Our Picks of George Town Festival 2018

The Penang Monthly team took some time out from their manic schedules to catch some very interesting – and one rather perplexing – performances from George Town Festival 2018. Here’s what they think.

Isle of Dreams

Isle of Dreams, a production of La Cie MaxMind, is a mythical story of epic proportions featuring gods, goddesses, spirits and zombie gods. Yes, zombie gods.

The story revolves around Xing Tian of the Kunlun gods, who has lost his head and along with it, his memory. In trying to find it again, he befriends the mischievous Mud Spirit and Cloud Spirit, and travels from the Isle of Ghosts to Kunlun Mountain in search of the missing appendage. There, he discovers the gods at war, and that he isn’t who he thinks he is. His conscience is ultimately put to the test; the fate of the world hangs in balance.

It was comedic at times – a dash of slapstick to take off a bit of the heaviness – but never so much that it risked losing its dreamy quality. Each part was introduced by a song; the music providing the necessary exposition common in operatic performances. The scenes never moved too fast; instead they allowed the audience time to absorb the dialogue and the carefully choreographed movements.

Everything about Isle of Dreams was magical – from the set to the traditional music to the costumes. The movements of the actors – and of the props used by the actors – were so mesmerising, the effects so realistic that one would not be faulted for believing that they were part man, part animal, part puppet at times.

Isle of Dreams.

Performed in what was described as a “mythological language” (I heard snippets of Hokkien here and there), the subtitles were easy enough to follow. Each word was eloquently enunciated – precise and economical – so that one did not feel bombarded by and forced to quickly digest a wall of text on the flanking screens. And with a script that contained such melting poetry, anyone with an ounce of love for words would have been magnetised:

(“Love and romance, promises to keep; hate burns bright, cooking all into a burning heap”)

The story spoke of the end of the world – of mischief and greed, and endless hate. A once-perfect garden is destroyed by a wanton act, and the war of the gods causes chaos and leads to the demise of lesser beings. A familiar tale, perhaps, but Isle of Dreams works – and very well.

We Cannot Talk About It

A family sits down to dinner. They shout a lot and eat a tonne of spaghetti. Someone is dead, or is missing, or has run away – the daughter, I gathered after a while.

This was a perplexing show. I’m happy with productions that don’t necessarily spell things out for me, do not follow a linear plot, or break the fourth wall, but when the performance is 80% in Iranian and the subtitles leave much to be desired, it was just downright hard to follow. The subtitles changed so fast it was impossible to even read past the first line! (It didn’t help that the screen wasn’t very clear.)

The saving grace was the powerful performances. The way the actors stuffed their faces with food, even throwing up and spitting half-chewed spaghetti across the table, drew feelings of disgust – don’t they have a sense of propriety? The dialogue was emotionally charged – anger, jealousy, sorrow – but alas, most was lost on me. I could feel the tension and the grief, but that I could not understand what was being said, was very frustrating.

This just wasn’t my cup of tea.

We Cannot Talk About It.

KaBooM: Stories from the Distant Frontlines.

KaBooM: Stories from the Distant Frontlines

KaBooM tells the tales of three soldiers who fought in far-flung frontlines: Fabrice, a child soldier from Burundi; Majid, a deserter of Saddam Hussein’s army; and Ivor, who participated in the Pacific theatre during World War II.

At the same time, performer Deborah Leiser-Moore skilfully “assumes complimentary and companion roles in the story telling: the grieving war widow eating alone; the absent lover; the daughter brought up with the ghosts of war constantly hovering in the background.”

Leiser-Moore embraces an empty uniform in the beginning – we understand that her lover is absent. Majid’s monologue plays in the background. She angrily pierces the cling-film partition separating her from the audience and once freed from her confines, stonily walks away.

She holds up a white flag in one scene; dines alone and cries out in anguish in another – she has lost her partner to war.

She then stands behind an opaque sheet; you can only see her silhouette, surrounded by the shadows of those who had died from war. Fabrice recites words on screen and when he is done, his image fades into the shadows.

The other half of the pair, Allie Wilde, silently leaves pairs of empty shoes wherever she goes, even climbing up a rope to the air well to do so – for what is war but abandoned clothes, uniforms, furniture, shoes; those who had once worn them long turned into dust?

Leiser-Moore does not say much throughout the performance either – or anything at all, actually, except for that guttural cry – instead relying on her movements and facial expressions to convey a deep sense of grief, loss and fear – all done through clever use of space within an old, narrow pre-war shophouse.

It works – I love the use of space, especially the way Ivor’s video was projected onto a square window frame, distorting his face. It was atmospheric, impactful and very clever, and reminds us more than ever that in war, there are no winners.


2062 addresses the dystopian reality we are hurtling into, where the “present” takes on the starring role. The performance opens with a collection of global tragedies: the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the September 11 attacks and the Arab Spring, sombrely accentuating the frailty and inconsequentiality of human life.

The scene cuts to a battlefield where war rages and carnage steadily rises. The expert use of multimedia, comic, illustration and animation techniques draws the audience into the ensuing chaos and gives anxiety, fear and helplessness tangible forms.

Those who survive are now refugees –vulnerable, displaced and fleeing armed conflict. Only the fittest successfully complete the gruelling migratory journeys while the weak meet their ends, their hopes and dreams buried alongside them.

The world is not what it once was. The twenty-first century has arrived and has changed us forever. But we hardly realise it – somehow, everything continues to be the same. Borders, walls, new migrations, current affairs and economic changes are the key ingredients to this society. Human behaviour towards violence remains unchanged, but with technological advancements, the methods have creatively evolved: nuclear warfare is the latest Damocles’ sword hanging over our heads.

Created by Karla Kracht (Germany) and Andrés Beladiez (Spain), the conceptual interdisciplinary event also uses a blend of shadow play and theatre props to showcase a haunting cinematic performance that stays with you long after you have left the theatre.


Say No More

“They say most fairy tales end with happily ever after, but marriage is actually what comes after.”

Set against a patriarchal backdrop, Say No More invites the audience to question a world where most cultural institutions are man-made rather than woman-made, and how gender is still engineered and controlled by society. More importantly, it forces one to deliberate how and why disability and differences in women are so often feared or perceived as “less than”.

The multi-cultural, multi-arts event incorporates live performance, music, film and art installations to reveal how marriage influences and shapes the social and cultural circumstances of women.

Raw, intense and probing, no topic is left off the table as the 26-woman cast from Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia dig deep to share intimate personal stories of womanhood and their struggles, defeats, triumphs and survival, all artistically woven within a unique and highly unusual nuptial setting.

One recalls how women are coerced into believing marriage and a happy family are two intertwining concepts, and sex, like marriage, is a political tool. Another recounts how disappointed the women in her family were when she was born a girl – in Indonesia, a daughter’s worth is valued less than a son’s: “My grandmother gave my mother a concoction to be drunk every day. She said it will turn me into a boy. It was the most bitter thing my mother ever tasted. I think part of the bitterness is the fact that you can’t change the gender of your baby with a concoction, and the other part was the pity she felt for me. I was already such a disappointment since I was in the womb.”

The production also highlights the perils of how growing up in a broken household with an absent, perpetually coked-up father can easily kick start the inevitable cycle of domestic violence culminating in a mother’s losing battle to prevent her sons from being taken away: “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from being taken away, no matter how tightly I held them and no matter how well I behaved.”

At its core, however, is women’s malleability to adapt and adjust to the current circumstances of life, and the resounding message of them powering through whatever curveballs life throws their way.

Organised by Tutti Arts (Australia), in partnership with ACS Stepping Stone (Malaysia) and Perspektif (Indonesia), the project aspires to build bridges between professional artists and organisations seeking to develop the skills and talent of young disabled women with a strong interest in the arts.

Say No More.

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