D’State of D’Nation
by Instant Café Theatre
Friday 4 December 2015 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre
Review by Ling Low
In the strongest skit of the opening half of D’State of D’Nation, Jo Kukathas and Andrew Leci play two sports commentators. There’s a game afoot, but very few rules. Najib refuses to pass the ball, the opposing side tries to tackle him and ends up fighting among themselves. Bersih leaders give out yellow cards but are sent off. And PAS players want everyone to be “hooded”.
It’s a simple setup: two people sitting behind a desk, staring ahead at the audience, and trying to keep up with the game. But the skit builds and builds, working up to a frenzy. Politicans are namechecked at breathtaking speed, until the absurdity of everyone and everything becomes too much for Kukathas’s sports commentator, who has a minor breakdown.
Why does this skit work?
I watched D’State of D’Nation on Friday 4th December. The day before, it was announced that the Dewan Rakyat had passed the National Security Council bill. This is a bill that will grant more power to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, who is also the Finance Minister. The Finance Minister, who is also the Chair of 1MDB.
In Malaysia, salt is not so much rubbed into wounds as poured. We barely have time to pick our scabs before a fresh cut appears. That’s why the sports commentary skit worked so well. It told us about both the state of the nation and the state of our minds.
In a year when the ringgit has plunged, haze has choked our throats, and RM2.6 billion appeared in the Prime Minister’s bank account, you’d think there would be enough material. But the government simply keeps creating more. It’s little wonder that we’re all feeling somewhat close to the edge.
How can we keep up with the game? Instant Café Theatre’s answer is humour. Through satire, we are offered some kind of catharsis.
D’State of D’Nation opened with a “fundraising telethon” to recover RM2.6 billion. Since the performance was also a celebration of 2.6 decades of the Instant Café Theatre, this number was constantly looming in the background, in our minds – and most of the sketches.
The show brought together veteran Instant Café Theatre members as well as fresher faces. Jo Kukathas’s well-loved characters Ribena Berry and YBeeee made an early appearance, confirming that Kukathas (who is ICT’s director) is a national treasure. She was the centre of gravity, the sun around which all other bodies moved throughout.
During the first half, the jokes flew fast but some landed a little heavily. They were angry and they were amusing, but they preached to a choir of people ready to be both angry and amused.
The humour was at its best when it was both subtler and sillier: the Deputy Minister who refers to his accusers as “alligators”, the Film Censorship Board who overdub a raunchy horror film as a wholesome Malay family drama. Acute cultural observations, taken to absurd lengths.
There were several musical numbers: Frozen’s “Let It Go” became “Where It Go?” (referring, of course, to the 2.6) and “Amazing Grace” was twisted into “Amazing Haze”. The songs were well written and enjoyable. However, after a while they felt like interludes, because they lacked the stagecraft, costumes and characterisation of the skits. Perhaps this was deliberate – a punctuation of more gentle comic relief.
Overall, the first half was a mixed performance. Some of the skits felt overly long, especially as we reached the two hour mark. By contrast, the second half was muscular and tightly orchestrated. It opened with Kukathas herself in fine form as a shriveled old judge obsessed with sodomy, willing to literally sell the verdict to the highest bidder.
Other highlights included a song in which Reshmonu and Manesh Nesaratnam argued about what it means to be Indian, torn between the lure of black rap culture and the pull of local traditions. Better still was the skit in which Patrick Teoh and Manesh Nesaratnam play two security guards on night shift.
If the sports commentary skit saw the nation through the actions of Malaysia’s most powerful, then the security guard skit was its equal and opposite. Here was the state of the nation as seen by two people trying to make the most of what little power they had. It was poignant and well-observed.
When the time came for the final number, the cast of the show came together. Singing to the audience, they humbly told us that they – the Instant Café Theatre – were just trying to do “our bit”. They also made a sly reference to the very select audience in the theatre: “The time has come for us / to be more than middle class.”
This lyrical wink also hinted at the overall tone of the show: throughout, there was the sense of being among friends. When the cast sang, “If the government makes a fuss / will you support us?” several audience members responded, “Yes!”
After a year like this, even laughter can feel tired. D’State of D’Nation wrestled with anger and a sense of desperation. By the end of the show, there were still questions. Where are we going? How much more can we take? Are we close to a breakdown?
As the cast reminded us in their closing song, “Ours are the tears of a clown.”
But at least, given the choice between laughing and crying, Instant Café Theatre allows us to do both. When the show ended, everyone stood up and together, the cast and audience sang Negaraku.
More than theatre and comedy, Instant Café Theatre is a public service. Because after 26 years and three Prime Ministers, they are still here. As long as they poke fun, we know that all is not lost. They are, until today, still standing up.
Ling Low is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @sweetnlowling
All photos by Wong Horng Yih, courtesy of Instant Café Theatre.