Monday, January 24, 2005

(T) October 24, 2004 - Five Letters From An Eastern Empire

ONE actor and four directors make Five Letters from an Eastern Empire. This uncanny equation is the doing of Edwin Sumun, veteran actor and founder of Sumunda, a new theatre company formed in April this year.

Sumun is the sole actor; he directs himself, and was also directed by Zahim Albakri, Reza Zainal Abidin and Rohaizad Suaidi.

The effect of this play is somewhat like a good whipping: no immediate sensation at the point of contact, followed shortly by an incredible, searing pain. It is a very subtle satire that unfolds leisurely and strikes suddenly.

The social realism in the powerful text was neatly contrasted with abstract visuals conveyed through the set, lighting and costume design. A circular white frame holding descriptive images throughout the show was suspended in the back, while on centre stage lay a platform fashioned as an incomplete spiral, representing the twirl of twisted minds. The music, composed by Adeline Wong, was suitably theatrical and accentuated the moods of the characters and the events that took place in all the scenes.

Through five letters written to his parents, the play illustrates the life of Bohu as he rises from being the son of a corpse-handler to Imperial Poet. The tale, which is highly absorbing, simmers with sarcasm and subtle humour. It uses clever and timeless allegories to tell of how rulers and those who are obedient to them know all too well that the two key tools that keep them in power are education and communication; and when both fail, it is simple to eliminate the “unnecessary” people. The tragic Bohu is adequately brainwashed and groomed from young to create that one great poem that justifies the acts of the hegemonic power. He is happily trapped within his imagined greatness and self-importance by his conferred status and title that are enmeshed in etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

The most sinister character is revealed when the emperor turns out to be a puppet. Gigadib, the headmaster – or, quite suitably, “master puppeteer” – is able to influence all events and minds, even the evil emperor’s.

We see how Bohu realises this in the way in which he signs off his letters to his parents: the first, as “Imperial Tragic Poet”, with hope and anticipation; the second, as “Immortal”, in finally realising his destined role; the third, as “Nothing”, in disgust after he realises he’s being used; and the fourth, as “Son”, as he turns back to his roots and his family.

When Bohu realises that he is “nothing”, he wishes for death; when finally faced with it, he creates that one great poem, The Emperor’s Injustice, which condemns rather than justifies the emperor’s acts.

In the fifth and last letter, which is dictated by the headmaster, the audience is left with this horror: “To sum up,” declares Gigadib, “The Emperor’s Injustice will delight our friends, depress our enemies, and fill middling people with nameless awe. The only change required is the elimination of the first syllable of the last word of the title”.

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