Gadis Jalan Burmah
Written by Redza Minhat
Starring Farah Rani
Directed by Ashraf Zain
6 – 9 April 2017, Kotak @ Five Arts Centre
Reviewed by Lyn Ong
Gadis Jalan Burmah is a one-woman comedic show revolving around the life of 42-year-old Kartini Shuib. The show opens with a quick, jazzy musical riff from the song Malambo No 1 by Yma Sumac that sees Kartini (Farah Rani) waltzing past the audience and striking a pose with a flourish just as the song ends. The audience learn two things very quickly: she is currently single with a string of failed relationships behind her, and today is her birthday.
The setting is simple. There is a central table where Kartini, dressed in a loose kaftan, lingers most during the performance. On either side is a small desk and a chair that is slightly angled towards the centre. This setting is coupled with dim lighting, making the mise-en-scène homely and cosy while subtly directing the audience’s focus to the play’s lead.
Despite being an ustazah’s daughter, Kartini is crass, unapologetic, filled with self-deprecating humour and completely aware of her own sexuality. We follow her as a naive young girl living on Burmah Road to her present day, jaded, middle-aged self as she flits back and forth between various prospective suitors like Kassim Rahman, the insurance salesman her mother suggested, to her first love, a mamak boy named Syed.
We slowly become Kartini’s confidantes as she shares her past loves, transgressions, and exploits with us. She tries to draw us deeper into her monologue through conversational methods, but unfortunately, the few moments where she poses questions (rhetorical or not) towards the audience turned slightly awkward as the audience seemed unsure if they should reply.
Central to Gadis Jalan Burmah are the pressures of societal expectations that would be familiar for most, especially women. That a woman’s worth is only determined by her marriageability, how many kids she would have, and her perceived sexuality still holds an archaic importance in society.
“Mak kata, ‘I’m running out of time’,” muses Kartini wryly, showing us a glimpse of the many “helpful” comments that her mother and her nosy Mak Long Piah throws at her. “Life begins at 40 anyway, right?” she continues, seemingly in an attempt to placate herself.
These two maternal figures fuel Kartini’s frustrations borne from familial and societal interactions, as well as her growing feelings of inadequacy. For example, her mak constantly brings up her best friend Lily as the model of a woman that her daughter should be. “Look at Lily… you should be Lily!” says Kartini in a half-mocking tone as she mimics her mother.
This is the third time Gadis Jalan Burmah has been staged since Redza Minhat wrote it 10 years ago and is considered his second “English” play. Delivered in a familiar mix of colloquial English and Malay, the language is a helpful reference to Kartini’s background and social circle, and by extension hints at the demographics of the community in the story.
Farah Rani should be commended for her depiction of over 20 characters as it is no mean feat to portray the different personalities, voices and characteristics and switch between each in a snap. It is through Kartini’s ramblings about each character she encounters that we are offered a glimpse of humanity’s many idiosyncrasies.
However, the intonation and pitch of the lines could have been delivered with more depth to evoke a stronger emotional pull, and to prevent certain moments from being jarringly dragged-out and flat. This is not helped by the frenetic switch between scenes, occasionally resulting in insufficient time for the audience to fully absorb the rollercoaster of emotions that Kartini goes through in each of her experiences.
On the sidelines, Kartini’s struggle with mixing the cake batter acts as a metaphor for her own failed relationships. The idea that normalcy is only taking the set path in life weighs heavily on her mind and her see-sawing between wanting to find a partner and trying to convince herself otherwise gradually leads her to spiral into a pit of desperation and frenzy.
“No matter how hard or soft you beat them (the batter),” she cries out in frustration, “There will always be something wrong!” Farah’s portrayal of Kartini wailing loudly for her mak, as if to plead for help not just with the batter but for her own direction in life, would tug at the heart strings of some.
Towards the end, Kartini pauses her rambling and settles down. We see her tentatively making a call to Kassim Rahman. It is a hopeful moment, she has experienced much disappointment yet she has decided to give Kassim and more importantly, herself another chance at a relationship.
Gadis Jalan Burmah might not offer up the quintessential perfect happily ever after for its audience. But perhaps something we as individuals could identify with is the play’s central story of one woman’s journey to be independent and her perseverance in seeking companionship and ultimately, love, despite the many hurdles life throws her way.
Photo provided by Five Arts Centre