Theatre Review: We Could **** You, Mr. Birch

They say history is set in stone. But is it really? Who’s to say what had transpired 50, 100 years ago was real? Even though, yes, there are artifacts and written documents that preceded time, how can we say for sure that none of those facts were tampered with? In the Literature and Drama Society’s staging of Kee Thuan Chye’s We Could **** You, Mr. Birch, these were the questions that the cast chose to bestow upon us, making us question; how much of history is fiction?

The play starts with your typical introduction to the setting and backstory, narrated with a sort of lackluster, but it sets the mood nonetheless – dark, ominous seriousness that sets every person in the room on edge. The narration itself was rich with history, mostly what we have heard from Sejarah (history studies) in secondary school, but if you weren’t paying attention in class back then, or to the narration, it’s easy to get lost with what’s being retold.

It then kicks off with actors filing in, costumes sticking true to how people from back then would dress, with extravagant traditional clothing for the ‘bumiputera’ and ‘sultans’ and sleek suits with hair slicked back for the ‘Brits’, their characters and stories unfolding before our eyes. A multitude of stories were played out, each act introducing new characters that sometimes did not necessarily contribute to the plot at all, and would prove confusing for the audience if they had not known the story beforehand. The use of montage (flashbacks and forwards) was interesting, adding emphasis on the fun and interactivity of the play, with just the right lighting.

Even in the beginning, the lines were tacky, somewhat inaccurate, but it did stir up some giggles in the crowd. The slang and accents of the Mat Sallehs were, in my opinion, overly exaggerated. But it served as a reminder that history is being interpreted – not reproduced.

One commendable element of the play was the Frank Underwood-esque breaking of the fourth wall; the actors would break character mid-act, just when things are about to get real, then jump back into the role again. The transition helped in pushing the story forward by having the “real actors” explain parts of the story, or criticise the truth of the script and even history itself, and plant the seed of critical reflection in the audience’s minds. The lighthearted banter when the actors are out of their characters are typically Malaysian, the essence captured in its entirety, accent and all.

The Prime Minister then criticized the other PM’s that came after him….all two of them! Sounds like my mother-in-law lah weih. – Sultan Abdullah (Lim Jack Kin)

As the play unravelled, the theme becomes quite apparent; it shifts around with slavery, honour, religion, forbidden love and attraction, and irony (in case you are wondering, it is in that particular order). From the slaves that were tortured in Datuk Sagor’s home, to the daughter questioning her father’s law of keeping slaves even though God said all men are equal, to the two men falling in love with Kuntum (the female slave), to the betrayal of the Sultan’s confidant and advisor. Everything has its role in the play. The emotions and dialogues of the story became more and more powerful, shaking the audience to their core.

But, alas, there were too many things to focus on as there were too many side stories that in the end, did not fit into the whole picture. The part where the henchmen released the slave because he pitied him? The importance of that scene is rather questionable, though some can argue that it is one of the many that serve as a mirror of the now; the domino effect of oppression and abuse of power. Some may agree that trying to figure out the main character of this play would prove difficult (Was it Kuntum? Was it Birch? Datuk Maharaja Lela?) and then having the actors tell us that there were characters that weren’t even a part of history was…*phew* rather overwhelming.

This is tampering with history! / This is fiction, Andreay!

Another absolutely commendable aspect of the play was the amount of passion all the actors committed to this play. From the British accents to the splashing of actual water onto the face of another actor in pure anger – it gave so much life and emotion and most of all, the feeling of attachment to a character. The actors were definitely feeling their roles – each line said was a message waiting to be delivered. Each act left you gripping onto your knees, not knowing what’s about to come next.

The excellent usage of the lights at the right moment complimented the narration of the stories rather well, as well as the attention to the tiniest of details (aka the bandage on Lela’s left hand).

As far as plays goes, We Could **** You, Mr Birch was tremendously well thought out, even if it did have some quirks of its own (that gave the play extra character).  It tells history in a new perspective, a perspective not many choose to see from, where it tells and reminds young Malaysians that there is more to history than meets the eye, and that we should never forget our roots. It gives the thought “appreciate what you’re taught in history classes” a new meaning. Although international audience members may not understand some references here and there, but I’d say that is sort of the point, after all, of a play aimed to inspire reflection, research and questioning.

 

I fear what we died for will not be remembered by anyone. – Dato Maharaja Lela/Ahmad Danial

 

Cast:

Eugene Ong Song Yi as BIRCH

Ahmad Danial bin A. Ghafar as MAHARAJA LELA

Lim Jack Kin as SULTAN

Andreay Hyllde as SAGOR

Aishwarya Nirmala Adaikalaraj as KUNTUM

Sarah binti Hamzah as MASTURA/SOFEA

Malik Hisyam bin Zaihan as SIPUTUM

Samantha Lim Hil Dong as TAN

Nadia Nadine Mohamad Shaharul as CLARKE/JERVOIS

Muhammad Amry bin Mohd Ependi as ASHBURN

Lee Xuan as SAL/SILAT

Khairul Anuar Jamaludin as CHEE YOON/SILAT EXPONENT/BRITISH OFFICIAL

Izzah Affandy as YUSUF

Nurul Hamidah Abdul Rahman as CHIEF 2/SILAT EXPONENT

Haziq Adil bin Abd Wahid as THE MANTRI/CHIEF 1

Ajeetpall Singh as HENCHMAN

 

Directors:

Neda Al-Asedi

Yee Heng Yeh

Syamila Abu Bakar

 

Written by Carmen Liew & Renad Sadig

Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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