The late English novelist George Orwell once said that when we set out to create Utopia, we end up creating, ironically, “a world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.”
You read this in Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm, where the very liberators of oppression end up becoming the oppressors.
For Kelvin Wong, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most active theatremakers, this exploration of an “ironic Utopia” fascinates him.
It is a theme he highlights in his upcoming original theatre play Brohemia!, which opens at Indicine in the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) on Nov 14.
The 120-minute play (with intermission) deals with themes such as toxic masculinity, power, identity, the idea of conformity and redemption set in the land of Brohemia, a haven for minorities.
“Unfortunately, in this Utopia, those who fought for the minorities’ freedom end up bullying and suppressing those who are deemed different within the new community," says Wong, who was trained at Chicago’s The Theatre School at DePaul University.
“The play is an allegory of politics, just like Animal Farm. Brohemia! is an exploration of the repercussions of masculinity when it turns toxic," he adds.
The devised play, presented in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Cantonese and Mandarin with English surtitles, is the third and last of Theatresauce 2019 season’s New Projects and will incorporate music, movement, poetry and multimedia.
Brohemia! features a strong list of performers, with experience and new energy blending well.
The ensemble, playing multiple roles, includes Aiman Aiman, 20, Cayden Diow, 22, Theyvapaalan S. Jayaratnam, 27, Darren Lee, 31, Tristen Loo, 21, Azzad Mahdzir, 37, Joshua Navin, 25 and Ashraf Modee Zain, 35.
Syamsul Azhar is the light designer for Brohemia! while the dance segment is handled by London-trained choreographer Kenny Shim. Hana Nadira and Khairi Anwar, two of Theatresauce’s 2019 Emerging Directors Lab participants, fill in as assistant directors.
Brohemia! begins as the city celebrates its 7th Annual City Parade. The Mayor (Azzad) takes this chance to launch Vitamin M, a cure-all pill for the problems in Brohemia.
While most cheer at this move, a sceptical few revolt to change the course of Brohemia – for good.
"What is the perfect man? ” asks Ashraf, whose credits include Kandang (2017) and Dato Seri (2016).
“Is the idea of being masculine and macho that defines a man? Is this ideal true or is it something that our traditions and culture imposes upon us? So the play looks at how even within a small community, there are those who say there is only one ideal and if someone goes against it, they are in the wrong," he adds.
Wong elaborates that this toxicity manifests itself in the form of discrimination, racism and ageism.
“These things have become so normalised and I want people within these communities to really think twice before they bully and harass each other. I want people to reflect upon what their politics are and stand up and say enough is enough," explains Wong.
Wong is no stranger when it comes to introducing hard-hitting issues to the theatre scene.
The Indicinelive! sketch comedy revue, which he first staged in 2010, took a critical look at our politics, social life and pop culture. Other plays which Wong directed under Theatresauce, the Subang Jaya-based theatre outfit he founded in 2016, also explored explosive themes.
They include Mike Bartlett’s Contractions (2017) and Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan’s The Bee (2018).
Brohemia! is a play that started from scratch. Work and research began in April this year, with regular cast meetings.
Wong mentions the many hours spent weaving a narrative from the personal stories shared by the cast during the devising process. The play slowly began to take shape as the director found a unifying thread in the different stories discussed.
“Brohemia! is by far the hardest thing that I have done in my 16 years of theatre, ” he says.
In the end, says Wong, Brohemia! seeks to show the importance of “embracing our ability to look at differences and respecting each others’ differences with compassion and empathy.”
Brohemia! plays at Indicine, KLPac, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in Kuala Lumpur from Nov 14-17 and Nov 19-24. Showtimes: 8.30pm. Tickets: RM63 and RM53 (concession). More info: www.klpac.org. Call: 03-4047 9000. For mature audiences only.