Race to the Bottom
It is clear that the script needs significant development in its current state.
The premise of Mata Hati is a promising one. A high-flying local Malay politician, Amir Mahmood finds his successful life and career suddenly coming undone when he is involved in a sex scandal. Before anyone points out this isn't altogether original or shocking in the world of international politics, it is worth clarifying that the stakes are raised in this particular situation – not only because of his race and religion, but also because of the fact that his "proclivities" involved paid sex from teenage boys. The play centres on what happens when Amir finally slips up and gets caught during a business trip to France, and then has to navigate the mess he has landed himself in.
It is evident right from the start that Amir is an isolated figure – no one is really on his side, or knows him all that well as a person. Even at the peak of his professional success, "Doctor A." is portrayed as somewhat of an enigma, offering cryptic answers and the occasional literary proverb (I presume this was intended to make him seem intelligent, along with repeated references to his academic credentials) to the young Miss Wei who interviews him at the beginning of the play. His few sources of support fall away once his sexual preferences are revealed: his daughter justifiably accuses him of living a lie, while on the work front he has gone from minority poster child to shameful liability. The only exception would be his friend Harris, or rather ex-friend, because Harris is now unfortunately dead and can only converse with Amir from beyond this world. Harris is the only one that Amir ever trusted with his secret, and their friendship is likened to that between Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah, famous legendary warriors in Malaysian history. Unsurprisingly, this legend does not have a happy ending.
The play attempts to ask complicated questions, and must be commended for this effort. However, intention and execution do not meet, and the result is a glaringly inadequate production.
Johari Aziz is not quite able to carry the show in the way he should – as its main character he fails to elicit the sympathy he needs from the audience. I wanted very much to like Amir and understand his struggle, but for the most part found myself wishing he would stop whinging. On more than one occasion the question "Why don't you do something about it?" is posed to him, to which his response is variations of the sentiment "I can't." I believe the intention here is to highlight, among other things, how physical desire can be so all-consuming, and how this struggle is about so much more than a man who can't keep it in his pants, but unfortunately the play falls short of conveying this in any depth. What we end up with is a man clearly in great conflict with himself, but no one desires to see him emerge a better person because a) He doesn't seem to want that himself (or he just… "can't.") and b) He essentially had it coming all along. I felt sorrier for Herman Cain.
The character of Harris was the most interesting to watch, but seemed under-utilized as a foil to Amir. Portrayed with natural ease and charisma by Anwar Hadi, he was the more likeable counterpart to Johari's stiff and contrived Amir. It is also through Harris that some of the deeper issues of the play – the politics of race, the Singaporean Malay identity – are touched upon, for instance when he points out to Amir that "everything you know about being Malay you learned or you rehearsed. It's not in your gut." Harris is also the perfect instrument of humour used to add some levity to the heavy ethical dilemma(s) that the play attempts to present, yet in spite of his jibes about Oxford-educated Amir having a "colonial hangover", it is evident that he is an insightful friend who cares very much, even as a voice from the grave. I don't know which is the greater shame: that he is so peripheral, or that he is used to execute the questionable decision of tying the play together with a Cliff Richard song played on ukulele.
On the same note of unfulfilled potential, the scene in which Amir questions Wong (Tan Shou Chen) about Wong's "friend" Tobias was one that could have been stellar in the whole scheme of things. The entire exchange reeks of hypocrisy and unprofessionalism on Amir's part (again doing nothing for the likeability of his character) as he intentionally makes things difficult for Wong, and by the end, quite literally, has him by the balls. If the intention was to present a sexually charged scene, or to show the power dynamic between the two before Amir's inelegant fall from grace, it was clouded by the obvious lack of chemistry between the two actors. Shou Chen, however, does arguably deliver the best performance in the entire play as Wong. He manages to concoct the right mix of necessary obsequiousness and independent assertiveness needed to convincingly portray Wong as Amir's subordinate. His discretion about his own sexual orientation and awareness of the glass ceiling it imposes upon him in his particular line of work makes his character, even though far from central, much more nuanced than the character of Amir.
Eleanor Tan and Isabella Chiam hold their own as Mrs Rebecca Tan and Miss Wei respectively, making the most out of characters that could have beenafforded a bit more depth. Shaza Ishak was faced with the challenge of not only playing Amir's emotional daughter Zahra, but representing his absent wife Zubaidah as well. Her outbursts are insufficient to encompass all the emotion that should come with the sense of betrayal the family must feel, nor are they convincing enough to lend any sympathy to Amir's predicament. We know he is a "family man" because we are repeatedly told that he is, not because we are shown it.
Teater Ekamatra rarely fails to deliver, and my faith in Zizi Azah's directorial finesse remains unshaken. I love that Mata Hati was a collaborative process between playwright and director, but it is clear that the script needs significant development in its current state. Leaning too much on exposition, it cannot even count on the aesthetics of its language to redeem it from feeling like a first draft. The frustration in watching this on stage stems not only from painful acting and the story's unresolved ending, but also from the fact that this play as a whole could have been so much more. Mata Hati scores highly for ambition and intention, but falls short of reaching the amazing goal it sets for itself.