Sunday, July 06, 2008

Turning Up the Air Con

Went with Animah and Sham to see Air Con, Shanon Shah's first full length play at KLPAC at the weekend. Although I don't usually write about theatre on this blog, this play is very special to me because I feel part of the FIRSTWoRKS family, and because I have seen parts of the play at different stages of development at performed readings.

In the programme notes Shanon says that one of the starting points for the play was the news that a mak nyah (transvestite) had been found brutally murdered and dumped in a monsoon drain, and nobody came to claim the body:
... no family, no friends, no anybody. nobody at all seemed to care that a mak nyah had been killed. Simply because of what she was - abnormal, a misfit, an aberration.
This story connected with Shanon's memories of his school life in Kedah, and a memorable incident of a visit from a police officer who told the boys at assembly that they were absolutely forbidden to visit the sex workers who hung out at the railway station :
Apparently an adventurous hostel border had been clobbered with the stiletto of one of the mak nyah sex workers because he had refused to remunerate her for services rendered.
After a Mak Nyah sex worker is found beaten to death near the railway station in the play, the administration of a nearby boys boarding school decide to take action - a sort of reeducation camp is planned for all the boys who are a bit ... effeminate, in order to toughen them up so they don't, presumably, become mak nyahs themselves.

(This kind of round of 'em up and make long speeches about morality at 'em for hours and hours to make sure they behave exactly as we want 'em is a fairly common here. Even judges get subjected to them. Blaming victims is pretty common too.)

Having taught for three and a half years in a boys boarding school very like the one depicted in the play, I felt that Shanon's depiction of the school and teachers was very good indeed - these were convincing characters, coming to terms with their own sexuality, getting bullied, coping with personal problems, making and falling out of friendships and love. And this was a completely believable scenario.

Amerul Affendi and Zahril Adzim played senior prefects Chep and Burn, and Ryan Lee Baskaran and Nick Davis as Asif and William, the younger boys who become prefects were very good indeed. But there wasn't a single weak point in the casting.

The murdered sex worker, played by Dara Othman has no identity when the play opens, but gradually assumes a voice, and then name (Aiswarya Roberts - for a couple of very famous actresses), and then a form, becoming in the end a fully-fleshed and endearing character.

The Air Con of the title, incidentally, is a play on the word airconditioning (some units of which are being fixed in the prefects room by local contractor, Ah Kok, a character who adds humour and counterpoint to the play) and also a certain sexual practice which will probably now lead to a local shortage of Hacks.

"Did you enjoy the play?" someone asked me afterwards. Enjoy, I'm not sure is the right word. sure parts of it were very funny and I laughed along with the rest of the audience. But I also came away feeling quite traumatised. It is a powerful play and my emotions took a bit of a battering.

Sadly the run was all too short, but I do hope it gets staged again. and now that Shanon has found his feet as a playwright, he continues to take a little time out from being a famous pop star.

Congrats to all the FIRSTWoRKS crew, especially Jo, Suzie and Zalfian.

(More about the play on The Star website.)


Amir said...

A good play & cast indeed! Oh, the playwright's name is Shanon (only one 'h).

bibliobibuli said...

damn these 'h's' they get everywhere!!

theater fan said...

it was a wonderful play and i look forward to more of shanon's (with only one 'h) works but the play was a tad too long - i felt some of the scenes were not necessary, and over-explanatory - however, methinks that this is not shanon's fault. it's great to see the play finally staged, after the reading that I saw at central market. loved the young actors, but felt cikgu hansem was rather uncomfortable with his command of english (heard that they took off his recitation of a poem - sorry, sharon, i know that you'd be interested to know which poem but i can't remember the author other than he was gay!)

there were some elements of the reading that I wished that they had kept, overall it would have been much better if it was tighter but yes, they did a terrific job in casting!

However, I'd be interested to see other directors interpreting Shanon's works in the future :)

Madcap Machinist said...

the two poems were:

1. "Musee des Beaux Arts" by WH Auden, recited by Asif.

2. "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, (absolutely lovely poem) recited by Cikgu Hensem.

Some pantuns too; Shanon says they were found pieces: graffiti he found in public toilets...

ohhh the sexiness

Madcap Machinist said...

ps I didn't know "hostel borders" could get up and wander...

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, I wish I could have seen this! It's at times like this that I really, truly wish I lived in KL. The Auden poem is one of my favourites of all time. So stunningly, painfully true.

-- PS

Subashini said...

Sharon, thanks for blogging about this. I caught the play too and wondered the same thing: if "enjoy" is the right word to express what I felt. Appreciated? Too mild. Strongly moved? Touched? Yes, all that and more. I thought the casting was really quite excellent (where did they all come from?)... combined with a fantastic script.

I thought the scenes between Burn and Aishwarya were delightful; so charming and free of awkwardness and the healthiest relationship out of the lot! Kudos to the actors both.

But I'd agree with the person who said that the only flaw was that it was overly-long... it could have done with a bit of trimming.

And yes, that Auden poem is one of my favourites too... I was totally stoked when I heard it.

bibliobibuli said...

theatre fan and subashini - agree with you both about the length - nearly 3 hours! the first half perhaps needed cutting a bit. i'd buang the science-lab scene.

theatre fan - it was interesting comparing the performance to the readings. i was sad that my favourite line about the apollo spaceship was almost lost in this production when it was so funny and touching before ...

Karcy said...

I didn't mind the play being long -- three hours being the standard summer blockbuster length, after all. And I didn't think the science lab scene was unnecessary; it made me recollect my schoolgirl days when the most innuendo-laden classes were -always- the ones held in labs. I can imagine that the extent to which that particular scene should be cut/trimmed would cause a fair bit of controversy. Asif somehow isn't entirely Asif if that scene got cut.

Went to an all-girls' school and then an all-boys' school for Form Six, and yes, I can say that the kind of sexual exploration and power struggle that happens in the play are very real.