser, where the hero is relatively straightforward, but Robert Menzies, Australian Prime Minister and Suez negotiator, is portrayed as the "funny foreigner", all white mane, rolling eyes and a fund of Polonius-style aphorisms.
This is how Big River's leading performer was reviewed in the Sunday Magazine (April 26, 1998), Kuala Lumpur, by Tekya Atwel:
Its central character, Adela Learmonth (Mary George), is a 37-year-old widow who is described by her own family as someone who has "never grown up". Though a little immature and spoilt, Adela possesses a strong mind. She is high-strung, talkative, self-absorbed and given to dramatic fits of dissatisfaction. The very manner in which Mary speaks and acts is reminiscent of Vivien Leigh's character Scarlett O'Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’. Initially, the effect is amusing because it is obvious Mary is only acting. Adela is so resolute, that what seems to be an exaggeration of her character can sometimes come across as ridiculous. But you have got to give it to Mary. She believes in what she is doing, consequently making her performance strong and her character believable.
The good critic here is visibly wrestling with a heritage of overacting. All drama is a form of manifestation, of making manifest what passes for thought and suppression in real life, and I intended Adela to have a voice, not to be just a maker of speeches, so it is fascinating to see how the review tries to cope with this Western idea of internalised expression of something very basic - the play's premise is "Home is where the heart is", even if it takes Adela a while to locate her heart and home.
Of course, overacting is not confined to the East; in ‘Gosford Park’, Helen Mirren works her socks off playing the housekeeper in an absolutely real, internalised performance, and then Stephen Fry blusters in as the police inspector and is not believable for one minute. "It's me, Stephen, I'm up here on the screen," he appears to be saying in a performance so hammily external they should have retitled the film ‘Gosford Pork’. Mirren must have been left wondering why she bothered. The director presiding over this highly praised carnage was veteran fraud Robert Altman.
Family ties were also to the fore in the Kuala Lumpur production of Norm and Ahmed, as many in the audience had relatives who had studied in Australia. For them, the play was a background to letters home and the audience response was the most emotional and expressive I have seen in the piece's long history. It was first performed in Sydney in 1968, and Joe Hasham had been an usher for that production. He would have been cast as Ahmed in any Australian production, but in Malaysia he played Norm to Mustafa Noor's Ahmed, who was turned by the audience into the main character. The premise of the play - "Never underestimate the power of difference" - certainly held up, even though dramatically it was stood on its head.
"He challenged the gods," says the very secular Norm of his boss and in this production Ahmed gasped. Mustafa Noor was a superb actor and as a Muslim he was shocked by this and then so was the audience, whose gasps were equally audible. I had always sub-consciously believed this was the right response, even if I had not fully plotted the Muslim attitude to "the gods" - you don't have to if you're the author - and I felt the final click of the play go into place. "I have now heard every possible response," I thought to myself on that draining opening night in Kuala Lumpur. If I had been an American television personality, I might have said "We have closure", but there was more to come in this little odyssey.
If Norm and Ahmed was the paradigm of the racey play in Asia, then ‘Coralie Lansdowne Says No’ was the opposite; the two extremes were an all-white production in Penang and an all-Indian one in Bangalore. When it was once wrongly described as "award-winning" by a Playbox Theatre publicist, I had to point out that the play is about someone who accepts adult responsibility, but this is how the critic for the Deccan Herald responded to the central character and its interpretation in Bangalore:
Set in Sydney, the play renders the confusion brought about by the changing state of the modern woman, who expects a better deal out of life but does not clearly know what it is. The goals she tries to achieve are ill-defined. Veena Sajnani, who plays the protagonist Coralie, displays a commendable knack of overwhelming the audience with her exquisite stage presence. Much of the inner turmoil the character undergoes is because of the fact that she is not at peace with herself, and Veena effortlessly lives the role.
It is noticeable here, too, that the critic is struggling with notions of what constitutes good acting or, at least, a manifest rendering of "inner turmoil", and maturity is - perforce - an "ill-defined" goal. Apart from the delightful phrasing ("overwhelming the audience" is indeed "a commendable knack" for a performer to have), the foibles of Western critics - the attraction to overacting, the refuge in sociology, the shying away from assessing artistic merit - are writ fairly large throughout the East.
Sequential motive-based characterisation in the West dates from Ibsen, but one look at a Bollywood film is all it takes to realise that the Norwegian sage's revolution did not reach the East. It is a testament to the skill and technique of "Veena" and "Mary" that they made their characterisations of Coralie Lansdowne and Adela Learmonth stick with audiences without recourse to overacting. It is a minor irony that the Ibsen legacy is now under threat in the West from the dreaded pincer movement of economic rationalism and political correctness - just check out the reality level in the latest Hollywood melodramas, not necessarily starting with Kevin Kline's ludicrous oeuvre.
Another Bangalore publication, Black Coffee, listed a touring production of Norm and Ahmed in 2003 and advertised it with the one sentence: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Luckily there was no one from the RSL in Bangers at the time. They would, however, have been pleased to hear the director's comments on this motto which Norm recites about halfway through the play: "I always wanted to say this to you," he wrote to me, "but I think the line 'The price of liberty is eternal vigilance' is most prophetic and applicable to our times. It was that single phrase that drew us to your play."
This production had emanated from Mumbai and had been directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee, son of theatrical luminary Dolly Thakore. In Kuala Lumpur it might have been an asset that Ahmed was a Muslim, and it made the audience route into the play easier, but what had been pluses in Malaysia were huge minuses in Mumbai. Quasar was wary of this, but he told me:
We kept Ahmed a Pakistani because it was very important for us to make an Indian audience realise how similar we are to our neighbours, and to try to get them to sympathise with someone who we usually view as our enemy.
Far from being a pipeline into this Western play, Ahmed's nationality now ran the risk of being more like a Brechtian alienation device. Fortunately, Quasar was largely successful in his aim, presenting the play in four different venues and then as part of a triple bill called Minorities, and going on tour to appreciative audiences who eventually warmed to poor old Ahmed - victim in Australia, hero in Malaysia, but very much beyond the pale in India.
In Kuala Lumpur I had been aware of different responses from the "Asian" audiences, and it was only when being interviewed by local critic Krishen Jit for a quarterly magazine that I realised what had happened. I was most impressed by the erudition, insights and acerbic humour of the ethnic-Indian Jit, and thought unwistfully of the half-witted PR flacks in the critical corps back home. He explained that to the Malays in the audience, Norm was the white man, the "tuan", the oppressor, but to the Indians and Chinese he was the Malay in their lives, the bully who gets all the good jobs under the "bumiputra" (sons of the soil) laws. "You've written an accidentally lethal play," one of the Actors Studio directors told me, corroborating Krishen Jit's autopsy of the audience. My reading of the reactions, that the play provided a backdrop to letters home from students, suddenly seemed to be literal and speculative.
In the case of the 2003 Mumbai production, the question of why Norm lashes out at Ahmed was adumbrated by Quasar:
I'm sure you have your reasons, and actually much as I am interested, I would rather not know. For us, we used the speech that Norm gives Ahmed about settling down, joining a social club etc., as a trigger.
When the play was revived in Sydney in 2004 I was too sick to go to any rehearsals or the opening, but the director, Aarne Neeme, later told me, "We decided that the crucial moment was the settling down, leagues' club section."
As the author I could sit back and listen to interpretations by people who had to decide on motives and truth, but when I directed Pacific Union in Jakarta I had to answer these questions on the spot.
Actors in Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai work under similar conditions, being paid enough to get by while acting, but having to moonlight as teachers and reporters between times. As Pauline Furlong had said, it was like Australian theatre and society a few years ago, in the best possible sense. Patrick White had written of Oz in the 1950s and 1960s, that "the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is" and now that these positions are largely filled by restaurant reviewers and advertising executives, we may legitimately ask what progress has been made. I would stop short, however, of saying, as some people who are disenchanted with the foodies and the adders do, "Bring back the schoolmaster and the journalist." Let us not forget that those arbiters of yore thought that Patrick White, who had the emotional maturity of a sub-teen, wrote a masterpiece in ‘The Ham Funeral’. In Indonesia I was dealing with ex-actors rather than part-timers. The Jakarta theatrical roost is ruled by the teacher and the diplomatist, professions where ex-actors abound, and I had the services of a brilliant American woman called Tracy, who taught at the International School, acted for the Jakarta Players, and knew who had done what and where. The play, Pacific Union, is set in San Francisco in 1945, and deals with the founding conference of the United Nations, so in a cast that included everyone from Bert Evatt to T.V. Soong by way of Claire Boothe Luce, there was going to be a lot of racey stuff, as well as a big range in acting styles - unless I could put a stop to it.
The first UN Secretary-General (acting) was Alger Hiss, later accused of having spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and convicted of perjury after pleading innocent. I could never convince myself of his guilt, and wondered what on earth he could have slipped to the Soviets in 1936 … The blueprint for the Boulder Dam? A picture of the Rockettes? It wasn't as if it was Donald Maclean, 1950, and the atom bomb. Hiss was in jail by then.
It is all right for the author to be undecided or out of the loop during a production, but here I was directing and had to make up my mind. I did not. Tracy said she had just the right man for this part and I asked him plaintively, "Can you play Alger Hiss as if he might be guilty?" The actor, an American called Wayne, looked at me with open contempt. He was short and stout and bald ("Like a good scrum half gone to seed," John Buchan would have said), and in no way resembled the tall, dark Hiss. "Wayne will deliver," promised Tracy, and by God he did, playing the Sec-Gen as an Ivy Leaguer with one or two demons, but a master of authority when on parade.
One of the jobs a playwright has in Australia is the traditional one of trying to make sure they don't crush all the humour and lyricism out of the middle-class characters. As director, I was sure I could get Oz delegate and abstract painter Sam Atyeo played with the right amount of larrikin bohemianism, but I failed. If the characters are educated and articulate, they cannot possibly be good sports - this is the way the thinking runs. In the television version of George Johnston's ‘My Brother Jack’, Atyeo is lightly fictionalised as Sam Burlington and the same thing happens - he is played as serious and cultured, with no larrikin traits at all. This also bedevilled my Fiji play ‘The Marginal Farm’, in which the central character is a governess during the CSR heyday of the 1950s. "She's a sassy redhead, she's game for anything," I would say hopefully, but no, what we got was a governessy 1950s governess.
The actor playing Sam Atyeo was a talented alumnus of the Darwin Theatre Group, and offstage Chris had the down-to-earth qualities I pined for onstage. These qualities came in handy when I was having trouble with Ramdansyah, a good Indonesian actor who was struggling in the role of Philippines delegate Carlos P. Romulo. CPR was crazy about his military uniform and wore it everywhere in San Francisco. At a party in the Fairmont Hotel a local journalist says, "Get me another drink, will you?" and he is supposed to reply, "I'm not a waiter." Ramdansyah kept saying, "I'm not whiter", and I kept telling him the line was "I'm not a waiter". Back came "I'm not whiter" for the umpteenth time, and Chris finally intervened with some Territorian horse sense: "Look! It's because you're not whiter they think you're a waiter." Ramdansyah thought about this for a moment and we started again: "Get me a drink, will you?"
"I'm not a waiter."
"Thank you, Chris!" I shouted. It was hardly classic Stanislavsky directing, and there wasn't a motive in sight, but it worked.
Like most of the diplomatic and military staff, Chris spoke fluent Indonesian, but I did not. When I was instructing the lighting technicians at the Australian Embassy theatre I wanted to tell them that there was a shadow on the actors' faces. "Kulit," I said, reasoning that if wayang kulit meant shadow puppets and wayang was puppets, then...They just stared at me. Thankfully, Chris arrived and spoke to them animatedly and they fixed the problem on the spot. "If wayang kulit is shadow puppets and wayang is puppets, how is kulit not shadow?" I asked him later. "It just isn't," came a blunt reply that was worthy of Sam Atyeo.
Although I was the most recent arrival in Indonesia of all the people working on Pacific Union, I appeared to be the only one who had read in a book on the country that it is considered very bad form to sit on a table. Actors love sitting on tables for the same reason they love gripping the backs of chairs - it makes them look more relaxed on stage. I could not very well presume to instruct them - as a mere blow-in - on Indonesian politesse, so I just kept saying, "I think he's too agitated to sit down now" or, "I'll need you over here for the next bit." Also, the book did not elaborate or give a reason for this table-sitting ban, so I would have appeared a pretty sloppy and external director if I had raised the actual subject.
Came the day and came the hour and Tracy's polyglot cast came up trumps. They were terrific, in many ways the best possible people for this particular play - and no one sat on a table. Ramdansyah got a huge laugh from the Indonesian half of the audience for his perfectly timed "I'm not a waiter", and later as we all caroused on the Embassy terrace outside the Platypus Club he actually said to me, "You have written a fine play." I simpered a bit and thanked him, but he was not finished: "You are not, however, a director, and I suggest you do not direct again."
When an Australian play is produced in Asia there are all sorts of artistic and cultural collisions, but if it works, the author can lift a line from the soap operas and say, "You complete me."
Other plays by Alex Buzo to be presented in Asia include “Rooted” and “Macquarie” (both in China) and “The Front Room Boys” (Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka).