By HAMIDAH ABD RAHMAN
On the night of Oct 31, I treated myself to an online Zoom performance that was organised by theatre group Rumah Lakon. The performance, titled Borak Tepi: Read Like Rumi & Covid-19, described itself as a live, virtual show of spoken poetry that expresses the struggles and sentiments of the people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I was excited as everything about the medium sounded new and I liked the adaptable nature of Rumah Lakon, especially since the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) has for some time now imposed restrictions on physical shows. However, despite my interest, I remained slightly sceptical as to whether a performance script such as this would be able to translate well in a new virtual “space” such as Zoom.
Before delving into my thoughts on the performance, I would like to focus on the overall theme – why was this called Read Like Rumi? For context, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, more commonly known as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Islamic scholar and poet who wrote various emotional pieces pertaining to spirituality, the human condition, love and desire. The themes performed in the online show were similar to the aforementioned themes of Rumi’s poems. The characters expressed poems that focused on the feelings of love, longing, desire and depression, representing the sentiments of people who are struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, I found it quite strange that they had titled the story Read Like Rumi, when none of the poems performed were written by the Persian poet. Some of the poems were originals from the playwright, but the rest had been selected from other poets to aid the structure of the play. Although I understand why the idea of Rumi was chosen from an emotional, thematic aspect, I do not quite understand why the late poet was chosen for the basis and title of the show, since the poems performed could just as easily have been related to any other in existence.
So now, did I think the poetry of Read Like Rumi translated well through Zoom, this new virtual performance space? My answer, quite bluntly, would be no. However, I would like to clarify that Zoom as a performance medium was not the sole issue here; it was the script that had missed the mark, I found.
To me, a good script is defined as any storytelling able to convey its meaning and interpretation to its audience. If an audience understands the writer/director/actor’s intentions through the depth and layering of a story, that would make a performance favourable to me. But I could not feel that with the online show.
Read Like Rumi was definitely an abstract play, evident in the poetic script and nameless characters that were left up to interpretation by the audience – however, those were the biggest drawbacks for me. Since the performance had such a large thematic concept and such ambiguous characters, it made it difficult for me to ground the story, to the point that I almost forgot that the poems were supposed to discuss human experiences within the current pandemic.
The script did not seem to narrow in on specific issues pertaining to the subject of Covid-19 struggles, and this in turn created too much room and complexity for the show to be interpreted. Other than this, I felt lost, as an audience, as to what I was supposed to derive from a scene. I think the broad nature of the writing could have worked on stage, but perhaps within the limited virtual space, it did not translate as well. At some points, it even made me think that serious themes, such as depression, were romanticised. I felt this especially during the poems that were performed by actors who seemed to be saying everything, and nothing, all at once.
Furthermore, I felt that there was a sense of trivialising real issues which made it difficult for me to truly appreciate the story. Although I liked the way that the director had incorporated current events through the role of an “influencer”, I strongly disagreed with the character’s comical portrayal. I do think his role was crucial in highlighting the burdens of the Malaysians undergoing the CMCO, but the exaggerated characterisation made the problems that were mentioned seem trivial. I understand that this may not have been the intention of the director nor the actor, but since the issues that were brought up by the “influencer” were real struggles, I wished that he was portrayed in a more serious manner and with more depth, as opposed to a one-dimensional, caricature. However, I did enjoy the constant voiceover of the news, as it indicated the passing of time in Malaysia’s combat against Covid-19, and I also appreciate the actor’s effort to keep up with his numerous costume changes.
I have considered that perhaps the play’s unreached intentions were the fault of Zoom. Actors were only allowed to act within the small space of their webcam lenses, and this did not give them much room for movement and physicality. Moreover, the actors were not able to physically bounce off the energy from their co-stars, nor were they were able to derive energy from a live audience, which they would have surely had in a stage show.
These factors may have impacted their performance and perhaps if those physical aspects had been fulfilled, the intentions behind Read Like Rumi might have been able to translate better for me. Nonetheless, I do not blame Zoom entirely for the faults of the virtual show because, ultimately, I believe that it is the role of the script that truly matters. Scripts are the spine of every performance, which means that a good script will always translate well, even when the performance is on a screen.
Despite my criticism here, I acknowledge the effort put in by Rumah Lakon and everyone involved in Read Like Rumi. I did enjoy hearing the creative processes behind the live show, and I found it especially intriguing to hear how the director played around with lighting for the performance, as actors were confined within their respective webcam screens.
Even though the abstract nature of the online show might have been too ambitious to translate through a virtual space, I commend the cast and crew for having tried it in the first place. I also applaud everyone who was involved for preparing Read Like Rumi in such a short amount of time, which made the show even more relevant and current. They demonstrated that creativity knows no bounds – and that if their performance could be adapted for a Zoom experience, then other artists should also continue to release art on virtual media. And I look forward to the next Rumah Lakon production to see how they continue to adapt.
Hamidah Abd Rahman is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021