Teater Normcore: Double Bill is an upcoming performance taking place during George Town Festival this year, both directed and written by Ridhwan Saidi. Typically denoting unisex, everyday unpretentious clothing, ‘Normcore’ is an ethos that Saidi applies to the realm of theatre. At the ‘core’ of his plays are simple and almost uneventful concepts, yet they are performed and staged in a way that prompt us to mull underlying philosophical questions — whether we are given answers or not.
The two plays that constitute the double bill are Retak Menanti Belah (Cracking, Splitting) and Matinya Seorang Birokrat (Death of a Bureaucrat). Written and performed in Malay, they will both also have English surtitles. The latter has been shown to great acclaim in Kuala Lumpur. Its premise is simple: a bureaucrat and artist meet. Their exchange is played out to great comedic effect, as both characters are parodied in their respective ‘squareness’ or self-inflated outlook. While such satire highlights their disparity, however, their traits are simultaneously blurred: how different really is the bureaucrat and artist?
Retak Menanti Belah, the other half of the Teater Normcore: Double Bill, will see its debut at George Town Festival this year. Its basic premise is a conversation between two separating walls, named Retak and Belah — a concept that in itself opens up a host of conceptual possibilities.
In anticipation for Teater Normcore: Double Bill, I talked to Ridhwan Saidi about his practice as a director and playwright.
I’m interested in how you stage your plays as double bills. Why is this the case, and why have you put Retak Menanti Belah and Matinya Seorang Birokrat together?
I started doing theatre with Teater Modular, which comprises 13 offbeat playlets that I wrote (with other people directing). We would stage 4 playlets in a single show. Teater Normcore: Double Bill is my debut in directing stage plays: for now, I lack confidence in writing full length plays, so I’ve written 2 one-act plays, producing a 70 minute performance overall.
The first Teater Normcore: Double Bill was shown in February 2018, in Kuala Lumpur, and comprised of Tiada Cinta Selama Muda (No Love For The Young) and Matinya Seorang Birokrat (Death Of A Bureaucrat). George Town Festival 2019 will be the second series. I have no interest to direct the same combination all over again, therefore I wrote Retak Menanti Belah to change the overall nuance. Additionally, Matinya Seorang Birokratfor will be performed by different actors for George Town Festival, and therefore the direction will be different.
Basically with Teater Normcore: Double Bill, the first play will tend towards the more abstract and absurd while the second play will be more natural and realistic in nature. For example in Retak Menanti Belah the character is a wall, while in Matinya Seorang Birokrat, the plot is centred around an actor and bureaucrat meeting. But I will try to make both plays connect with each other metaphorically or symbolically. I usually treat my works like a Malay pantun where “the first and second lines sometimes appear completely disconnected in meaning from the third and fourth, but there is almost invariably a link of some sort. Whether it be a mere association of ideas, or of feeling, expressed through assonance or through the faintest nuance of thought, it is nearly always traceable.”
You’ve said elsewhere that ‘all art must confront, or have some sort of reaction, towards the establishment or the conventional’. Is this the case for Retak Menanti Belah, and if so how? Just the mention of a ‘wall’ has political associations in my mind.
In a way yes, but not in a literal or direct political sense. In this play the two separating walls take on a more spiritual approach, talking about their existence as a wall. And since a wall can’t move, there’s inaction. In a normal play usually you need action and movement, but in this play there is no (or minimal) movement. Therefore it’s a reaction towards its medium as theatre.
Apart from that, since theatre involves scenography and set design, how the wall represents itself will affect the overall feeling and direction of the play. For example, if we use bricks with barbed wire on top, it will give a more brutal and political aspect. In this case, since we’re traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, we decided to use lightweight material that can fit in our car and can be easily assembled at the venue. With Teater Normcore our use of materials is usually from mundane everyday objects like transparent tablecloth, flower wrapper and paper etc. In this play we’re using paper pulp egg trays, so the overall feeling is more of a waffle-like, soundproof padded wall. In this way, we’ve diverted the usual connotations of a wall (hard, rough, dividing) into something softer and calmer.
You have a degree in architecture. Has this fed into your practice as playwright/director in any ways?
What makes architecture special is that it sits between science and art. You need to know its structure and function, and at the same time you know what is beautiful and poetic to you. A sense of scale is always helpful. In architecture your project can be as big as urban planning, or as small as designing a chair. The way I organized a system like Teater Modular or Teater Normcore can, I guess, be considered somewhat architectural. As a director I prefer non-conventional performance spaces such as basements or old warehouses. A conventional performance space is a controlled-environment and too clean to me. If making theatre is like making music, for instance, I would prefer field-recording compared to studio recording.
The normal theatre convention is to build a set inside a black box or on the stage, building the theatrical world from scratch. But for me, the space itself can provide some of its history and atmosphere, and as a result my theatre set is not as intrusive as a normal play. But to do this, you can’t routinely use the same space again and again. You need to explore the city/region and find a place that can connect with your thoughts and imaginations. Traditional Malay houses are very site-specific, they react to their own regional climate and culture, and are very lightweight. You can disassemble a house (via its tanggam) and reassemble it somewhere else. My theatre is somewhat kind of like that.
Thank you to Ridhwan Saidi for chatting to me. It will be interesting not just how each Retak Menanti Belah and Matinya Seorang Birokrat play out separately, but also how they relate to another.
Where? – Banguann U.A.B
When? – July 23rd & 24th 2019, 8:30PM
How much? – RM40 // RM25 (concession)
For who? – 12+
Written by: Eleanor Ohlsen