Instant Café Theatre Company, Malaysia

Visy Theatre

World Theatre Festival

Wednesday 13th – Sunday 17th February 2013


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


Does a word really have the power to change the course of a friendship?


Four characters – three guys and a girl – the archetypal responses to racial conflict in a multicultural Malaysian setting that continues to challenge, on many levels, on matters of race and gender.


The company started out in Kuala Lumpur, with political satire, their humour allowing the dissection and delivery of current affairs in Malaysia. “The mouth opens wide so the truth can slip in.”


Now, using young actors and age-old issues (issues that theatre makers have shied away from in the past), Parah explores the controversy over the use of the word ‘pariah’ in Interlok, a Malay novel, and one of the set texts in Malay schools. Unknown outside Malaysia, the novel causes controversy that challenges authorities and rocks relationships. Playwright, Alfian Sa’at observed after the performance during an enlightening Q&A session, “a school text book that continues to perpetuate stereotypes is going to cause damage.” And, “so much is about race but part of it is gender. Negotiating what it is to be male.” Alfian Sa’at’s Parah comes with many layers.


While four friends can work together and play together, they also discover “each other’s deeper personal histories, stories or tragedies.” Director, Jo Kukathas, in an appropriately traditional storytelling context, brings forth their individual stories to reveal the racial tensions that simmer beneath the surface of everyday life in multi-cultural Malaysia, a relatively young country, continually working on creating an identity. It could be Australia. The landscape is certainly familiar.


Alfian Sa’at spoke about the young people he had interviewed during the writing process. He told us that some of them were very scarred from racial politics in school. “The wounds are really quite deep. Young people feel these things differently but might not have the words…”


A dynamic cast – Iedil Putra (Hafiz), Gregory Sze (Kahoe), Branavan Aruljothi (Mahesh) and Farah Rani (Melur, the only female, representing the conscience of the play) – bring the focus of the piece to the words we so casually employ as friends. I’m going to use a word to contextualise this, so please don’t be offended by my use here of the word “keling”, a derogatory term, which the protagonist, Mahesh, explains he would prefer not to hear used by anybody, least of all his friends. His “friend”, Hafiz, misses the point and so begins the breakdown of their relationship and a stern discourse about racism and the choices available to people in positions of authority to do good, not evil. This story ends in triumph, and yes, there are tears, but not before a great deal of laughter, especially from the Malay audience members, who get all the gags.


A hot topic of conversation following the show, neither the language nor the surtitles bothered me. I studied Bahasa at high school, just enough to have recognised at least the Malay numbers and many of the words. But because I wanted to understand the issues, I found myself reading the surtitles as well as “reading” the action on stage. I love words so if there are words in front of me I’ll read them. For those without a staple diet of Opera, Art House and SBS films during their adolescence, or without hearing impaired family members or friends; you may not have had the same level of exposure to surtitles in the theatre. Don’t let that put you off going to a show! Last year there were three shows using surtitles at WTF!


Sam suggested that, just like selecting a 3D movie screening or not, there could be an option within the festival program to see each surtitled production without the surtitles. Of course, this would offer two completely different readings of a play for those who don’t speak the delivery language. Members of the production team feel very strongly that Parah can only be performed in Malay. As Charmaine noted, “There’s no other language in the world that can emulate some feelings.”



Parah is just a taste of what the World Theatre Festival brings to the Brisbane theatrical landscape. It’s a powerful play that stands with pride and says quietly and confidently, “Look at me. I’m just like you. An immigrant. I love my history and I love my country, and here we all are, in this place together, working out what we will be.”



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