Like a punch in the gut

Hirzi Zulkiflie (above) and Fir Rahman (in wheelchair) in Hope.
Hirzi Zulkiflie (above) and Fir Rahman (in wheelchair) in Hope.PHOTO: ESPLANADE AND TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

REVIEW / THEATRE

HOPE

Teater Ekamatra

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Last Friday

The Malays say lucklessness is like having a ladder fall on you right after you take a tumble.

So went the plot of this play by Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma, adapted for Teater Ekamatra by Zulfadli Rashid.

Sharma, who was in the audience this evening, had written this play to explore magic realism, in which the world turns surreal.

Performed in Malay with English surtitles, Hope begins with Hadi, an inept journalist played by YouTube sensation Hirzi Zulkiflie, trying to cheer up his comatose old friend and colleague Azman (a stoic Fir Rahman) who is slumped in a wheelchair.

From Hadi's nervy chattering, it soon transpires that it was he who crashed the car that mangled his friend, a star reporter who can now score scoops only in his imagination.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the stage, gambler and hard-drinking Hairul (an assured Sani Hussin) has lost his job and so he frets about how to celebrate his daughter Ninin's (Nur Zakiah Muhd Fared) birthday. His wife Izzati (Siti Hajar Abdul Gani) greets all this with nerves as frayed as the clothes she is mending.

All of them bookend the performance by crooning mellow melodies by the ever-dependable Bani Haykal, lending acrid tang to their sorry circumstances.

Hairul makes loansharks so irate, they plaster the slice of cake he bought for Ninin down the front of his singlet, pour his illicit beer over his head and stamp on Ninin's present, a toy watch. Sani's simple, well-judged gestures in single- handedly re-enacting such banal brutality had all the force of a punch in the gut.

Against this grey-on-grey landscape plays a series of radio news bulletins about the discovery of 15 badly decomposed bodies in the Singapore River.

The worlds of the friends and the family collide when Hadi, spying Hairul staring into the river, asks for his views on the morbid find. They become drinking buddies, leaving Azman, Izzati and Ninin to languish.

In a very moving moment of suspended belief, Izzati recalls a story about how God fashions people from mud, "throwing" them to Earth. Thus does Sharma convey the futility of living.

With just her voice, Siti Hajar commanded the audience's attention throughout. There is a fine line between seeming overwrought and going overboard with emotion and she treaded it masterfully, complementing Muhd Fared Jainal's sure, simple and clean direction of Sharma's idea-rich play.

As Azman rises from his wheelchair and places miniature terracotta-hued buildings and dolls about the stage, Izzati urges him to seize whatever is left of him and live on. Azman does snap out of self-pity, but is he too late to stop Hadi from smothering him to slake the latter's guilt?

Like rats aboard a sinking ship, Hadi and Hairul clamber over uneven-sized platforms while a voiceover announces that the authorities will pave a public park over the site where the bodies had been fished out.

Sharma had once said that he hoped this play would not convey hopelessness. But it did, with an unremittingly grim ending. That was not at all bad, though, because he and Ekamatra had writ reality so large, it likely made the audience look more kindly on the disenfranchised.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Like a punch in the gut'. Print Edition | Subscribe