Everything about SIFU Production’s latest theatre offering, Fifteen, felt ambitious; from the script to the staging to the performances, there was a definite sense of daring and unconventionality to the decisions made.
A surreal satire set in contemporary Kuala Lumpur – the title refers to the year 2015 – the script, penned by Amir Imran, dealt with the social, economic and cultural realities of being a young adult in this city.
Staged last week at Theatre KuAsh in Kuala Lumpur under the direction of Siti Farrah Abdullah, Freddy Tan and Ui Hua, Fifteen was a part of the Tourism and Culture Ministry’s Program Transformasi Ekonomi, supported by the National Department for Culture and Arts and Kakiseni.
Unfolding in a series of vignettes that were sometimes overtly related and sometimes not, the play foregrounded various unusual characters as actors shifted roles from story to story. The themes were generally dark – unemployment, materialism, religious restrictions – but the common thread that held all the stories and characters together was crime.
Specifically, it was about crime as both a dream and a trap, offering its characters an escape from the banalities of their lives while simultaneously ensnaring them in the very cycle they were trying to escape.
The proceedings, however, were shot through with a streak of absurdist humour that kept them from getting too dark, adding a further layer to the story at hand.
The technical aspects of Fifteen integrated seamlessly into the plot, bringing the gritty urban aspect to life. Tan Zen Lin’s set, a two-level combination of walls, doors and stairs, brings to mind both cityscapes and living spaces, and Syamsul Azhar’s lighting design artfully imbues specific areas with the necessary mood. Music, meanwhile, was performed live by Clarence Chua onstage, which was a great decision in terms of adding spontaneity and immediacy to the story.
Like I said, ambitious stuff.
Ambition, however, is like a hot-air balloon – it may appear to be soaring on its own, but is in fact powered by well-thought-out execution. And all that ambition may well fall flat if the execution is lacking.
That, in a nutshell, was the issue with Fifteen: while there was no lack of ideas and effort, and even occasional flashes of brilliance, the disparate elements of the play never really came together to form a satisfactory whole.
Now, it could be argued that this was a deliberate choice, a part of the play’s post-modernist bent, and certainly, the fragmented storytelling was a big part of its appeal. There was a sense in Fifteen, however, of a lack of cohesion, that it felt unfinished – particularly because the first half was so obviously stronger than the second.
There were some individual vignettes that worked very well. One of an absurd job interview involving a seemingly-straightlaced interviewer (played by Dinesh Kumar) and a series of unlikely candidates was both funny and clever. Another, simply centred on a conversation between a young Malay woman and a migrant worker, was one of the show’s best, thanks to its subtle writing and excellent delivery by Safia Hanifah and Erwin Shah Ismail.
Other stories, however, were more problematic, largely because the reliance on easy jokes detracted from the larger point being made. This was the case with a flamboyant Filipino waiter being played for laughs within the story of two couples on dates in a restaurant – surely a script sophisticated enough to draw on Pink Floyd and P.G. Wodehouse for its humour doesn’t need to resort to such cliched portrayals?
What held the weaker aspects of the production together though, were the actors. The variety of roles shouldered by these performers was impressive – many of them would convincingly walk offstage as one person and emerge minutes later as someone else. Particularly deserving of praise were Safia and Ivan Chan, who both essayed every one of their roles beautifully.
By the end of Fifteen, there was a feeling of what could have been, for there was no shortage of potential in this production. However, this is only SIFU’s first full-length production, so there is yet time for them to perfect their execution and truly let their ambitions soar, and that is something to look forward to.