Having just experienced the latest instalment of the traditional Malaysian Night play, I find it appropriate to comment on certain interesting aspects contained within it. Specifically, the ending of the play brought it to an abrupt halt and, I suspect, caused some confusion and disappointment. While I can understand this sentiment, looking at MNight and storytelling as a whole, I had a thought that this might actually work out positively. For this, let us first go back to Bertolt Brecht and the distancing effect.
In an essay on “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” published in 1936, Brecht described this performing arts concept as “playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious”. This is what came to my mind when I was confronted with the aforementioned ending. While in usual cases, the audience can follow the storyline, often able to predict what will happen next, forming connections with those in the play, the end of this MNight derails that completely, sort of betraying the audience who have for so long invested emotionally into the characters and storyline.
To say it is bleak is to undermine the horror. Just when it seemed an unlikely set of circumstances, in the form of a delusional girl who is convinced at being the Puteri Gunung Ledang returning home to reunite with her father, is about to miraculously culminate in a positive ending, a simple phone call by the shady Tauke Lim who had for this long pretended to be helping in the form of Bendahara Tun Perak, sees the girl and her companion bound and begging on the street with a group of beggars. The quickness, the sudden change in pace and jarring finish, left with no clarification or pretense of an apology felt like a dissatisfying end but, as an experiment to subvert what theatre and a production is, with taking away the satisfaction of closure from the audience, it was interesting.
Could it have been done better? Sure. The melancholy in some scenes could have been cut short in favour of a more drawn out ending. Instead of showing the end product of what can only be imagined as a miserable experience, a longer, more tedious look at what led to that in the first place, with horror and desperation creeping in slowly to extinguish hope and innocence, could have left the audience similarly short-changed but in such a complete way that it satisfies nonetheless. But hindsight is 20/20, and picking on this aspect lone seems to take away from the rest of the play, which also had elements not usually seen in MNights.
The story had heavy elements of violence, vulgarity and melancholy, all of which can’t be said to be traditional. Rather, it builds upon the previous MNight’s foray into stories about social issues, portraying the aspects of Malaysia that are usually ignored for pastel images that do not completely capture the essence of Malaysians. This MNight happened, as well, while, in the background the conversation about MNights revolves around showing ‘the best of Malaysia’ and a portrayal of culture that just shows superficial elements such as dances, clothing and such. This is a naive outlook on a potentially very powerful entity which can be an open space to project creativity.
In the past, I had championed for MNights to focus on social issues and commentary. What I was pursuing was the freedom of expression to be given to students to be able to comment upon, highlight and detail their thoughts on what was happening back home through the outlet of art. Perspectives on race relations, mental health, biases and challenges placed upon the youth due to societal expectation or the general ever-changing socioeconomic health of our nation could be creatively portrayed through this. This is not to say all plays needed to be preachy but the status quo placed then, of a formulaic forced togetherness, seemed to not be reflective of reality.
Artistic expression has a long history of talking about the world it finds itself in at the moment, capturing the essence of that time from a specific, usually unique lens. We can see this in such films as Casablanca or The Hunt for Red October, which directly take place during war times, capturing the essence of unease and heartbreak caused by the conflict between basic human senses and duty. Event abstract expressive works like The Terminator or Alien reference timeless fears, a paranoia of mankind’s lack of agency in the former and sexual violence in the latter, in times where they were heightened through rapid technological advancement. It is imperative for writers and artists to be allowed a canvas blank enough to colour their own stories into such that the quality and honesty of the product presented are preserved.
Which is why this year’s MNight should stand as a launching pad to greater heights. It was bold enough to venture into imagery which shocks and disturbs the audience. Explicit connotations of a prostitute were jarring and made me uncomfortable, yes, but this itself is a testament to how brave the team behind MNight was this year. It takes courage to show the ugly side of society, the grime, the sorrow, the pain, the truly disgusting aspects we would like to ignore, to show what they are truly, without pretence. What’s more, justifying certain acts due to desperation and a need to survive forces us to ask, what would we be doing in that scenario?
If we were such a person as Indrama, who probably got married to a fisherman with his own daughter to provide for her own son, finding herself lost when her husband goes missing, facing thugs to whom he had owed a lot of money, would we not then be selfish to prevent our son from being taken by these men to be forced into hard labour? And when an opportunity arises in the form of an old man who asks for the young daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for paying off all their debts, would we not take it? Hunger, frustration, anger, desperation, pain in that scale might be too foreign to relate to, and so are endings where nothing could be done except suffer.
As a first foray into darker marshes, this year’s MNight caught me by surprise at how well it worked, given the massive scale of the story, with so many intricacies. While imperfect, it can still be said to be charming. And this is completely ignoring the performances, from acting to a variety of dances and a dikir barat, all of which did not disappoint, but at points could have been gelled into the storyline better. But, again, that is nitpicking. It is sad to say that this is the last MNight I would be attending as graduation looms because it would be interesting to see where MSSM will go next.
What might happen is they pull back on the risqué topics to focus on more traditional ones to appease the audience. This is an unfortunate scenario that I wish would not happen. What I truly would like to see is a direct scrutiny of hypocrisy in Malaysia, either concerning the LGBTQ+ community, ethnocentrism or class discrimination, or even that which is experienced by ex-offenders. To me, Manchester MNight should be art-house-esque, removing itself from competing with MNights of bigger casts to focus on gripping storytelling and progressive elements in play production. It would also be a breath of fresh air to see more of a variety in traditional performances but not just because. In the end everything has to belong together, like we wish Malaysians to be, and not just tossed around to be finished with an uninspired vinaigrette.