“Once upon a time, there was a wise old man who lived in Jodhpur,
who could talk about everything under the sun. From morning till
night he talked, pushing the seconds into minutes into hours into
days into months into years, never stopping to take stock of what
he was talking about—land, water, agriculture, livestock, musical
instruments, oral epics, folksongs, genealogies, rituals, trances, even
contemporary exotica like intellectual property rights. There was
nothing that he couldn’t talk about, this old man from Rajasthan.
Gradually, it became clear to everyone around him that he was no
longer just talking, but an oral epic was taking shape through him” (Bharucha and Kothari, 2003).
The above Indian folklore quoted in Rustom Bharucha’s book Rajasthan, An Oral History captures what a piece of theatre criticism means to me. It might be a little esoteric, but it encapsulates what freedom in expression in theatre represents. In Malaysia, almost every theatre goer, not just theatre critics, talk and criticise non-stop about the show they have just watched, from the actor, to the director, to the designers. Unfortunately, conversations about theatre do not continue, for everybody would be tired after the conversation or vitriol and needed sleep for the day. Life goes on the next day. Like the ephemerality of the theatre they watched the night before, the conversation is short-lived. No conversation has ever reached “epic”, not in a sense millennials referred to.
We might not be able to make these conversations into “oral epics”, but what we could do is to attempt to do so together. What is Malaysian theatre criticism? Could what a good photographer friend suggested A Mamak Critics Session work? It might sound like a good idea, but when we touched on getting people to identify themselves, it is a different matter altogether. Unless we take a step forward and make ourselves heard, theatre criticism in Malaysia will just be another conversation taking part in a mamak stall.
Taking a step out to make ourselves heard is one, but receiving criticisms about what we feel about a piece of theatre is another hurdle. Most responses to theatre criticism takes place in social media in the comment threads. Most of them are fleeting remarks that insinuate “the truth” as opposed to directly addressing the truth. Some people might say that there are multiple perspectives in theatre and respect should be accorded to them. Yes. However, the aversion to criticism under the guise of mutual respect is to abscond oneself from the responsibility to claim art as one’s own to respond to phenomenon in society. Being a member in society, membership comes with a certain measure of responsibility.
The Malaysian Chinese theatre community has taken an active step in promoting discussion and discourse in theatre criticism in 2017. The momentum needs to be kept up, hopefully with participation from critics working in different language contexts.
BHARUCHA, R., & KOTHARI, K. (2003). Rajasthan, an oral history: conversations with Komal Kothari. New Delhi, Penguin Books.