If you’ve had the privilege of experiencing Five Arts Centre’s A Notional History, consider yourself fortunate.
This Malaysian theatrical production, under the direction of Mark Teh, stands as a genuine treasure within our local performing arts scene.
With remarkable artistry, A Notional History skillfully navigates the intricate depths of a subject that might initially seem unexciting – history.
To make it more daunting, it’s the very history that most Malaysians were compelled to memorise in order to obtain the Malaysian school certificate.
Even the props featured in the documentary performance are none other than authentic history textbooks that have been part of the Malaysian education system.
However, the trio of performers, including activist and artist Fahmi Reza, journalist Rahmah Pauzi, and musician-actor Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, masterfully turned this seemingly dull and intimidating topic into a captivating and deeply relatable masterpiece.
What truly distinguishes this production is its remarkable ability to engage your mind, stir your emotions, and stimulate your thinking.
It takes you on a journey beyond textbook pages, forging a profound connection with the historical narrative.
One of the most compelling features of the 80-minute performance is the uncommon presentation of documentary footage, which includes interviews with Malaysia’s exiled communists, notably the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, Chin Peng.
Looking at the faces of these often condemned figures, who resemble your neighbourly grandparents more than the ruthless villains they’ve been portrayed as, and listening to their articulate conversations in Malay, the national language, was nothing short of surreal.
Did their words overflow with national pride as they expressed their convictions? Did that hint of an East Coast accent accompany the stinging sarcasm often wielded by the most refined Malay speakers?
They were far from the China-worshipping communists I had been led to believe.
By mid show, we had developed a profound empathy for every individual who appeared on screen, despite having just heard their voices for the first time, and regardless of our differing convictions in political ideology.
Rahmah then raises a thought-provoking question: Is there a place for us to cease erasing the history of those who did not emerge victorious?
Instead, is it possible to allow more people to learn about the events, incidents, and lives of those who exist beyond the boundaries we meticulously establish for ourselves and anticipate others to conform to?
As Fahmi, Rahmah, and Faiq Syazwan took turns unravelling the layers of the lesser-known parts of Malaysian history that were intentionally left out of our textbooks, it felt like we had uncovered a long-hidden family secret that carried a sense of shame.
Presented through a moving blend of music and performance art, A Notional History encourages us to examine the stories concealed within the ordinary pages of school books.
It prompts us to question how politics and propaganda impact the impressionable minds of young people and the public through the media.
After sold-out performances in Malaysia, Belgium, and Japan in 2022, A Notional History embarked on a 2023 tour, with shows scheduled at the Seoul Performing Arts Festival in South Korea and SPIELART Das Theaterfestival in München, Germany.
The final segment of the tour is set to take place at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide, Australia, from November 3rd to 4th.
Five Arts Centre is also approaching its 40th anniversary in 2024 and hopes to raise RM160,000 for the enhancement of technical equipment in their studio space at GMBB, Kuala Lumpur. Their two-month crowdfunding campaign is scheduled to run from September 12 to November 12, 2023. You can support them here.
All images were sourced from Five Arts Centre.