Why the Caged Bird Sings
Impenjarament by Teater Ekamatra was a devised ensemble performance about prison life scripted by Alin "Aidli" Mosbit and based partially on interviews with current and former prisoners.
If your play's supposed to take place in a prison, you'd better make sure you've got a set to back it up. Fortunately, Noor Effendy Ibrahim's design was immersive and powerfully evocative.
Several individual cells, each just large enough to contain two prisoners claustrophobically, were positioned on the edge of an open, central area. Branching off from this central area was a row of toilets on one side and a solitary confinement unit on the other. The solitary unit was entirely enclosed, and what happened inside it could only be seen on the many black and white CCTVs that dotted the playing area.
Everything was solidly constructed and looked functional and institutional. The cells had tall bars and clanking iron gangways for floors; the toilets were basic but fully plumbed; each area was lit with its own harsh but dim fluorescent strip lights; the wiring was left uncovered and was pinned in straight lines to the walls. All was hard, soulless, intimidating.
Most importantly, the audience was seated between and around the different set elements. Most people were seated on the large banks of chairs at the periphery, meaning that most of the play's action took place in front of them and some of it to the side; but there were also small islands of chairs positioned very near the centre of the playing area so that the people sitting on them sometimes had to turn around completely to see what was going on. This had the effect of putting the audience inside the play - and even though I was seated more or less on the outside, I felt involved because I empathised with the poor souls in the middle. In this way, the set successfully blurred the line between performer and spectator.
Another advantage of this unconventional stage arrangement was that, just like a prisoner, you couldn't always see what was happening around you, but you could always hear it. Director Alin exploited this adroitly: some of her strongest scenes had the actors situated in different, semi-obstructed playing areas (so that you craned your neck to see them) and also had them making irritating or cacophonous noises (so that you wished you could turn off your ears). In most plays, direction like this would have driven me mad, but here it was exactly the right choice and added to the empathy the prisoners and visitors shared.
The cast was also very strong. As is often the case with devised shows, each of the actors had a regular role (as a prisoner), along with occasional turns as girlfriends, wives, wardens, etc. Some of the performances were excellent: Sulaiman Ismail Batri, with his raised chin and exaggeratedly macho posture, showed how boyish energy can change into belligerence when there is nowhere else to put it. Mohd Hattar Sulaiman played a slow character endearingly at first and later with genuine pathos, managing to raise from cliché a role that most actors would have consigned to it. Muhammad Najib Soiman displayed hearty charisma in a stand-up-comic segment even when his back was turned. And best of all, Mohamed Kunju Noushad mimed with clarity, inventiveness and humour the story of a Madras boy arrested at Woodlands for an immigration attempt he hadn't realised was illegal - all the while accompanying himself with his own sound effects!
Indeed, movement and sound were important to the production and were essential to my two favourite scenes. In the first, Johann Sebastian Bach's Air on the G String played while the cast members mimed various actions in the central area. The music had been digitally manipulated so that it seemed as if it was sometimes being played close by, sometimes far away, sometimes with the echo of a large room, sometimes with the tinniness of a small speaker. As it played, the actors mimed slow-dancing with no partner, or examining their faces in the mirror, or tentatively reaching out to touch someone. Gani Karim's stripped-down choreography found essential truths in everyday actions and Zubir Abdullah's manipulated music added loneliness and distance. Together, the music and the mime told how time passes: mundanely, predictably, and punctuated by the realisation of loss.
In the second, Najib sang in Malay a hymn of yearning and submission accompanied by the vocal harmonies, countermelodies and percussion of his fellow cast members as they all slowly marched off the stage. The hymn's wrenchingly elegiac minor chords coupled with the rawness of Najib's voice and bearing made his song a naked, desperate attempt to transform pain into grace - an attempt made achingly beautiful by its failure.
Not everything was perfect, though. Noor Effendy Ibrahim, stuck in solitary confinement, treated his role as more of an exercise in elocution than emotion, though he improved towards the end; and Paulus Simangunsong, playing a religious fanatic, needed more flashes of fire to balance his near-autistic withdrawal. But all the actors and most of the scenes were, at the very least, entirely competent.
The production's most discomfiting flaw was that it attempted to dictate the audience's reactions to what happened onstage, forcing them into laughter or tears, often against their natural inclination. There were several instances of this.
Peter Sau, playing an ah beng hawker imprisoned for violence, was very good at being funny. His chopsocky Bruce Lee moves and hyperbolic recount of the gang fight that landed him in jail were full of attention-deficit-disorder energy, like a kid beating up the final boss in a video game. He was also good at the sad parts, where he stripped away his character's exuberance and you saw how little of him was left after prison had done its work. But what Sau couldn't manage was the transition between these two poles. To be fair, it wasn't entirely his fault. Switching from comedy to tragedy in the blink of the eye may be a staple of the cheapest American sitcoms, but it can be extremely effective as long as the writing is strong. Here, however, the writing was brutally abrupt: one second Sau was up in the air, and the next he was down on the ground, landing so hard he caused an impact crater. Two of his three main scenes followed this shock-and-awe bombing tactic, and both smacked of forced sentimentalism as a result.
Effendy was even more blatant in his attempt to control the audience's reactions. As the rest of the cast left the stage for a costume change, he came on with some survey questions which he said he intended to ask at each performance and thus gradually build up a picture of Singaporeans' attitudes to prison and prisoners. His first question was, "Have you ever been to jail?" This made several people in the audience giggle, probably because the question was blunt and bluntly asked, and jail is a taboo of the kind that makes some people nervous. But nervous giggling was unacceptable to Effendy, and he scolded the audience for laughing, saying something like, "I don't think we should be laughing about that, should we?" Well, why not? The laughter was an instinctive reaction and was certainly not meant cruelly; and, more importantly, the play had been milking the humour out of prison life for about an hour already. But apparently we were only allowed to laugh when Effendy et al. said it was okay.
Effendy's hectoring was made worse by the fact that some of his survey questions were meaningless. For example, he asked something like, "Would you go to prison for a million dollars?" - but he didn't indicate how much time you'd have to spend there to get the cash. When the audience shouted out, "How long?" he seemed not to hear them, and instead reprimanded them for not answering his question. When he finally did hear them, he responded that the length of time was not important and they should just answer anyway. I found all of this rather distasteful. Like an incompetent teacher, Effendy was demanding seriousness and respect without giving them in return, and he was creating seemingly arbitrary rules of behaviour that he expected his class to follow.
I'm willing to entertain the possibility that this was intentional. Perhaps it was a ploy to make the audience feel like prisoners, subject to the whim of a warden whose authority requires no justification - but I don't think this was the case. For one thing, he seemed genuinely interested in his survey, and for another, if he had wanted to make us feel like prisoners, he would have had to push a few more buttons than he did and push them a bit harder. Altogether, it just seemed like a vaguely embarrassing lapse of judgement on his (and his director's) part.
And there was more. Towards the end of the play, Effendy sang a song about a new inmate's being raped in prison. His delivery and the song's melody were both anguished, as were many of the lyrics - but some of the lyrics were just plain funny. For example, the singer recounts how all of the inmates raped him, "from the one-inchers to the five-footers". In another play, one which had not attempted to dictate my emotional responses, I'm sure I would have found this gripping, since I usually enjoy productions that tread the line between pathos and bathos*. Impenjarament, however, had stomped around that line too clumsily, meaning that I now had no idea whether I was supposed to laugh or cry, but I expected I'd be punished if I made the wrong choice. And that made listening to the song uncomfortable - for the wrong reasons.
In not quite the same way, three more scenes demonstrated the production's insistence on seeing humour and sadness as a dichotomy. In one, three cast members shoved pillows up their shirts to act as prisoners' pregnant wives. In another, the actors wrapped themselves in shawls and did an exuberantly Pythonesque drag act as the prisoners' wailing mothers. And in the third, the cast dressed up as prison guards and squabbled pettily amongst themselves. Each of these scenes was very funny and very well-acted by all (Sau's complete abandonment of subtlety made him particularly good here). But it was disconcerting that the women and the wardens were drawn merely as cartoon caricatures while the prisoners were consistently portrayed as fully rounded human beings. It felt as if the play were saying that only the prisoners deserved our sympathy, that they alone possessed humanity - and it made me question how carefully Alin and her cast had thought about the effect prison can have on the lives of those just visiting.
Another instance of political naivety came when the ensemble tried to persuade the audience that our lives are like prison too. This is fertile ground in Singapore, and I expected to hear some telling points about Singaporeans' rights and freedoms or the notable absence thereof. I didn't get any. Instead, it seems that my life is like a prison because I get up, go to work and go to bed according to a more or less regular schedule. Hmm... I can almost see the bars... Opportunity wasted.
But the play was far more good than bad and even its flaws were interesting rather than fatal. The synopsis in the programme says that Impenjarament aims "to deliver an unlikely message of hope and kindness", and this it largely did through its humour and hurt, often with touching fragility.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /