Produced by Five Arts Centre
30 March – 3 April 2016
Kotak, Five Arts Centre, Taman Tun Dr Ismail
Review by Senigala
Having undertaken a successful tour in South Korea, Japan, India and United Arab Emirates, Baling finally made its local official debut last weekend at Kotak, the new blackbox space at Five Arts Centre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, prior to continuing its tour to Germany and Kyoto, Japan. The work is produced by Five Arts Centre with the team made up of director Mark Teh, creative producer June Tan, production designer Wong Tay Sy, lighting designer Syamsul Azhar, visual projections by the notorious Fahmi Reza, stage managed by Hoe Hui Ting, and performed by a strong cast of four: Anne James, Imri Nasution, Fahmi Fadzil and Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri. The team captures and articulates the courteous debate between three representatives in creating a new nation, through a performance installation treatment which proves to be a versatile strategy throughout their touring of the show. Tackling a multiplicity of ideas leading to nationhood, and recognizing ghouls of the past, the setup of the show brings the local audiences for a stroll into their minds, visiting memories and, for some, nightmares.
Baling is a documentary performance that revisits historical moments in the narrative of Malaya’s independence. The play was devised based on a publicly available transcript which documents the talks between Tunku Abdul Rahman, David Marshall and Chin Peng, with each of their respective delegations, on 28th and 29th December 1955, in Baling, Kedah. The Baling Talks were a unique attempt to seek peace in the Malayan Peninsula that was undergoing the Emergency. Armed with the weight of the research evidence for the play (which was provided along with the program booklet), the audience’s relationship to the narrative was caught between fact and fiction, and likewise with regards to its consistent formal and informal performative style.
The immersive approach to the performance strategy helped in laying out the flow of the reflections towards the Talks. The show began outside Kotak with an introduction by Fahmi Fadzil on the mobility of the performance, and free coffee. He reflected upon the formation of society in Malaysia (1909-2016) and a screening of a clip from the past which documented the talks. The audience were introduced to the bias of the British frame, and the locals were reminded of their post-colonial roots. Though at times cars passed by and the next-door café added to the atmosphere outdoors, the black and white screening was fortunately bearable, and a good access point for the audience at the beginning of the show.
Later the audience were navigated to the upper floor of Five Arts Centre, to see papers of the transcript of the Talks pasted across half of the walls surrounding the small area, ruffled by the breeze from stand-fans. As humid as Malaysian weather may be, the cramped space for the audience added to the discomfort of the outdoor session of the play. Soon after, the performers emerged from behind the audience. They observed the wall full of papers/texts/ideas and grasped them, prior to beginning their discussions. In this first performative-reading session, the audience was introduced to consider the actual positions of the three historical individuals involved, what each of them represented, and their roles and intentions to find peace for Malaya through the amnesty discussions. The tense atmosphere of the unveiling of ranks, commonalities and differences of each individual in the room was aided by the cramped atmosphere of the space.
In releasing the tension, the audiences were later brought to the main Kotak studio for the following sessions. After a few minutes of settling down, the play took on a more personal approach as we entered the narratives of Anne James and Faiq Syazwan, and their relationship to Baling. Like a documentary interview, they reflected upon the manifestation of Chin Peng from being known as a British collaborator (during the Japanese occupancy) to becoming a public enemy for causing insurgency in Malaya. Documented and framed through old prints and public images circulated in past Malayan media, we heard echoes of the existence of the Special Branch, who attained images of Chin Peng for media circulation. Here the audience got a brief moment to familiarize itself with the presupposed antagonist of the play and his real name: Ong Boon Hua.
With the space dimly lit and cooler than the previous space, the shifting of perspective in the room for the following performative-reading session aided the focus on the layering of ideas in the play, stirring mental discomfort in physical comfort. In the third session of the Baling Talks, the performers switched roles, giving voice to the text more than to the performers themselves. Here, the performers read and stood between books which had recorded the Baling event (ranging from Tunku Abdul Rahman’s autobiography to Form 3 and 5 history text books provided in local schools) arranged horizontally side by side to depict the Malayan Peninsula. The talks began with an acknowledgement of an outsider entity listening in, as the talks flowed into discussions of independence, loyalty, investigation, detention, assistance, dignity, sacrifice and freedom, which were highlighted within the talks (subtly aided by the animated projections of images of the three speakers, photos of Malayan communists and Malayan atmospheric landscape of that time). We also saw the performers interacting with the arranged books and beginning to collect and sculpt their own pile of books, playing with deconstructing nations and the land.
Struggling with finding a common ground on the amnesty terms, the third sessions ended on the note that they would meet again the following day, in hopes of reaching an agreement. Again, the play diverted the audience’s perspective and entered a lecture/interview session with performer Fahmi Fadzil. Framing himself as a social media enthusiast and an old friend of the arts, he reflected upon his past works and shared his research relating to Chin Peng’s funeral and the ‘deal’ with Special Branch operatives. With live projection (using a GoPro camera ) he presented/performed his ideas. It felt as though he, together with the audience, attempted to diagnose Chin Peng’s death and reflected on the effects it had on Malaysia’s current political landscape. From Chin Peng’s funeral booklet and ashes being declared illegal in Malaysia (though made available online), to the emergence of make-believe street signage, rallies from past Communist comrades, and misdirected accusations, Fahmi highlighted the jarring difference between the dead man and the living bogey that Chin Peng had manifested for many (if not all) Malaysians.
The play then transitioned into the final Baling session. The performers switched roles once again, and placed themselves behind a long table, depicting the ones in Baling utilised by the original Talks. Here, it felt as though the urgency to carry on the Talks was increased by the coincidental fact that Tunku had to prepare to leave for London. Confrontation seemed to be the main driver for the Talks, as questions of an external entity (Special Branch or the British) were raised once again. Chin Peng mentioned how the SB had infiltrated and scrutinized the Malayan Communist Party in Singapore, and wondered if it had a role in influencing how the Talks would play out. Tunku and Marshall dismissed his concerns, and compared the friction of ideology they had with Chin Peng to China’s, Vietnam’s and even Korea’s Communist histories, concluding that differing beliefs required one side to give in. Predictably, neither of the opposing sides would budge.
The Talks ended, as we moved to the final session of the work with filmmaker Imri Nasution. His entry point at the end of the show allowed the audience a bizarre sight. Imri revealed that he had had an opportunity to interview Chin Peng for a documentary project that he and his production crew couldn’t finish. The interview clip was played and the room felt focused on the surreal experience of seeing an aged Chin Peng in colour. This is where we could truly see the difference between Chin Peng and Ong Boon Hua, between the Communist and the Malayan.
Having undergone an 11-year journey of restaging and dissecting texts and research revolving the 1955 Baling Talks, the shifts of forms of the performance from its first staging in 2005 to its most recent restaging reflect the deepening of understanding among the creative team of the performance strategy and the subject matter of the play. Unfortunately not all of us may have watched these past performances, but the current version is worth considering. Knowing the ban that has been upheld by the Malaysian government against Ong Boon Hua’s ashes being returned to the country, it is worth noting that the realization of the bogey seems more legitimate now than ever before. Baling brings forward these concerns, ponders upon the phantom, and considers the bomohs/witch doctors/Special Branches that utilise these ghosts. Hence the question: who is truly haunted?
Photos by Wong Horng Yih, courtesy of Five Arts Centre.