Ma’Ma Yong (About Nothing Much to Do) @ Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore, 22-24 October 2015
Reviewed by Kevin Riordan
After an opening dance number, one of the musicians sings something of a curtain speech. The five-man band is prominent throughout this show, seated center-stage in a slightly recessed pit. The program indicates that these musicians—who play flutes, guitars, drums, electronics, and an accordion—are paderi, or priests. These priest-musicians sometimes watch the action wide-eyed, sometimes they cheekily read off the supertitle screens, and sometimes they tease one another. But in this first song, one of them lets the audience know what’s in store: He prepares us for themes of love, he asks us to turn off our mobile phones, and then he insists with a smile and a big sigh of relief that this show will have “nothing much to do with Much Ado About Nothing.”
Ma’Ma Yong is playwright and director Najib Soiman’s loose adaptation of Much Ado to the form of Mak Yong, a Malay performance tradition recognized as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But Najib adds still another layer to the project, placing this sung-and-danced Shakespeare play in a modern mental asylum. The performed result is daring and dizzying and surprisingly successful, mostly because of the ensemble’s balance of reverence for and lighthearted teasing of both the revered traditions they take on. Ma’Ma Yong achieves Najib’s aspiration to bring performance back to teater rakyat, or community theater, where performers go in and out of character and welcome the audience into the making of the performed world.
Despite declaredly having nothing much to do with the Shakespeare, Ma’Ma Yong moves chronologically through the Much Ado story arc. It holds to the plot if not the language, telling the story in scene and song, in direct narration as well as in dance; there is also wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and an oversize robot puppet. The different elements of this unwieldy theatrical world are held together by the storytelling roles of the musicians and Ma’Ma Yong, or Fatimah, (played by Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit), the principal dancer and sometimes-narrator—as well as a patient in the asylum. She and the band remain onstage, guiding the audience through Much Ado’s twists and turns, at times commenting on the events and at others joining the audience to watch. In the transitions, they announce the ends and beginnings of the many Acts (which are different than Shakespeare’s) or the priests become schoolchildren answering the teacher’s questions about the plot and giggling about sexual innuendo. Despite their own role-playing and shape-shifting, these central storytellers anchor the show through its mix of presentation and representation and the generous space left open for improvisation.
Through the many storytelling devices, the two couples’ stories remain at the narrative center; as is the case with more “faithful” productions, Don John’s schemes are sidelined in favor of the more compelling flirtations. And the music supports the romantic focus, both endearing us to the earnestness of the lovers’ connections and allowing us to laugh at their folly. In the songs especially the actors seem to relish laughing with us, not taking themselves or this Shakespeare too seriously. In one of the catchiest songs, for example, Najib’s refrain embraces the lovers’ falling into clichés, with the Malay lyrics subtitled to something along the lines of: “I like you / I love you / You’re not mediocre.” When Benedick and Beatrice lean over the body of the only-thought-to-be-dead Hero, they kiss for the first time. The tension with this incongruous kiss veers into bathos as the band’s funereal soundtrack abruptly riffs into George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” The band and the actors keep surprising each other even through the carefully choreographed Malay or Bollywood or K-pop dances. When the rhythm turns to reggae downbeats, the dancers tease each other when they go off beat. In Ma’Ma Yong, the music and stagecraft are fresher and more surprising than the plot’s conventional twists, with Shakespeare as a kind of bass line for the less predictable elements of this teater rakyat.
More than halfway through the show, a Dr. Lim (Pramila D/O Krishnasamy, who also plays Borachio and Dogberry) comes out to remind us—not unlike Prospero after the Masque—that these our actors are not the characters they portray, but patients in a mental facility. Her announcement reframes the play with a structural conceit not unlike that of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. The device is announced late and doesn’t seem necessary exactly but neither does it distract from the work. Dr. Lim and the hospital provide just another layer along with those of the shadow puppets, the school children, and the downbeats. The hospital has nothing much to do with what we’re watching, unless it does—maybe in the same way Shakespeare does. Dr. Lim schools us eloquently on the values of storytelling, of dance, and of music for recovery, before allowing the patients (including herself, through the triple casting) to resume their treatment. At the end, Dr. Lim returns like Prospero or Puck for an epilogue, telling us that the show must end. Her announcement leaves us to join the erstwhile patients in wishing the therapeutic illusion would go on, that we might maintain this treatment of, this revelry in, and this (ir)reverence for both Mak Yong and Much Ado.