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Saturday October 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday October 19, 2013 MYT 8:56:18 AM
by rouwen lin
For the upcoming 15th anniversary run of Atomic Jaya in Singapore, actress-director Claire Wong (right), and fellow thespian Karen Tan will be juggling 16 vastly different characters in the space of 100 minutes. — Zakaria Zainal/ Checkpoint Theatre
The satirical Atomic Jaya celebrates its 15th anniversary in Singapore next week.
IT’S quite the milestone for Malaysia, this building of the region’s first atomic bomb. And for intrepid physicist Dr Mary Yuen, it’s so much more than that. It is a way out of her humdrum job, a great opportunity to pit her wits against the best … and shh, isn’t it just so exciting to be working on a top secret national project?
More excitement than she bargained for, that’s for sure – especially when she finds herself talking to a uranium smuggler today, a cabinet minister tomorrow, and an army general with a Napoleonic fixation the day after.
Atomic Jaya, written by Huzir Sulaiman, was first produced by Straits Theatre Company in 1998, in Kuala Lumpur. Originally conceived as a one-woman show, it was performed by Jo Kukathas, with Huzir directing. It was subsequently performed in Singapore in 2001 by Claire Wong, with Krishen Jit directing.
Other takes on this production see two actors gleefully juggling the mad assortment of characters in the play between them. The latest offering by Checkpoint Theatre in Singapore is no different; Wong and Karen Tan will take on a total of 16 characters in Atomic Jaya.
In an e-mail interview with Huzir, the Singapore-based Malaysian playwright comments that what is nice about having two actors is that “you get to see one actor reacting to the other, which really multiplies the hilarity!”
“It is important to consider all the characters individuals, with their own goals and their own hidden depths,” he adds.
To that end, Huzir, the cast, and the designers, went over the 16 characters with a fine-tooth comb in a workshop at the beginning of the process for this production, and discussed what made each of them tick.
He also recalls the inspiration of this madcap comedy when he wrote it 15 years ago: “It was the time of mega-projects, an ambitious attempt to put Malaysia on the map, which succeeded in the end, but not without growing pains, many of which are still being felt today.”
The delightfully outrageous idea behind Atomic Jaya was a result of his wanting to look at “the most absurd possible mega-project as a way of unpacking our national obsessions and foibles.”
“And what would that be? The atomic bomb of course!” he says.
One wonders if the play would turn out differently if he were to put pen to paper today, instead of over a decade ago. After all, surely the world – and its viewpoint on nuclear power, satirical or not – has evolved.
But Huzir is convinced that there are some things around us that just do not – or have not – change.
“The threat of nuclear proliferation hasn’t gone away in the last 15 years; it’s the same script but with different countries assigned the role of the villain,” he observes.
“Everybody tries to either enrich their own uranium or obtain it from some shady source. So the play is startlingly – some might say tragically – relevant.”
Atomic Jaya has certainly stood the test of time. The satire has been performed several times in Singapore and Malaysia.
In 2007, it was presented as a rehearsed reading at Asia House in London, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in the United States. There have been numerous student productions along the way, but the last professional production in Malaysia was Checkpoint Theatre’s tour to Kuala Lumpur in 2003, acted by Checkpoint Theatre’s joint artistic directors Huzir and his wife, actress-director Wong.
“I’ve tried never to repeat myself in my writing, whether in form or content. So in that sense every play is different,” says Huzir. “But Atomic Jaya occupies a special place as it was my first full-length play and was fortunate enough to be well received.”
Well received is perhaps an understatement.
Atomic Jaya has been published by Silverfish Books in Huzir Sulaiman’s collection of plays, Eight Plays, as well as in his newest publication, Huzir Sulaiman: Collected Plays 1998-2012, published this year by Checkpoint Theatre. The play has also been translated into Japanese.
When asked what the secret behind the play’s success is, Huzir modestly offers: “I’ve been told that it captures the foibles and absurdity of Malaysian life, but in a way that celebrates them.”
Plus, it is ultimately a play about personal choices, a topic near and dear to many.
“Mary Yuen’s moral dilemma about building the bomb echoes the tough decisions many of us make in life about whether to go down certain paths that lead to fulfilment, but at a cost. In asking ‘What would happen if Malaysia were to build an atomic bomb?’ it juxtaposes a very local situation with global geo-politics,” he says.
As for when Atomic Jaya will be next staged in Malaysia, Huzir says he is always open to the idea.
“It’s just about finding the time, space and funding for us to do a tour. But I’d also be happy for someone else to take it on with their own version – so long as they ask for permission!”
> Atomic Jaya will be staged at Sota Drama Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive, Singapore, from Oct 24 to Nov 1, at 8pm (Tuesday to Friday) and 3pm and 8pm (Saturday and Sunday). Tickets are available from Sistic; call +65 6348 5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg. Atomic Jaya, written and directed by Huzir Sulaiman, stars Claire Wong and Karen Tan in this production. It celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
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Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment, Atomic Jaya, Huzir Sulaiman, Sistic
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