Life! picks the classics of Singapore’s English- language theatre and tells you why they matter, in this monthly series in its 11th instalment
Play: Atomic Jaya (March 1998)
Playwright: Huzir Sulaiman
What it is about: Physicist Mary Yuen gets the shock of her life when she is summoned to help build Malaysia’s first atomic bomb. As she collides with one wacky character after another, from a shady uranium smuggler to an army general with a Napoleon complex, the political satire takes on racial issues, national hubris and the post-colonial hangover. It was designed as a one-man show, with one actor playing all 16 parts.
Mary Yuen starts out minding her own business, zapping basmati rice and prawns with gamma rays to see if she can preserve them. But by the end of Atomic Jaya’s boisterous ride, she has dodged a couple of near-death experiences and snow- balling conspiracy theories and made use of a family friend in an attempt to get uranium.
The premise of Huzir’s play is outlandish – but not unthinkable.
In fact, in the 1990s in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia-born playwright had looked up a directory of government agencies, where he had found the Malaysian Institute of Nuclear Technology Research. Among their listed activities: the preservation of rice and prawns.
“I didn’t make that up – that part was not made up,” the now Singapore-based Huzir reiterates as his wife, actor- director Claire Wong, giggles.
And to prove that fact is indeed stranger than fiction, a year after the premiere of the play, Huzir met a “brilliant Malaysian woman who had studied nuclear physics at Cambridge and worked under Stephen Hawking and had returned to Malaysia and found herself in the same situation as Mary Yuen”.
The playwright, 42, recalls: “She found that the play captured incredibly accurately the moral dilemma of being a physicist… she too had the option of becoming a weapons physicist in the West and then she decided to come back to Malaysia.”
It is that grain of truth – or in this case, a grain of radioactive rice – that has made this rollicking satire a beloved text both in Malaysia and Singapore, one that has prompted numerous revivals, most recently in Singapore in 2013 with Wong and Karen Tan playing all 16 parts.
Huzir and Wong have been habitually claimed by both sides of the Causeway.
They are both Malaysians and Singapore permanent residents, and Wong has found it impossible to choose between both countries.
She said in a previous interview: “One is my mother and one is my father, and that’s the honest truth.”
Huzir had returned to Malaysia from his studies in the United States in 1993. He says: “What is at the centre of Atomic Jaya is the story of a Malaysian who studies abroad and comes back and tries to find a place in the system. So, on some bizarre level, as with all of my plays, there is an autobiographical element to that.”
He adds: “I was also trying to put across on a human level the struggles of somebody who wants to make a difference, but comes up against a system that is frequently absurdist, bewildering and doesn’t always have the best intentions.”
This seed of an idea was combined with a long-time fascination with physics. At age 13, a family friend had given him Robert Jungk’s book Brighter Than A Thousand Suns: A Personal History Of The Atomic Scientists.
Huzir started writing Atomic Jaya at the end of 1997, a year after setting up his own theatre group in Malaysia, the Straits Theatre Company. He had just written his first full-length solo show, Lazy Hazy Crazy, woven from 10 sketches involving multiple voices and different takes on society. But he wanted to write something with a central narrative thread.
Throughout the 1990s, “Malaysia was going through a period of what some might argue as ‘national hubris'”. He cites the Petronas Twin Towers, the country’s claim to the tallest buildings in the world; the outrageously expensive and painfully long-drawn Bakun Dam; and the suggestion to build a second Penang Bridge – now the longest bridge in South-east Asia. There were also other non-construction-related attempts at greatness, including the world’s longest lemang (glutinous rice in bamboo).
He says: “I’m sure they had a serious development component, but there was also an element of jingoism and national myth-making. I wanted to look at that trend, but push it to the furthest extreme possible. And I thought, what is the most hubristic of national projects?
“It was, and still is, to construct an atomic bomb.”
The theatre landscape in Malaysia during the 1990s paralleled the burst of creative energy in Singapore, where playwrights such as Eleanor Wong, Haresh Sharma, Tan Tarn How and Ovidia Yu were charging ahead with incisive new work and companies such as TheatreWorks and The Necessary Stage were championing local writing.
Both Huzir and frequent collaborator actor-director Jo Kukathas observed a similar “period of immense creativity” in Malaysia, where artists were responding to the swirling issues around them, from the Asian financial crisis to opposition politics, capped by the sacking and arrest of Anwar Ibrahim. Theatre practitioners in KL did not shy away from socio- political commentary.
It was also a rich period for Huzir, who would go on to write seven more plays in a five-year span. Atomic Jaya, in particular, was written with Kukathas in mind as the sole performer. She performed the very first incarnation of Atomic Jaya to rave reviews in March 1998 in KL.
As the piece took shape, Huzir would walk around his house with a tape recorder, improvising large sections of the play on cassette tapes before transcribing and editing them. He has since used that technique for many of his subsequent plays, to get those nuanced intonations and cadences of sentences just right.
“I would do all the voices, I would be all the different scientists,” he says, “that gave me the confidence that multiple characters were doable by one actor.”
The play quickly grew from an initial 10 pages at the first reading, with Huzir sometimes churning out pages in blasts as Kukathas did warm-ups in the studio.
She says with a laugh: “It was quite fun at rehearsals because he would bring things in and we would try them out and laugh, and then feel very worried because if you do laugh like that in rehearsals, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s very good, just that you think it’s funny at the time.”
Kukathas and Wong cite a sort of “muscle memory” entering their performances of the play, either through intense physical training, or using physical tics as an entry point to the various characters – maintaining or distinguishing 16 char- racter arcs can be quite the juggling act.
Wong, for instance, brought in her policeman father’s “swagger stick” as a prop during rehearsals that influenced her portrayal of the general as a figure of authority. Kukathas, on the other hand, nurtured a physical tic – the hand-in- waistcoat gesture Napoleon was famous for in portraits.
It was a crucial moment in 2001 when the late Malaysian theatre director and luminary, Krishen Jit, cast Wong in the leading role for a production of Atomic Jaya at The Substation. Wong and Huzir met for the first time during rehearsals and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wong was impressed by the quality of the writing and the instantly recognisable characters, while Huzir was taken by her handling of the work in putting together “a really virtuosic performance”.
They not only went out for dinner as ordered by Jit – they also shopped for costumes and continue to tease each other about their various “dates”. The couple would go on to found Checkpoint Theatre, one of the cornerstones in nurturing new playwriting in Singapore today.
Atomic Jaya has consistently garnered warm responses from critics and audiences here. There is an intrinsic empathy, one that could almost be described as a kinship, between the two countries, with Singaporeans finding a great deal in common not to laugh at, but to laugh with – whether in a politician’s struggle to take his country to a level of record-breaking greatness, or the familiar rhythms of speech or sly jokes that pick apart instantly recognisable racial stereotypes. Some Singaporean audience members assumed that the play was “done in exile”, that it could not be staged in Malaysia and was therefore performed in Singapore. But the play has always been, and continues to be, performed without censorship.
Atomic Jaya’s appeal has stretched far beyond Malaysian and Singapore shores.
Kukathas once performed it for foreign trade delegations in Malaysia, and she recalls: “They would always say to us later, ‘It was so wonderful to watch this because our country is just like that.’
“Politicians and bureaucrats are the same everywhere, aren’t they? And our relationships with them are the same… It’s a more extreme form of what you have in your country, but you still recognise that person trying to survive in a place that doesn’t care about you.”
Atomic Jaya has also been performed in the United States and by the Japan Directors Association in Japan, a country directly affected by the creation of the atomic bomb, giving the play a very different dimension.
Huzir says: “Every time we’ve done the play, it’s been scary because there’s just been a country in the headlines that has been trying to make an atomic bomb. At various stages, it’s been North Korea, it’s been Pakistan, it’s been Iran – it remains relevant.”
He adds with a laugh: “I couldn’t write the play now. Because when you have a name like Huzir Sulaiman and you start searching on the Internet ‘how to make an atomic bomb’, flags will go up.
“Then it’s a bit hard to say, ‘I’m just a playwright!'”
But there is a bitter edge to his humour: “While the play keeps being relevant on some level, other circum- stances have changed.”
Perhaps bitter medicine is the most potent when served with a generous helping of laughter.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
Huzir Sulaiman: Collected Plays 1998 – 2012, which includes Atomic Jaya, is available from Checkpoint Theatre (checkpoint-theatre.org) at $29.90.
The next instalment of this 15-part series will be published at the end of next month.