New version of 1970s Malay theatre play channels contemporary existential angst


What's behind the door?: Award-winning actor Ashraf plays Adam in 'Bukan Bunuh Diri', a struggling artist who questions his existence. Photo: Azmi Hud

Che Shamsuddin Othman’s 1975 play Bukan Bunuh Diri, which was first staged at Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur, is not the easiest of plays to understand.

Indeed, this story of a struggling artist who questions his purpose in life grapples with hard-hitting themes such as existentialism and the search for the divine.

In fact, Dinsman, as the playwright/director is more commonly known, wrote the play at a time when he was questioning his very existence and that of God’s.

Not to mention, his writing was inspired by Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco, whose plays are infamously known to depict the insignificance of human existence.

But in director Low Yee Choy’s new staging of Bukan Bunuh Diri, these tough questions are delicately examined and dissected.

Undoubtedly, it is no easy task to unpack this deeply personal absurdist play. Choy, as he prefers to be known, had to read Bukan Bunuh Diri at least six times before he could wrap his head around the play’s unusual narrative and deep themes.

However, it was these philosophical quandaries that first caught the 20-year-old Choy’s attention.

Born in Kuching, Sarawak, Choy got to know about the play in one of his classes at Sunway University, where he is pursuing a diploma in performing arts.

Director Choy (left) discussing the show at a rehearsal with Ashraf and Ng, who plays Dewi. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahDirector Choy (left) discussing the show at a rehearsal with Ashraf and Ng, who plays Dewi. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“I was instantly intrigued by it. There was a personal connection to the script because of what the play was trying to explore.

“It questions the existence of God and finding meaning and purpose in life. I feel these are questions many of us ask, especially at our lowest point in life, ” says Choy, sharing that he himself had similar experiences before.

Bukan Bunuh Diri is set to open at Serambi Karya Bellamy in Kuala Lumpur on March 11 and will be presented in Bahasa Malaysia with no surtitles. It is the first of five plays in Shah Alam-based theatre company Anomalist Production’s 2020 season.

This marks Choy’s first full-length play, whose directing credits include a church play and short devised plays as part of his performing arts course. Choy is currently an intern with Anomalist Production.

Bukan Bunuh Diri features Ashraf Modee Zain and Grace Ng. Sara Meera designs the stage projections while sound engineer and radio station producer Azlee Yusman handles the soundscapes.

The plot focuses on Adam (Ashraf) who finds no meaning in his life and questions his existence. Dejected and without hope, Adam sets a near impossible goal for himself – meeting God.

He settles on an unconventional and controversial method to achieve that – by committing suicide. But as he stands in front of a noose, a mysterious and otherworldly figure named Dewi (Ng) stops him.

'I do wonder a lot about the life that we all go through and if there’s any meaning to it besides the meaning that we place on it,' says actor Ashraf. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah'I do wonder a lot about the life that we all go through and if there’s any meaning to it besides the meaning that we place on it,' says actor Ashraf. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Choy, who drew inspiration from US filmmaker Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) – a movie about an introvert writer who falls in love with an Artificial Intelligence system – for character treatment, quickly points out that the two-hander is not necessarily a play about suicide.

“Adam’s goal is not to end his life but to meet God. He has given up on life and finds no purpose in it. For him, only God, as the creator of everything, knows everything. Since he doesn’t know his meaning in life anymore, it makes perfect sense for him to take his life so that he can meet God and ask Him all these questions, ” explains Choy.

Speaking about his character, Ashraf, 36, says he shares Adam’s questions about life and its meaning.

“I do wonder a lot about the life that we all go through and if there’s any meaning to it besides the meaning that we place on it.

“Is this it? Or will I receive the meaning of all this one day, later in life. Do we have a purpose here or are we just the product of procreation?

“Until now, I have no idea how to get the answers. Maybe it’s a life-long mission to actually get one, ” shares Ashraf, who received the Best Actor award in the 2018 Boh Cameronian Arts Award for his role as Tunggal in Kandang, an adaptation of George Orwell’s seminal book Animal Farm.

“But I find some comfort in not knowing as well or in giving my own meaning to life, which may be true or false to someone else but it’s true to me, ” adds Ashraf, whose acting credits include Brohemia! (2019) and Dato’ Seri (2016).

'Bukan Bunuh Diri' marks Ng’s last theatre production. 'Theatre has made me a great actor and blessed me with amazing connections. Now, it is time to move on,' says Ng. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah'Bukan Bunuh Diri' marks Ng’s last theatre production. 'Theatre has made me a great actor and blessed me with amazing connections. Now, it is time to move on,' says Ng. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Ng, who plays the unseen Dewi, whom she says is “the feminine voice of care and reason to Adam’s ego” agrees with Ashraf.

“The thoughts of the character are definitely something that a lot of us can relate to. Adam goes into a frantic state of mental imbalance due to issues related to family, society and religion.

“He longs for answers. I can relate to that as there was once in my life where I searched for meaning too, ” says Ng, an actor in her 30s. Her stage credits include Indicinelive! 6 (2019), Stories For Amah (2019) and Bare Beckett (2016).

Ultimately, Choy believes that it is these individual experiences that creates multiple entry points to the play, making this absurdist story accessible.

“Every audience member comes from a different set of background, culture and beliefs. Their upbringing and what they believe in would really affect what their takeaway is. I feel people would leave the play having different answers, ” concludes Choy.

Bukan Bunuh Diri opens on March 11 at Serambi Karya Bellamy, Rumah Meranti 2, Jalan Bellamy, Bukit Petaling in KL. Dates: March 11-15 (8.30pm) with 3.30pm shows on March 14 and 15. Tickets: RM45 and RM35 (concession). Details: anomalistproduction.com. For mature audiences only.

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