Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Impenjarament [Imprisonment]
Teater Ekamatra

Performed in multiple languages with English subtitles
Post-show dialogue with Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit on 25 June 2005 (Matinee)

Written & Directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit
Choreography by Gani, Music by Zubir Abdullah
Performance by M Saffri, A Manaf, Muhd Kunju Noushad (India), Muhammad Najib Soiman (bijaN), Mohd Hatta Sulaiman, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Paulus Simangunsong (Indonesia), Peter Sau and Sulaiman Ismail Batri

reviewed by Jyh Wee Sew

  1. The title of this theatrical production is iconic because the affix and suffix are meant to hold captive the Malay word 'penjara' [jail] symbolising imprisonment. In response to the enquiry of an audience member after the performance, Aidli, the director, asked her audience not to read anything into the play but 'just enjoy it.' However, the performance contained many literally captivating layers. There was the physical containment of the criminals doing time for their crime. This aspect was what struck the audience as they walked into a studio filled with steel cell-like structures, squat toilets, CCTV cameras, and other familiar prison-related structures (including a triangular structure to tilt the body in a position fit to be caned).
  2. The multilingual approach offered a heightened experience to those who speak the languages. The Mandarin monologues of a son in his recollection of his mother's angst and sorrow were symbolic of affective communication to Chinese-speaking members of the audience. The Indian actor aptly portrayed the feelings and dispositions of an immigrant from Madras in his mother tongue, adding a naturalistic flavour to the viewing experience. The promises he made to his mother might be opaque in terms of semantics but it was definitely resounding in terms of pragmatics.
  3. The acting was in a mixture of Brecht, Brook, Stanislavski, and Bangsawan, as well as classical Indian styles with the extra turn of a Malay musical performance. In between scenes there was an interlude that vaguely resembled Indian Khatakali, creating the effect of a zestful Indian in his native land preparing to earn good wages in Malaysia. But to this man's dismay, he was cheated and scorned by the smuggling agent and ended in jail and three strokes of the cane. The caning procedure was comically introduced by an inmate in Mandarin but contrasted with the cries of agony of the convicted man.
  4. According to Aidli, the trigger behind the creation of Impenjarament was the response to the loss of her friends, who were caught up in various legal complications and ended up in jail. The pain incurred by the convicted individuals' family and friends was included as another form of entrapment in the performance. Three male actors role-played as wives and mothers in two sequences of the jail visit scene. Their cross-dressing as pregnant wives was executed with a focus on the issue of lost husband and missing father. Comical comments by the male actors alleviated the burden of their wives and downplayed the stressful dilemma holding captive the expecting mothers. The five sad mothers humorously bemoaned, in true Brechtian chorus style, their poor diet, abandonment by their fiancées and other mundane issues while avoiding direct reference to the traumatic experience and pain inflicted on the family by the men's imprisonment.
  5. The setting included an isolation cell big enough for an inmate. The audience could watch the prisoner on three screens-cameras fixed outside of the cell broadcast the scene captured by three CCTV cameras inside the cell. The actor showed mental anguish of being held in isolation in a narrowly confined space under a glaring bright light. He was physically and emotionally bound such that he could not stretch his arms. The double imprisonment caused him to lose his sanity and he (symbolically) smattered his faeces all over himself at the squat toilet.
  6. Mental entrapment was another theme as there were various forms of abuse that inflicted irreversible consequences on the inmates. Rape in the male prison was presented creatively through the recitation of syair, Malay poetry. The sense of fear and helplessness were two major signs that came across through the prolonged vocalisation in the representation of the experience of being raped. The pain of the victim reflected in the poetic rendition was innovative and potent. The jail slang used in the performance for the anally violated persons was stor kunyit in Malay [tumeric store]. Air sabun [soap water] used as the lubricant was another pointer of male sexual violence in the syair. Although the English subtitles for the Malay poetic rendition on the screen seemed comical, the ritualistic oral performance coupled with the apt emotional expressions had successfully instilled a traumatic effect.
  7. Other Malay slang terms used in the performance included kes cermin [mirror case] to refer to a heterosexual rape case. At the beginning of the performance, a jailbird seen masturbating was referred to comically as sending SMS [Short Message System] messages. Two terms used to categorise the prisoners in Impenjarament were sin khek and lao khek, which mean new guest and old guest, respectively. These terms have a Hokkien origin. Hokkien, one of the commonly spoken dialects among Chinese speakers in Singapore, is a Chinese dialect of Southern China.
  8. In the final innovative rhythmic performance the inmates compared imprisonment with their pre-prison daily routines. The breakfast, the work, the lunch, the exercise, the dinner and the tiredness, the silence, the inner conflict over occupational stress were compared to parallels in prison. The steps were well choreographed through an encircling movement among the eight actors to symbolise the rotating life cycle of nothingness as one returned to the beginning of life. Using a towel as the only prop, the simplicity of the rendition was both stark and striking to the audience.
  9. There were two types of human sound performances highlighted separately in the production, namely the burping orchestra and the whistling band. These seemed to be safe favourite pastimes in the prison as there was literally little meaning in the human sounds, and hence they were socially neutral entertainment. The racist remarks uttered by the inmates completed the reality of the prison life. In short, then, the true colours of human nature were explored in prison. In the hard prison environment devoid of common social mores, one would not expect the inmates to greet one another in an exchange of phatic communion in their daily face-to-face encounters.
  10. The inmates' fear of leaving the prison was another theme, this one showing the dependency created by the formulaic life sequence in the institution. The abundance of food in and the 'possession' of accommodation made day-to-day life convenient to the point of being attractive. The inhabitants did not need to worry about their next meal, their utility bills, or the clothes on their backs. Ironically in the performance, the inmate who was supposed to leave the prison cried his eyes out the night before. The outside world seemed more frightening to him than the prison. Having to re-learn modern living and secure his dignity had a crippling effect on the man after the experience of a set living standard.
  11. The show was an eye-opener to audience members who had little inkling about prison life. The actors were versatile, playing multiple roles and having to switch from alienated expressions to emotionally imbued lines expressing their personal reflections that made some audience members teary-eyed. They were fearful, pitiful, comical, dreadful and most entertaining to watch in their roles. Together with all her crew and cast, Aidli put together an innovative production showing the different aspects of imprisonment for the jailbirds as well as their family members. Indeed, this performance could be likened to a bowl of delicious Malay dish of pineapple, cucumber, peanut, thick soya sauce, and bean sprout that blended into a sweet-and-sour Asiatic mound.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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