The Malay Man and His Chinese Father explores uncomfortable terrains that, as the title suggests, lie somewhere between the plain impossible and the mere metaphorical of kinship relations. The bizarre nature of the scenario yields the ‘imagined family’ to open interpretation, instead of unlocking any secret of a ‘truth’ outright.
First staged last year at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, this Noor Effendy Ibrahim production continues in a similar vein of physical theatre in his earlier work Joget, Abang, Joget (2014), albeit less spectacularly brutal this round. Yet the deceptively quotidian scenes of oppressive psychological violence makes this production (now restaged under the new platform of Akulah Bimbo Sakti) just as indelible an experience, sans razor blades and leather belts as instruments of pain.
Characteristically devoid of spoken words, the actors’ presence come to the fore here in playing out the indeterminate tension between an apparently demented old man (Michael Tan) and an intermittently cross-dressing caregiver (Yazid Jalil). One could well appreciate the performance in the first instance without the need of any explanatory notes, as the visceral nuances of the action speak for themselves. An embrace turned into a wrestle between two men in underwear sets the tone in an early scene, and it is up to the audience to observe it from different perspectives, as a comment on uneasy racial relations, or as a hint at repressed homoerotic sentiments. Either way, the age difference among other things suggests the love-hate relationship is not in symmetry.
While the written synopsis suggests the mystery of a mother as driving the story, she really exists only as a ghost for our imagination to latch onto, serving little real narrative function in the skeletal plot. Her presence in the form of an absence has to be inferred, most apparently in the shape of a hanging kebaya costume that the young man dons, especially when he has to serve the old man congee from a kneeling position, with the latter invariably spitting it out. Perhaps the playing out of a motherly or wife-like figure is meant to signify how the exotic otherness or secondary position of any minority community only comes about by sheer chance as a postcolonial condition, with nothing natural about it.
But one may also read the absent mother figure as a missing origin or bridge that renders a relationship between two masculine characters unnatural or untenable. As a source or epitome of unconditional love, she thus has to be reclaimed, imitated or invented, if only as a philosophical construct, to fill a vacuum – perhaps especially in a paternalistic society like Singapore, which has thrived on rational calculation and emotional distance since forever. But given that the only feminine voice heard in the performance comes from a nostalgic Malay song that the young man tries to dance to, and is marred by static, there may be few vestiges of authenticity to hang on to.
The house in which the two characters dwell being marked out simply by white tape in the Goodman Arts Centre Black Box, the audience is afforded a sense of intimacy watching from chairs or the floor from any corner, with the living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom all clearly designated by furniture and household items. But such observation from up close may actually heighten the uneasiness in human proximity, given the lack of verbal communication of any sort throughout. More interestingly, the camera projection, which captures private moments in the bathroom as well as a bird’s eye view of two strange bedfellows at night, is washed in a bluish hue like some video of paranormal activity movies. It is as if to remind the audience that they may be intrusive but powerless bystanders in such voyeurism of strange domestic activities – while these may also carry greater political allusion of national proportions.
There is an unmistakably repetitive and mechanical routine in the young man waking up each morning to the chirping of an alarm clock, and proceeding to open windows around the house one by one to let the sun in, only to close them dutifully again at night. The atmosphere thus created is a claustrophobic sense of oppression or repression, as the same old routine is performed ad infinitum, without any escape from the prison-like environment. Day in, day out, coffee would be served at the dining table, congee at the wicker chair, without the old man quite appreciating it. And he would invariably sneak into the kitchen and hug the young man from behind in the same disruptive manner, pretending the latter is his wife. Acts of love are also acts of suffocation in this household.
Day in, day out, the task remains the same, yet it may also be performed differently. Sometimes the young man indulges himself in the gait while clad in the kebaya and sarong, sometimes the painful corset beneath is just a uniform to be smoothened meticulously. Sometimes he steals a sip from the glass of coffee in frustration before coming out of the kitchen, sometimes he is inclined to ending it all by choking the old man at the dining table with the wipe of a towel. Hence as the performance progresses, the dynamics between the two characters also keep shifting, and along with it the empathy of the audience may tilt from one side to another.
Try as one may to peel away the veil of the sarong, there seems no essential truth to arrive at between the two men who are differentiated in the colour and texture of their skin. Beyond the moments of repulsion and acquiescence which are reiterated, the only assured universality that could bind them together in their listless existence is the prospect of eventual death or decay as part of the cycle of life. Even though the daily grind is slowly wearing them down in a downward spiral, one may yet argue perversely that each of them is emerging triumphant in his own way. The old man played by Michael seems so consistent in his blank stare into nothingness, his single-minded want of a bygone love, that ignoring him would be an impossible choice. The young man played by Yazid, on the other hand, is held hostage by the situation, but with all his struggle giving in to a sense of selfless duty, the slave is also turning into a master of the game by playing to the other’s fantasy of a fairer sex.
The structural binaries in their world hence remain unbroken, till everything comes full circle. The old man goes into a childhood regression, requiring to be cradled to bed while he recalls an old Chinese lullaby extolling the love of a mother as the best thing on earth. The young man returns to the original position of the performance, where he props himself up to clean the lampshade from which the living room is lit, as if that is his only glimmer of hope. It all ends as the light fades into darkness, as the lullaby turns into a shrieking cry piercing through the night.
Perhaps the two will continue to dream separate dreams. Or perhaps time is the only thing that can be trusted, to render everything into a hazy shade of grey somewhere in the horizon.