Theatre review: Father-son duo bring out raw, tender emotions

The Malay Man And His Chinese Father played by Yazid Jalil and Michael Tan respectively. -- PHOTO: SHAWN DANKER
The Malay Man And His Chinese Father played by Yazid Jalil and Michael Tan respectively. -- PHOTO: SHAWN DANKER

There is something very powerful about a pared-down production.

Without dialogue, showy theatrics and intricate sets, the audience is left to focus on the actors' actions amid a spartan environment in order to unpack meaning and get to the heart of the playwright's intentions.

When done well, it leaves the audience with layers of images and ideas that continue to linger in the mind long after the curtain call.

The Malay Man And His Chinese Father, which explores the symbiotic relationship between a son (Yazid Jalil) and his elderly father (Michael Tan), is one such a production.

Dressed for the most part in white boxer briefs, the actors were literally and figuratively stripped bare, forced to use every inch of their bodies to portray their complex emotional topographies and relationship.

A rise and fall of a ribcage could imply fear, while a tender hug could give way to a physical struggle, suggesting surpressed resentment.

Conspicuously missing a mother-wife figure, they go about rituals that run the gamut between being tender to plain bizarre - such as the son helping his father wash himself, and the father dressing his son in a red kebaya complete with corset and matching lipstick.

However, the show at National Museum's Gallery Theatre is not without a female presence, as voice artist Asnida Daud ably fills the void with her vocal stylistics. Whether singing, scatting, whispering and even tongue-lolling, her voice reminds the audience that the memory of the mother lives on through those who survived her.

The ideas raised in the show, created by Noor Effendy Ibrahim of ponggurl, are deliciously multi-layered.

On a micro scale, the pair's co-dependence echo the circle of life, with the power balance see-sawing between the birth of the son and the impending death of the ageing father.

On a slightly larger level, there were reminders of their different races - the Javanese kebaya donned by the son versus the children's song, Shi Shang Zhi You Mama Hao (On Earth, Only Mother Is Good), sung by the father. The song was used in a popular children's milk powder commercial here in the 1990s.

The political undertones of a white-clad Chinese father who dresses his son in a bright red kebaya is acknowledged by Noor Effendy. During the post-show dialogue, he said that the father is reminiscent of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Compared to his past productions - last year's Joget, Abang, Joget was a heady mix of razor blades, leather and skin-on-skin contact - this new 80-minute show is relatively tame.

But it is no less physically demanding. The bare bones production was complemented by the lighting design of Helmi Fita, which highlighted every muscle on the actors' bodies, bringing out the rawness of their performances.

Admirably, 65-year-old Tan matched his co-actor, who is not even half his age, in stamina, even managing to carry him more than once during the show. This was on top of a durational performance during the day which involved the pair going through endless routines as their characters for three hours straight.

Admittedly, physical pieces such as The Malay Man are not for everyone. With repetitive actions and no lines to hang on to, you are made to work slightly harder to question the choices made by the artists, to think of the fate of an achingly tender father-and-son duo well into the dark night.