Opium in Malaysia thrills theatre fans

opium

Opium by Hands Percussion was a wow! Fans of Edith Piaf would have been thrilled. First we were separated into “red” and “green” groups, then we followed the person holding the red or green Chinese-lettered placards. We climbed four flights of stairs to the rooftop of the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Petaling Jaya.

From the rooftop back down the stairs, to an obviously unused covered space, then back up the stairs to the rooftop for the rest of the show called Opium by award-winning homegrown arts group, Hands Percussion.

All that traipsing up and down, personally, was a quirky site-specific experience reminiscent of a nearby island’s art festival outing. It was different from our usual laidback Malaysian stage affair. It also reminded me of being in a tour group, with Mandarin and English instructions from the ‘leader’ to boot!

Thankfully, the “walk” came on a fine evening, lending a sense of Hands’ artistic director Bernard Goh’s memories of France and his wonderful explorations of that city of love.

Opium turned out to be an artistically interesting show.

It started arrestingly with Drumbeat of Pain, on the rooftop. The spotlight shone on the vocal ability of Mathilde Limal, alongside the versatility of cellist Florain Antier and accordion player Azli Taslim.

Hands Percussion performers, sporting faces painted white, bolstered these main performers, in a haunting, mime kind of way. Calligrapher Ong Chia Koon painted strokes on their bodies as they stood frozen like statues.Drumbeat of Pain featured an original Hands’ composition with Limal singing mainly in French. Sometimes she just vocalised, sometimes she hummed.Azli and Antier took their instruments into pulsating arenas of music but soon the Hands ‘statues’ started moving towards their drums to beat a rhythm while others mimed gestures, bringing Limal’s powerful refrain, “Come take my pain away” to theatrical effect. That exhilarating start to Opium hit a contemplative tone with Tunnel of Memories, which was on DPAC’s ground floor. Featuring an art installation by Anne Deguerry of  paper blocks sticking out from a wall, pianist-music arranger Yuan Leow Yunn and guitarist Alubkhan performed a piece before a child wandered on to draw faces of women (I think) on a central pillar with coloured chalk to the ivory-key tinkle of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

When Goh came on to sing in French and Mandarin, his performance had a changing montage of French city scapes like the Eiffel Tower amid that of a clock ticking backwards. It conveyed his version of memories and associations like chalk drawings in a gentle way. Unfortunately, surtitles would have better helped carry the effect of this possibly original ballad.

Fake Freedom proved a visceral delight. Set on a ledge beside the rooftop, Hands members “danced” to music played by a Hands musician on a gamelan gong, Howz on the erhu and Hands’ Jimmy Ch’ng on the Chinese drum on which this awesome group made its name from 1997.

With five performers, all Hands Percussion members, a fight was staged while romance was blossoming on one end, or being found or one finding one’s true sense of being.

The choreography by DPAC’s artistic director Wong Jyh Shyong was tight, portraying the concepts of illusion and reality.  The Hands performers outdid themselves. They showed they can not only be energetic in their Chinese drum performance but now, theatrical too.

The finale at the rooftop was preceded by Ong painting his impressions on the floor, in a side space, which was hard to see given the one-level seating. But Limal, Antier and the Hands’ “dancers” on the gamelan as well as other troupe members sent up the ante with Edith Piaf’s songs. What is France without Mdm Piaf? From “Non, je ne regrette rien” to a fun variation of “La vie en rose”, the applause and hoots were well earned by everyone in Opium.

This first site-specific show by Hands Percussion as part of DPAC’s Arts Festival broke new ground for the arts group. That willingness to explore new theatrical elements added frissons of excitement to Malaysia’s leading percussion group. Hands down, it was a memorable performance.

** This review appeared in the New Straits Times, August 2016

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