A disturbing focus on the man through his women

In the recent production of The Sandpit: Womensis, actor Anne James played Santha, a conservative Hindu woman scorned, not so much by her husband taking another wife, as by Wife No 2’s newfangled ideas about modesty:

“The way she sits!” Anne said, scandalised. In imitation she slouched into a chair, thighs open and straining against her sari. “Like this. All the winds in the world blowing between her legs.”

It was a comic moment, and the audience couldn’t help but erupt with laughter. Humour in the play was a rare and welcome relief.

In KS Maniam’s seminal duologue (directed by Chee Sek Thim in a Five Arts Centre-Pocketsize Productions [Pocketsize] revival), the two wives of Dass – an underworld samseng who has mysteriously disappeared – worry whether he will return.

Santha is a strict traditionalist who never sits in her husband’s chair; Sumathi wears dresses and used to accompany Dass on his twilight escapades. In their separate but concurrent worry, they hand-wring through many things: traumatic childhoods; domestic abuse; their shared husband’s shrivelling health.

Heavy things – made heavier by the text’s crushing wordiness. Talking about her mother, second wife Sumathi (played by Ho Sheau Fung) says:

Sheau Fung’s Sumathi vacillated between polar emotions – defiance and vulnerability – and always spoke in a whiny, listen-to-me! register, which made her annoying to watch. The character, being a woman grappling with modernity, could have been nuanced – but instead came off as genuinely childish.

In contrast, Anne James was funny, tragic and subtle – but that wasn’t surprising, since she’s played Santha on several occasions, most notably in The Sandpit’s initial 1988 monologue incarnation. Ultimately, however, the play’s weaknesses have less to do with the technicalities of its staging than with KS Maniam’s problematic text. Its verbiage is understandable. That’s a stylistic quirk of early 1990s

Ultimately, however, the play’s weaknesses have less to do with the technicalities of its staging than with KS Maniam’s problematic text. 

Its verbiage is understandable. That’s a stylistic quirk of early 1990s theatre, when playwrights saw the need to explicate every internal emotion and grapple with the problem of transposing mother-tongue idioms into English. (See Pocketsize’s production of Leow Puay Tin’s 1993 monologue A Modern Woman Called Ang Tau Mui for a similar example.)

But The Sandpit suffers from another, less forgivable kind of datedness: patriarchy.

While Dass, the missing husband, does not appear onstage, the play is about him. From the women, we learn that Dass was born with crippled legs; by standing in a hole in a sandpit (hence The Sandpit), he taught himself to walk. Both Santha and Sumathi coo over Dass’s strength of will – a wilfulness that made him a crime boss.

But that strength is fading, and the women worry about Dass’s advancing age. (Santha: “It was painful to see him trying to make his body strong again.”)

They make excuses for him when he can no longer beat them with his own hands, and has to use canes and whips. (Sumathi: “You know now they just have to press a button and a bomb falls on another country? The man doesn’t have to go near his enemy.”) In The Sandpit, violence against women is just a lens through which the masculine fear of weakness is examined.

The women’s concerns always orbit the man’s concerns; their voices function as proxies for his voice. At the end of the play, Santha waits for Dass at home. Sumathi sets off to search for him. The Sandpit accepts that sort of allencompassing subservience as a given, and never challenges it.

Make no mistake: valuable things are explored in The Sandpit. The need for mainstream acceptance (Dass wanted to walk so society would accept him). The fear of displacement and dispossession (Dass’s legs are beginning to fail again). Those are evergreen outcrops of the Malaysian condition and deserve repeat visits. Callous gender politics, however, do not. KS Maniam’s play is a part of the Malaysian English-language theatre canon – but it is clear we need to move on.

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