Inconsistent Direction Falls into Chauvinist Trap

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Bintang ke Bintang
28 Sept – 4 Oct 2015
Institusi Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia (ITBM)


Review by Senigala

A restaging from its 1998 debut, Bintang ke Bintang is a play derived from poems by the late Malaysian poet laureate Usman Awang. Directed by Fauziah Nawi and Iryanda Mulia, the play aims to commemorate Usman Awang’s writings and his intricate use of the Malay language, in conjunction with Malaysia’s National Language Month. In collaboration with Stefani Events, Institusi Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia (ITBM), Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), and Yayasan Usman Awang, the play was restaged in a make-shift space on the sixth floor of Wisma ITBM in Wangsa Maju. Nevertheless the 7 day production must go on to fill in the gaps of the celebratory month.

Ketika malam kulihat matamu pada bintang
Senyummu melambai di gemilang sinar bulan
Dari bintang ke bintang kunantikan lagumu
Hanya kerdipan dalam bisu suara hatiku bimbang”

Verse of ‘Dari Bintang ke Bintang’ by Usman Awang

The opening night performance ran for 42 minutes and attempted to envelope 20 of Usman Awang’s poems crafted prior to Malaysia’s independence. Of course there are challenges in capturing the philosophical heart of Usman’s writings. However, this could have been countered by the performance style of the play, which might have allowed the audience to sink into the realm of words of the proletariat wordsmith.

Unfortunately, the performance space did not bode well for the production. The hall was not acoustically equipped to handle the authentic sound of a theatre ritual, and the arrangement of the space did not satisfy the performers’ requirements either. There were only two lifts provided to forklift the audiences up to the performance space. Although the front-of-house staff generously guided the crowd to their seats which were arranged in one dimension, this turned out to be a dubious honour, as it blocked the sightlines of the audiences seated in the back row. Ironically, latecomers who were forced to stand at the back had a better view.

The placement of the performance space which was focused at the left corner of the hall complemented the production design of the play. Compared to the 1998 staging, the 2015 restaging had a smaller ensemble and set, and took a minimalistic approach in an attempt at modernity. The performance floor and background covered with a black base and white accents created an abstract setting, giving the play a sense of space and subjectivity. While this may reflect the maturity of the director’s interpretation, by dealing with abstract forms to highlight the content of the piece, it came off as economic constraint. The bare lights obviously placed at the top of the mountain-like set only served to highlight the open wound that the restaging carried with it.

Menung seketika sunyi sejenak
kosong di jiwa tak berpenghuni
hidup terasa diperbudak-budak
hanya suara melambung tinggi”

First verse of ‘Jiwa Hamba’ by Usman Awang

Fauziah Nawi, a self-proclaimed loner-veteran in the Malaysian performing arts scene, may have the rights to utilise Usman’s text in her piece (written in letter), but she wasn’t the only one realizing the production, and that may have played out as a disadvantage. Iryanda Mulia’s approach to the musicality of the play increased the aesthetic beauty of Usman’s text, but unfortunately it was inappropriate for the calibre of the performers. This isn’t to say that Fauziah and Iryanda’s approach was dated just because they are veteran artists, but rather to point out a lack of consciousness in balancing the young performers and the poetics of Usman’s text.This is reflected in the detached relationship between the costume design and the performers. Although, the colour scheme of the costumes aided the production design, the males looked like Javanese pirates and the females white nymphs, in a Malay mash-up of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max society. The lack of criticality in the costume design painted the young performers in a confusion of eras.

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The main disadvantage of the production was the inexperienced ensemble who were too amateur to handle the weight of the play. The 11 all-Malay performers were newly recruited from Fauziah’s acting workshop at FINAS, and it was clear that they needed more training. The lack of stamina and maintaining energy among some of the performers was further challenged by the poor agility and awareness of the performers in negotiating the energies within the ensemble. This not only interrupted the flow and rhythm of the actors’ blocking, it also jeopardized the performers’ relationship with Usman’s text and Iryanda’s musical composition (hence the inappropriateness). Unnecessary theatrical gestures and the imbalance of the performers’ vocal projection made Fauziah’s curation of Usman’s poems even more illegible.

Sebuah perkataan yang paling ditakuti
Untuk bangsa kita yang pemalu.
Sekarang kata ini kuajarkan pada anakku;
Kau harus menjadi manusia kurang ajar
Untuk tidak mewarisi malu ayahmu.”

Beginning verses of ‘Kurang Ajar’ by Usman Awang.

Funnily enough, unlike the 1998 staging which was done in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games (an event that celebrated common consensus among Malaysians), the 2015 restaging was done post an incompetent fascist rally that emphasized nationalist ideals. Hence the serious danger that a technically rushed and inconsistently directed performance may not only not do justice to Malaysia’s National Language Month, it also may distort Usman’s poetics to portray a nationalist chauvinist trap that has been (and still is) haunting our local community.

It is safe to say that Dari Bintang ke Bintang has strong content that deserves to be revisited not only to commemorate a past idol but also to reflect upon being in an imagined state of living in the same home with the respect of other beings, which is what Usman’s internationalist virtue constantly fought for through his pen. Unfortunately, Fauziah and Iryanda should have had more time not only to sharpen their interpretation of Usman’s work for the current times, but also to discipline and guide their new batch of performers and their interpretive acting muscles. This would not only have revealed what the young performers have to offer, it would also have helped to avoid a misreading of Usman’s text. Perhaps then the audience could have finally listened to the nectar of the Malay language.

bintang_ke_bintang_poster(Image above from

Senigala is one of The 2020s, a group of young writers at Critics Republic.

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