Asterik Anak Seni’s Pedofilia: How localisation of plays can move us forward
I’d give Asterik Anak Seni’s Pedofilia a rating of 6.5 out of 10, yet I consider it a revolutionary production. To start with, it was interesting being in an audience that consisted primarily of conservative Malays watching a play about a worldly issue. I realised that, even though it was a play set in Malaysia, written and produced by a Malay theatre group, the only thing specifically ‘Malay’ about the show was its language. Could this be a step towards a more rounded, Malaysian theatre?
Pedofilia takes place in a small town which has had recent incidences of child rape and murder. The story follows two police officers – Rashid (Jubang Samat),a newcomer from another town brought in to solve the cases, and Zaidi (Han Zalini), a local officer who has grown tired and corrupted from the recurring crimes.
The main cast of Pedofilia, from left – Jubang Samat (Rashid), Royzaib Sugian (Razak), and Han Zalini (Zaidi).
The local law enforcers suspect the town’s only recorded child sex offender – Razak, a photographer who was caught taking photos of children which puts him under sexual offender watch. The audience gets to see him dancing around with children’s underwear as well, but it is never made clear whether he has ever gone further in his fantasies.
Finally, there is Julia – the only surviving victim of the serial rapist and key to solving the case.
A universal story
What I love about this plot is that it can take place anywhere. Except for the dialogue, which of course is in Malay, nothing else about it is specific to the Malay community. Again, the script had many loopholes and unexplained circumstances, and this I consider revolutionary for Qiu Qatina, the director/writer, because she started something. Many others her age, are writing typical plots using the same ingredients. Pedofilia will be a lesson and a stepping stone for Qiu. Qiu was one of the directors for Teater Modular, and the piece she directed has received numerous compliments.
Qiu Qatina, writer and director of Pedofilia.
I sat down with Qiu in her bedroom last Thursday, and talked about absurdity, Malay theatre, and the darkness of Pedofilia, while surrounded by dark artwork she made in her fine art classes.
Theatre is not just for entertainment (anymore)
In Pedofilia, the message comes in the last line, where Rashid finally meets the daughter of the rapist, and he asked her, “What does your father look like?”, to which she replies, “Like any other person.”
To my disappointment, many people could not grasp that message, and some thought that the ending hung unsatisfyingly. Many were very unsettled by the scene which showed the murder of the children (which to me is pretty mild, and quite artistically done) but what annoyed me also about this is that, when Malaysian audiences are uncomfortable, they find something to laugh about.
Qiu explained that she expected that from her audience, but she believes in what she is doing, and she openly invites curious audience members to come forward and ask her about her choices.
“The cliffhanger ending was a metaphor for real life child sexual abuse cases – they aren’t ever really solved,” Qiu said. “I like using metaphors and symbols in my writing and directing. This style of play is called absurd – where we do not reference anything in the play to anything specific. For example, the location for Pedofilia was just written as “an isolated neighbourhood”, instead of Kuala Lumpur or somewhere else in the world.”
The pedophile in the play acts out only when a certain song is played on the radio.
Qiu also aims for as much realism as possible in her directing, as we could see in Teater Malam Pertama, where her actors all stripped half-naked for their bed scene. “Many people were uncomfortable with the depiction of the rape scene in Pedofilia, but I like to be as realistic as possible and show it to the audience,” Qiu explained. “People laugh a lot when they come to the theatre because they have a mindset that theatre is entertainment. What also doesn’t help is that many young theatre directors choose to make a comedy out of whatever script they get. They don’t take up challenges for themselves.”
Qiu always reminds herself that theatre is also meant to educate and deliver a message, not just for leisure. “Comedy is easy and it makes money, true. But I think people who keep ‘comedy-ing’ scripts the cheap way are an insult to theatre,” Qiu points out. “We need quality scripts to produce quality plays. Plays with no intellectual input to me, disgrace true theatre activist. Theatre must have a purpose.”
I suggest that perhaps ‘comedy-ing’ a serious play, especially if it is non-local, is a choice for many directors to help lower the barrier between locals and “upper” theatre. Qiu believes that’s true, but it is not the only way.
The fight scene between Rashid and Razak.
“Malay theatre likes to go in the direction of love stories or intense dramas with their scripts. I personally like absurdity. And my way of localising plays is by adding a little bit of drama to my absurd scripts so that people can still relate,” Qiu added. Her style is heavily influenced by Antonin Artaud, a dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and theatre director, widely recognized as one of the major figures of twentieth-century theatre and the European avant-garde, and also creator of “Theatre of Cruelty”.
The dance sequence in Pedofilia.
“Of course, it’s hard to get people to accept new concepts because they have different preferences and artistic backgrounds,” Qiu elaborated. “Other than adding a little drama, I also like to add thrills because horror movies are also widely favoured by locals, and it is still very aligned with the concept of absurdity. For example, a play on psychology is quite interesting to many.
But if you really only like drama and comedy, then don’t come to my shows (laughs). I think many scriptwriters should just go ahead and do absurd plays if they want to, but make sure you have a strong, interesting plot.”
The Pedophile in Pedofilia.
Some productions have tried localising plays in small steps, such as Joe Hasham’s Malay adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, last year’s poetic Malay rewriting of Omar Ali’s Macbeth, and MUKA SPACE Don’t Let… Know series. With the increasing number of new theatre goers and productions, perhaps these steps are working after all. With the right technique of localising plays, I believe we can expose the society to good theatre without having to drop its essence of intellect.
Pedofilia was produced by Farah Kamsari and is a production of Asterik Anak Seni. All photos taken from Asterik Anak Seni’s Instagram page.