Horror Raya - Atomic Jaya
Smashing satire teaches us to love the Bomb
By Richard Lord
In recent years, a handful of governments have come up with a cute little twist on that classic Groucho Marx line, “I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member”. After both India and Pakistan caused a stir by sneaking into the exclusive Nuclear Powers Club, many other countries started asking why they could not do it themselves. After all, D.I.Y. instructions for making a nuclear device are readily available on the Internet and any good high school Physics student could use these instructions to build one, given large enough facilities and a decent supply of plutonium or uranium.
But who wants to belong to a club where the other members are such bullies, such boors, so obsessed with their own security and secrecy that they are willing to threaten millions of lives to protect these dark intangibles? Still, to have all that power at the tip of your national trigger finger, just a pushed-button away from blasting your way into the history books. (If there is much history left, that is.)
A most frightening thought actually, but such apocalyptic scenarios have often been the spur for dark comic talents to transform those scenarios into extremely funny works. One such talent is Huzir Sulaiman, a Malaysian native now based in Singapore. Huzir started fantasizing about what might happen if his own homeland decided to build its own Bomb. What he saw in the flood of his fantasies was loaded with comic potential. Happily for us, Huzir decided to share that vision with audiences in the region.
Five years ago, the fruit of Sulaiman’s fantasies, a scathing and satiric play, Atomic Jaya, opened in Kuala Lumpur; three years later, in February 2001, it was reprised here in Singapore, at The Substation. Then it made its way back for another Singapore run at the DBS Arts Centre, in a marvelous, energetic production by the Checkpoint Theatre company, directed by Casey Lim.
Of course, with headline events over the last year, the subject of medium-sized countries (or even religious organisations) acquiring a nuclear device has taken on increased relevance. There is no doubt that today Atomic Jaya packs a heavier payload of resonance and relevance than in its two earlier appearances. Which also means that its black humour has become that much more delicious, having stewed long in the seething juices of international tensions.
While the initial idea of Malaysia trying to acquire its own Bomb is appealing, it is the execution - on page and on stage - that makes this work so successful. Written with intelligence and a sure sense of the craft needed to forge the material into a winning piece of theatre, Atomic Jaya is first-rate entertainment from start to finish. The wit flaunted throughout is outstanding and comes at rapid-fire. ( I had to read the play in a recently published edition of Sulaiman’s worked to catch them all the humour.) Though some of the jokes here are stupid or fall flat, such duds are few and far between in this piece.
In Atomic Jaya, Huzir Sulaiman sets his sights on a broad range of targets in Malaysian society. But, rightly so, he does not confine his satirical aim to Malaysians alone. American and British journalists come in for their own barbs, as does an American secretary of state. More importantly, Sulaiman does not just set his sights on these targets, he hits them in places that ring the bell time and time again. (A typical stinger aimed at Malaysian society explains why they need three scientists from the country’s three major ethnic groups working on a dangerous, top secret project: Chinese do the work, Malays take the credit, Indians get the blame.)
The central character and moral focus in Atomic Jaya is Dr. Mary Yuen, a Chinese Malaysian physicist trained at a top-drawer American university and US research centre before returning home to attend her well-heeled grandmother’s imminent demise. “Imminent” in this case has stretched out to three years and counting, and a frustrated Dr. Yuen is now zapping prawns, rice and cocoa beans with gamma rays in government labs. One day, Mary’s life takes an exciting 180° spin when General Zulkifli sweeps on to inform her (in that torturously roundabout way military folks have of dispensing information) that Malaysia has decided to produce a Bomb of its own. And they want Dr Mary to head the team that will make this Bomb.
This is where the fun begins, and what fun there is as Sulaiman follows Malaysia’s purblind pursuit of the Big One. Along the way, we are treated to a host of hilarious characters. There is one Malaysian nuclear physicist who once used his own skull to test the penetration of “alpha-beta-gamma” X-rays; he is now walking, blathering evidence of why such experiments are not advisable. A fellow atomic scientist is trying to burrow out of an inferiority complex born of the fact that he took all three of his degrees from Delhi Polytechnic. (That is the institution that builds bombs for Pakistan, he ruefully admits.) We also get to meet a multi-talented tea lady, a sleazy German uranium wholesaler; a motor-mouthed Malaysian wholesaler of just about everything else; an obnoxious female yuppie; and a Malaysian cabinet minister whose riotous denials of everything we witness going on provide some of the Jaya’s most stinging satires and best comedy.
Sulaiman moves the implausible narrative along adroitly, shuffling together scenes of plot and character development with newscasts including denials by that daft Minister, and even a new Malaysian promotional commercial with a syrupy song extolling the benefits of a Southeast Asian Bomb. Rarely does the narrative stumble even a little, and if the denouement in which Dr Yuen and her conscience-troubled colleague sabotage the whole project seems a trifle too facile, Sulaiman makes it palatable for us with a healthy serving of stodgy technical jargon and the already established madness of the whole venture and those who initiated it.
In the first Singapore production of Atomic Jaya back in 2001, Claire Wong played all the parts herself. Sadly I missed that production, but I can not see how the current casting, with playwright Huzir Sulaiman himself taking on some of the roles, could have been bettered in Chow’s solo tour de force.
Wong and Sulaiman complement each other beautifully, drawing laughs out of just about every bit that can call them forth. Indeed, the presence of a second actor opens up new possibilities for the humour, as when the Malay physicist, Dr. Saiful, gives a detail-packed rundown of how to construct a bomb. While Claire Wong delivered this screed, Sulaiman added a lovely subtext of facial contortions that signalled impatience crossing the threshold into pain.
In fact, both of these performers brought wonderful plastic facial gestures to create a set of diverse characters, switching quickly from one to the other. Sulaiman first marches on like a Prussian take on Napoleon, setting his Zulkifli in that perfect junction of threat and ludicrousness. (When he recounted that Myanmar is currently under a military regime, the biting note of envy he delivered it which was just delicious and made that whole speech work.) He’s also quite good as Mary’s Indian nuclear colleague, or as a newscaster for both the BBC and CNN. At times, Sulaiman can look like an Asian Mr Bean as he contorts his face into a broad subtext of great import - or great discomfort.
Not that the playwright’s performance was flawless: his Teutonic accent was quite off while spinning a German uranium wholesaler - off even by the rules of this type of parody. (Unlike his pokes at the General’s pretentious mangling of French phrases, such as his “c’est la vie” pronounced chest la vie.) It’s worth noting that this character Otto’s monologues also represent some of the least convincing writing in Atomic Jaya. Sorry, but Otto’s linguistic oddities are not the way a German would typically mangle English.
Sulaiman might almost have snatched the spotlight away from his co-star - had Wong herself not been so strong throughout. This former lawyer proved a consummate theatre professional in the way she handled the various roles she was assigned. Mary Yuen was, of course, her most challenging part, as Wong has to work all the tricky contours of this character: going through wavering qualms of conscience, making Yuen sympathetic without making her too moralistic. Wong did so by arming the character with a healthy measure of self-irony and wily strength.
The native Malaysian actress was also excellent in whipping up that Malaysian cabinet minister, and good with a Malaysian nuclear protestor and the illegal wholesaler. She even turned out a successful rendering of Dr Yuen’s pretentious friend, Serena, an egocentric bitch par excellence, although it is one of the play’s least successful as well as most obvious portraits.
Her only failed impersonation was that of former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. One would think this one was an open-net goal for a performer as versatile as Wong: Albright often invited parody, at times even edging towards self-parody herself. But Wong missed the right key here. She even missed the right accent by about 4,000 miles: Albright has a high-nasal East Coast Mandarin tone, not the Texas yawp Wong gave her.
The bantam cast was filled out by two beautiful cameos from Gani Abdul Karim. One of these roles was the sexy tea lady, whose sly body language speaks much more impressively than the submissive dialogue she delivers.
Karim’s second cameo founds him in full Malay-pride regalia, singing that new song which praises the Bomb and its contributions to Malaysia’s sense of self-worth. The song itself is wonderfully egregious, and Karim’s delivery caught just the right tone of sincere parody.
Praise also goes to director Casey Lim for his overall handling of the material, especially the fine pacing of that material. The precision and focus of the wildly divergent characters the two main performers created would also seem to redound to Lim’s credit. It’s extremely difficult to make such a show seem so easy, but that’s exactly what Lim and his team in this Jaya.
While the play itself is a beautiful piece of political satire, it is not quite without its own shortcomings. For example, Sulaiman teases us with Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle as a way of judging Dr.Yuen’s account, though he simply dangles it there without ever turning it into an effective dramatic device.
(Though I would not be too surprised if this was Huzir’s sly erudition sneaking in another little parallel. Heisenberg, a brilliant atomic physicist, also headed up Nazi Germany’s failed nuclear weapons programme. His postwar defenders argue that the programme failed precisely because of Heisenberg’s own subtle sabotage.)
And, as stated above, the ending where Mary and her Indian colleague join forces to sabotage the project seems a tad too neat and convenient. Some may also question the neat way everything gets tied up in the epilogue. Of course, with this play, a multiple happy ending can be taken as just another helping of satire, and it did allow the audience to leave with a nice warm feeling, however ersatz.
But even these are just small failings, considering all that does work in Atomic Jaya. Let us face it: an intelligently written play that makes us laugh all the way through - and a political satire to boot - is a rare cultural commodity these days. Let us be thankful to all involved for bringing it to us once again, in such a handsome package.
Oh, by the way: ‘Jaya’ is a Malay word meaning something like ‘big success’. Even if the nuclear programme the play conjured up was not a jaya, the show itself certainly was.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003