Five Arts Centre’s Walls is an intriguing study of alienation and identity in modern Malaysia.
A devised play explores alienation, identity and restriction with a tale of a woman cut off from the world by an invisible wall.
The story of Walls first began one year ago, on a very cold and lonely February winter in Berlin, Germany.
Director Hari Azizan had just watched The Wall, a film based on a German modern classic book by Marlen Haushofer. The show’s heroine, played by Martina Gedeck, reminded her of acclaimed Malaysian actress Mislina Mustaffa, who she had always wanted to work with.
When she returned to her home country, the images from the film stuck with her.
“Back in Malaysia, being besieged by the political/election propaganda and apocalypse texts and images got me thinking about how great it would be if we could have a wall to cut off the nonsense or the ‘ugly’ parts of life, and start afresh by going back to basics,” said Hari in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“Seriously, why were we getting worked up about dogs, body tattoos, sexy clothes, K-pop stars, etc, when there were more important things to worry about like the global economy, war, global warming and even the 2012 Mayan apocalypse? Why were we wasting energy getting so offended and angry all the time? The world was going to end and we were all going to die.”
Inspired, Hari joined forces with fellow director Wong Tay Sy. The duo devised Walls, an intriguing study of alienation and identity in modern Malaysia, where one’s personal space is being constricted every day by moral guardians and political forces.
The show tells of a woman who wakes up in Janda Baik to find an invisible wall isolating her from the world.
With only a few animals for company, she tries to create a new landscape from what’s left of the old world.
Through the interplay of text, sound, body and space, Walls aims to explore how man-made barriers divide us, and what they stand for when there is nothing left of humanity. The thought-provoking play will also take a hard look at (wo)man’s relationship with the environment.
Speaking on the play’s themes of restriction, both directors expressed they were firmly against the idea of censorship.
“It is affecting not only our imagination and creativity but also our ability to think critically about even the ordinary things in our daily life,” added Hari.
“I am against anything that condenses imagination and innovation,” said Wong.
“The scariest part of censorship in Malaysia is that we self-censor before we are even being censored.”
Back to the play, Hari added they would be using the elements of text, image, body, sound, light and set to create a world where the audience can experience the different layers of walls and boundaries.
“We would like the audiences to experience an atmospheric sensation through the visuals, audio, acting and stage direction,” added Wong. Hari said the most challenging part of the staging had been its tone.
“(We tried) not to lose ourselves in the bleakness and infuse some light and hope. But really, with tragedy and discomfort, right?” she said.
“Another challenge is how to present the animals, of course – our producer Mark Teh wouldn’t let us have real animals!”
The show features only two actors, Mislina Mustaffa and visual/performance artist chi too. Mislina plays The Woman, who she described as “trapped in her own walls and later trapped in the invisible wall in Janda Baik, but who eventually makes peace with the invisible wall that cuts her off from all the ‘noise’ outside.”
Asked if it was difficult to get into character, the actress was enigmatic.
“As Mislina Mustaffa, a Malay woman aged 42, born into a very religious family, bred and buttered in a patriarchal country and who later embarked, and still is, on her so called subversive project Homeless By Choice, who among many choices, declines the function of man as the provider of security and who herself owns several dogs, do you think she will have any problems getting into character? Maybe. Maybe not,” quipped Mislina.
Mislina said she hoped the audience would be inspired to ask “Questions” after the show.
“Where exactly is the wall? Who said the wall has to be flat and smooth? If it’s spiky or spongy or crooked or even colourful and round, wouldn’t it be a wall too if you’re stuck in it?” she asked.
“Are we inside or outside the wall? Are we in the safe zone or the danger zone? Why do we bother so much about the wall? Do walls even exist? Is it real? What exactly are the walls in our personal lives? Are we the victims or are we ourselves the wall, perhaps for others?”
Chi too, on the other hand, said getting into character was slightly challenging for him.
“I am both the husband and the dog of the protagonist. The problem is that I am a cat person. The husband behaves a bit like a cat, so that is easy to get into. The dog on the other hand ... well, is a dog, which is a real challenge for a non-actor like myself as there are so many little details that need to be taken care of,” he said.
What then, were the biggest challenges of the performance?
“The original text of this play The Wall, which provides an inspiration for our performance, is a highly descriptive and visual novel. The story is about a woman stuck by herself, and that means that she has no one to talk to, hence there is very little dialogue, a medium commonly used in theatre to tell stories. The challenge for me has always been how to adapt such a highly-visual story onto a stage where we are stripped of the luxuries of the vehicles film and literature,” he added.
“That, and acting as a dog,” he quipped.
>Walls is playing at Black Box in Publika, Kuala Lumpur on Nov 9, 12–16 at 8.30pm and Nov 10 and 17 at 3pm. Tickets: RM55/RM25 (students and senior citizens).