Theatre show finds hidden drama in 'ordinary' woman's life

  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 26 Apr 2023

Ling Tang is set to perform in three languages - English, Mandarin and Cantonese - in the one-actor 'Material Woman In The Beauty World' theatre show in Kuala Lumpur this weekend. Photo: Handout

Material Woman In The Beauty World is the latest play by acclaimed theatre veteran and playwright Leow Puay Tin.

The play explores the physical and emotional portrait of an "ordinary" woman in her 50s as she navigates through the varied challenges and circumstances of life.

The one-actor show, performed by Ling Tang, will be staged at the Five Arts Centre space in GMBB KL on April 29 and the Indicine theatre at KLPac on April 30. It will later premier at the George Town Festival in Penang in July.

Tang's character is an unnamed Chinese-Cantonese woman, known as "Material Woman," who works as a beautician and has a tight-knit, supportive group of friends.

She is trustworthy, kind, good, and hardworking; she is a person who works with her hands. She is the face of resilience and courage, facing the harsh realities of life. She invites us to consider the often neglected and peripheral narratives and lives of women in Malaysian (and wider) society.

The play was first conceived during the pandemic when writing was an outlet for Leow to express her reflections on the lives of those she interacted with. This included her family members, close friends, and the women she would come to know through beauty care services. These individuals and their experiences gave life to the "Material Woman" and supplementary narratives for other characters, over 10, which can be found throughout the play.

“This character has a foundation; there’s a core about her. Her life is about this physical existence in our very harsh world. I found her voice very interesting, so I began to conceive this as a stage play,” says Leow, who is known for her innovative writing and theatre productions such as Three Children, Family and A Modern Woman Called Ang Tau Mui.

The script for Material Woman In The Beauty World was first performed in June 2022 (at Five Arts Centre in KL) as a rehearsed reading by three women in their early 20s.

'The play is also a realistic representation of what can go wrong in a marriage and how you survive it,' says Leow, the playwright. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani'The play is also a realistic representation of what can go wrong in a marriage and how you survive it,' says Leow, the playwright. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

However, the upcoming one-woman staged readings, directed by Tung Jit Yang, will see different versions of the play based on three languages – English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Leow, who has been examining the relationship between theatre and language, talked about how the play is an experiment (of sorts) with language, using it to build a bridge between and among audience members.

“I wanted to cross the invisible boundaries that often come with language use in theatre settings. Because the main character is of Chinese ethnicity, I felt that Chinese theatre audiences might not engage with the play unless she spoke in her own language," says Leow.

"That was why the script was translated from English to Cantonese and later to Mandarin. By presenting the play in three individual productions, of three languages, I hope to create a platform for audience members of different language backgrounds to engage and experience the play in a shared space,” she adds.

The accessibility that comes with languages is intriguing, and aspects of the way Malaysians speak and our negotiations of the different languages we speak will be evident throughout the play.

The biggest challenge, therefore, lies on the shoulders of Tang, who not only carries the one-woman production but also three different versions of the same characters.

“Even within these three versions, the characters feel very different. The most challenging aspect for me is performing the character in Mandarin because the Mandarin we speak in Malaysia is very different from the kind I was trained in China. So I am very aware of how I pronounce words and utter phrases to ensure it is closer to our local context,” says Tang, who was recently nominated as best director for the theatre show Ibu (by Iron Gang Puppet Theatre) at the upcoming Boh Cameronian Arts Awards next month.

Tang (left) and director Tung taking down the intricacies of language during a rehearsal session for the theatre show 'Material Woman In The Beauty World'. Photo: HandoutTang (left) and director Tung taking down the intricacies of language during a rehearsal session for the theatre show 'Material Woman In The Beauty World'. Photo: Handout

“Performing the character in Cantonese was easier because I speak the language in my everyday life, and there was a greater familiarity in embodying the character. However, the English-speaking character is the most interesting because I had greater flexibility and space to perform,” she adds.

The aspect of language use, body movement, tone, and performance of characters is definitely a unique experience for theatre enthusiasts, especially one that highlights the colourful negotiations of the Malaysian language profile.

An audience member attending all three versions of the readings will experience different representations of the same characters, providing opportunities to dig deeper into the text and what it reveals.

But more so, Material Woman In The Beauty World is relevant across the ages. It is a representation of what it means to be a daughter, a wife, and a mother, as well as the power of strong, supportive friendships. It is particularly inspiring for younger generations, who may find similar threads between the play and their lives.

“There are universal desires in life – of company, love, security, hope that people can relate to. Perhaps what I want the younger generation, especially, to take away is that adults don’t always have the answers, and some things can’t always be easily fixed. Some things take time, which is all part of the process,” says Leow.

“The play is also a realistic representation of what can go wrong in a marriage and how you survive it. In many ways, it is a peak into what the future can be and a gentle encouragement for women to be seen and heard,” she concludes.

The one-woman staged readings of Material Woman In The Beauty World will be performed at Five Arts Centre in KL on April 29 and KLPac on April 30. More info here.

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