Highlights of George Town Festival 2015

You may have missed some, or even all, of the events. As consolation, Penang Monthly herewith provides you with a (subjective) recap of some events from this year’s George Town Festival (GTF).

 

The Metamorphosis, Android Version

In France sometime in the near future, as war rages in the background, Gregor wakes up one morning to find that he’s (1) physically unable to get out of bed, and (2) a robot.

Then his family finds out.

The Metamorphosis is a play entirely told in French, the result of a collaboration between the Seinendan Theatre Company and Osaka University’s Robot Theatre Project, where they re-imagine the classic Franz Kafka novella of the same name, substituting the insect for a Highlights of George Town Festival 2015 robot. The robot is controlled remotely behind the scenes while very real actors engage with it. The cause of the transformation, as in the original story, is never explained.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Instead, the whole play, taking place in Gregor’s bedroom, revolves first around his family trying to come to terms with his transformation, and then later on around what it actually means to be human. It has a lot to say, but doesn’t always say it very well. It voices at length how terrible war is; and it tries to build a contrast between the human cost of war and Gregor’s new state, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There are some interesting moments when the play argues over what it means to be “alive” – both from a biological standpoint and a philosophical one. Most of the time, though, what you actually get are lengthy anti-war monologues you could have read on someone’s blog.

Where it does work comes during its very human interactions. The robot puppet, once you get over the novelty of it, becomes a believable character thanks to the tremendous work of the human cast. At its heart, Metamorphosis is an exploration of the struggles we face to stay human in the midst of upheaval, and that’s where it shines best.

100% Penang

This year, GTF finally opened with a Penang-centric show. 100% Penang is raw, honest and relatable. One hundred amateurs staging a performance based on statistics was just the opening GTF needed. The 100 ordinary citizens, each representing one per cent of Penang’s diverse population, shared their stories and answered questions to transform statistics into a living, breathing, feeling and ever-changing human drama.

It was interesting to see and hear the opinions of the general public on the latest and current issues – even sensitive ones such as sexuality, politics and corruption. No doubt some might have hesitated to answer when it came to their tax returns, but the completely blacked out stage helped to maintain anonymity. At a certain point, participants moved to the centre of the staircase, making statements such as “We were raised without a father/mother/parent”, “We survived cancer”, “We believe that we won’t be alive in 10 years/20 years/30 years…”

These statements remind us that 100% is not merely a performance; it’s where we are today.

Butterworth Fringe Festival

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

What made GTF this year extra special was the inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival (BFF) – a charming and long overdue idea. Taiwanese acrobat Isaac Hou’s performance was a definite crowd puller; Hou had the crowd spellbound with his excellent balancing act with the Cyr wheel. Another was Welcome2 Flatland by TerryandTheCuz; the creative re-imagination of Edward A. Abbott’s novella was made possible with interactive features and plenty of creative fun. Cette Immense Intimite by French dance troupe Retouramont was liberating to say the least; it was a duet between the dancer and the wall – in mid-air! Japan Foundation’s Bunraku Puppet show was a haunting experience; the puppets were each assigned to three puppeteers to show immense display of teamwork and artistry. The incorporation of vintage Vespas brought an old school vibe to the festival, while there was also a book fair, screening of Malay classics and an exhibition of French food and products.

However, BFF has a long way to go yet before it can stand on its own. Perhaps the amount of space allocated was too ambitious and it did not alter Jalan Jeti Lama’s reputation as a sleepy town much. At times, the festival looked a little empty.

But then, this was the inaugural festival. And so, all in, well done.

Am I

After last year’s laid back performance of Trolley, Shaun Parker & Co were back again this year with the explosive Am I.

A blinding display of light representing the Big Bang begins the show, along with the wonderful voice of a storyteller to help things along. Parker’s latest choreography asks the eternal question: Who am I? “I” is explored through various movements, spoken words, beating drums, stages of existence and most importantly theatrical displays. Using cosmology, biology and anthropology, the performers bring to live evolution, consciousness and society. Even spirituality is not spared when the dancers portray God in various forms, religions and sects.

The dancers performed to a multi-ethnic score that is a highlight in itself. The sound of the shruti box at a distance, the beating drum and the haunting chorus long lingered beyond the walls of Dewan Sri Pinang. Both music and movement of the dancers complemented each other perfectly. There is a clear influence of Indian, tribal and medieval sounds in Nick Wales’ composing. The musicians remain seated on a seemingly floating pedestal above the dancers and are made visible through occasional faint lighting.

The storyteller’s spoken words too are something to ponder about. Beautifully written and well performed, Am I is essentially a human drama – very relatable at this time and age, and certainly worth re-watching.

All Things Malaysian (ATM)

All Things Malaysian (ATM) took place on the eve of Merdeka Day and provided cultural performances, street food, music and handmade crafts.

This year, Tempatan Fest occupied a whole street. The touring fest brought along their best and even offered local shirts and other merchandise.

RevoEvo or Revolution Evolution was a treat for techno fans and featured live audio-visuals inspired by cycling combined with technology and music. Perhaps because it was performed in an old shophouse, the whole show had an underground feel to it.

For book lovers, Anis Suhaila’s “My Date is a Book” was a quaint idea. Books were sold completely wrapped in brown paper to conceal the title. Customers chose their book based on a quote from the book, which gave avid book lovers the chance to read new titles.

Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Canon played host to some great shows too. Dance performances such as Rehab showcased two skilled dancers grappling with concepts of rebirth. Randai, on the other hand, was a fresh take on the Minangkabau folk theatre combined with silat. The show was performed inside a circle formed by silat practitioners; however, the lack of microphones rendered the dialogues inaudible.

ATM this year was so jam-packed that one could have easily missed the beginning of another show. Festival goers were treated to a concert-like event with music courtesy of EUPE. The musical showcase included Liyanna Dizzy, James Boyle and White Percussion Unit. This broad range of performances was the curtain closer for this year’s GTF.

Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue

If I’m to be very honest, this was the oddest puppet show I had ever come across. It was unsettling, haunting and, above all, very clever.

Anna Skubik, internationally acclaimed puppeteer and actress, plays worn-out Marlene Dietrich, and at the same time, her young nurse. The script is written and directed by Romuald Wicza-Pokojski, but it is Skubik who brings it to life. The story follows the dysfunctional relationship between Dietrich, a German-American actress who resided in Paris in her old age, and Gloria, her nurse. Both are somewhat reliant on each other, but there is an unexpected whiff of sexual tension between the two, tainted by envy of youth on Dietrich’s part and malicious mocking from Gloria.

Karen Lai


Skubik convincingly embodies both personas: the eccentric and melodramatic Dietrich who, at that point in her life, was starved of the attention she had so gotten so accustomed to, and the dependable but constrained Gloria. She weaves both roles together so tightly that it becomes sometimes hard to find the boundary between the two.

The play goes through the highs and lows of a typical day in the Dietrich household. It is a constant roller coaster, the dialogue flinging from high-pitched tempers (mainly on Dietrich’s part) to subdued banalities. But boring, the play never is. It keeps you waiting for the next of Dietrich’s dramas.

On stage, there is nothing but a large old-fashioned suitcase concealing an antique vanity dresser and a cupboard full of elegant dresses. This scarcity of props emphasises Skubik’s ability to transport audiences to another world.

This is a beautiful and cunning drama, definitely deserving of a standing ovation.

Slow Sound of Snow

Written by Payam Saeidi and Jaber Ramezani, Slow Sound of Snow is an experimental play. It is based on Turkish playwright Tuncer Cucenoglu’s The Avalanche. It is produced by Iranian theatre troupe A Hole in the Wall, which was awarded Best Student Theatre Group in Iran in 2010. The group has been producing plays since 2008.

The story puts a family’s life under the microscope. But not just any family. This is a family living in a house precariously perched on a cliff, in winter. Everyone lives in constant fear of the smallest sound triggering a fatal avalanche. Every movement is slow and soundless. But there’s a small hiccup: a woman in the household is pregnant. The devastatingly loud sounds she and her baby will make can kill the entire family.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Her in-laws perceive the woman’s existence with practical contempt and are ready to bury her alive when her labour pains start. But the would-be father threatens to retaliate by playing his guitar loudly. Idols and symbols appear in the form of a wolf in a suit: it gives as well as takes away life.

For the first 10 minutes of the play, there is nothing but darkness on stage and the occasional sound of water dripping. Because movement is so rare and so slow, every perceptible action becomes a highlight. It makes the audience hypersensitive towards each movement.

Sounds that form white noise are intentionally amplified. So when an avalanche almost happens, it is deafening, and the chaos, confusion and terror feel overwhelmingly real.

On one hand, it creates space for thinking. On the other hand, the slowness of it all becomes tedious and, after a while, seems a little unnecessary. The play consists largely of mundane daily occurrences, like chewing food and sleeping.

The concentration and discipline the actors show on stage are impressive. Each minute detail is perfected. However, the inconsistent subtitles detract slightly from it. Overall, the play feels more like a practiced exercise than anything else. It is beautifully written and orchestrated though, but it does make me wonder if the writers know that movement can be fast and quiet at the same time.

SK!N

Sometimes we need to walk a mile in a person’s shoes to even begin to understand him or her. Produced by award winning Malaysian performing arts company TerryandtheCuz and Melbourne-based performance maker Ashley Dyer, SK!N is an interactive contemporary dance performance based on true stories of human trafficking.

To understand what refugees go through, TerryandtheCuz worked with various bodies, including Tenaganita, an NGO that advocates the rights of women, migrants and refugees; Alliance of Chin Refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The reception was impressive. The performance itself was oversubscribed, and many who turned up without prior registration had to be put on a waiting list.

The lucky participants were made to feel like refugees, seeking shelter in Malaysia. Our journey began at a run-down shophouse. These refugees filled in an application form and even signed a waiver form, relieving GTF of all liabilities. All valuables had to be surrendered. We were then led into the shophouse, where everyone was systematically marked with a marker pen and physically assessed by solemn-faced workers. Any communication among the refugees was completely off limits. There was an odd mixture of curiosity and anxiety in the room. Being uncertain of what to expect, a sense of camaraderie grew among the participants, even if only fleetingly. But because none of us came with desperation in our hearts, what we experienced was of course far from what migrants and refugees actually go through.

SK!N was performed at ATM @ Beach Street, staged in cargo containers lined up side by side. Enigmatic dancers Suhaili Micheline and J. S. Wong retold migrants’ horror stories with bold, electrifying choreography. Their movements were almost convulsive, conveying a sense of the urgent desperation and frustration that refugees often feel. Their stares, at times were blank, at times accusing, depicted the alienation that those who are persecuted know so well. Micheline and Wong are both masters of their art, and did an achingly beautiful job portraying the physical and mental torture refugees are subjected to.

Titanium

Titanium is a dance performance brought by Rojas and Rodriguez, which infuses hip hop, flamenco and break dance into one entertaining and highly energetic performance. Through a series of highly intense movements and background music, Titanium exudes a constant state of tension and suspense, lifting the audience onto their feet all the time.

The dance choreography was superb – the dancers were in sync with each other yet individually channelling energy to the audience with their powerful step routine. Throughout, a variety of dance styles and props were used to add allure to the fascinated spectators.

Perhaps the most impactful was the break dance circle near the end of the show. Nine dancers formed a circle at the right side of the stage, and each took turns to showcase their break dance skills and flamenco footwork. The audience clapped along and cheered at every thrilling stunt.

The show was rewarded with a standing ovation. Rojas and Rodrique cleverly and effectively put together an artistic and lively performance. The fiery and lively dancing took place to the accompaniment of variedly paced Egyptian-style instrumental music.

Exhibitions that linger in our minds

Transit

As part of the Causeway Exchange exhibition series, Transit was a collection of personal and candid portraits. The up-close portraits of commuters revealed drama in our daily lives that we might not have realised before. The series of photographs was by Edwin Koo and was aimed at capturing the theatrical reality of Singapore’s multiracial passengers on the MRT. Each portrait, if looked at long enough, had a separate story to tell.

Totem

Totem featured 15 modern-day portraits of Malaysian women dressed in traditional costumes. There were some familiar faces, like Bernice Chauly, Bizhu and January Low. The contemporary photography project fused past ideas with present ideas of femininity and of the roles women play. The beautifully haunting images made us ponder women, ancestry and garments, and at a far deeper level. Yes, the exhibition was housed in a dilapidated shophouse, but everything else about it was modern and intriguing.



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