Two wives.
Two strategies.
A missing husband.
Part mystery, part love-story.
A tale of love, betrayal and human survival set in a world where only the fittest will survive.

The above is the blurb for The Sandpit: Womensis, a theatre production presented by Five Arts Centre and Pocketsize Productions (Penang). Written by KS Maniam, it was last staged 18 years ago*. Director Chee Sek Thim decided to bring it back to contemporary audiences, along with actors Anne James and Ho Sheau Fung.

That would sum up everything I knew of this show when I bought my ticket for last night.

The production begins with two women on opposite sides of a sparse, slightly oversized space. Santha is at home, waiting. Sumathi is out in the dodgy love hotel where she first met her husband. Each woman has a chair in their section. Through their monologues, it is revealed that their (shared) husband, Dass, is missing.

Santha is the first wife; ignored, restrained and devoted. A traditional Indian housewife, she sits the proper and “respectable” distance on the ground from her husband’s chair.  In her monologues, she occasionally lets slip a catty judgement about the improprieties of the second wife, Sumathi.

Sumathi is the younger, wilful and cruder second wife, eager to escape the stifling traditions of her family. Of course, Santha is just like her family — all about rules and appearances. Sumathi attempts to carve out her own place in the world, but only seems to do it by being (in her eyes) the better wife, and the trespasser of male spaces (like hanging out in the love hotel where the other women are sex workers).

The women never directly address each other. Though missing, their husband’s presence pervades the entire show — mostly because his wives can’t stop talking about him. We learn, through some pretty good work from actor Anne James, that Dass was born disabled (“crippled, crawling like an insect / worm / cicak” etc), but mostly overcame it through sheer determination.

The sandpit in the play’s title refers to a hole in the ground Dass dug with a spatula. He built up his strength by training his legs to stand in it over months at a time. Outsider/masculinity issues abound. Hence, I suppose, the good wife of stature (for the outcaste without), and the…second wife (for the he-man within).

We learn that Dass is now heavy-set and strong. A downtown gangster, he commands enough fear that people in his area give him money. Dass’ shady friends from his dodgy workplace make appearances here and there. (I spent most of my time wondering who the hell they were in the play.)

So what happens when you bring a 20-year-old play to a contemporary audience? Well, the historical significance to Malaysian theatre is interesting. But I didn’t connect with the play at all. Simply put, I found it horribly tedious.

The play is text-heavy. It doesn’t matter what you understand, or how quickly, the women will take turns to painfully explain the neurotic mechanisms of their relationship with Dass and each other. Bless the small mercy that Dass wasn’t there to have his own expository monologues too.

Minus the fact that they don’t actually speak to anyone, I’m really not too sure The Sandpit would pass a Bechdel test any better than a Michael Bay film could.

Ho Sheau Fung was not a convincing Indian, but I don’t think she was trying to be. The direction was quite clearly “second wife stereotype”.  The language of the text didn’t really match Sheau Fung’s  portrayal — so we’re left with a Sumathi who unconvincingly insists on speaking in relatively formal English most of the time. She has a Chinese accent to rival the best of squabbling hawkers in Imbi market (porridge stall aunty and uncle, I’m gossiping about you). And, she also has a sense of sentence structure like she could read The Star while drawing red circles around all the grammar mistakes she finds (ma, are you reading this?).

Casting Sheau Fung as Sumathi is an intellectual exercise for everyone, and I was feeling a bit lazy this Saturday. Couldn’t hold my arms high enough to suspend my disbelief. Also made me wonder if anyone would cast Anne James as Ang Tau Mui.

Somewhere during the long explanations, and the repeated symbols the audience is exposed to (tradition = sari, not traditional = body language kangkang all the time etc), I got really bored.

I got so bored, I mentally started chopping my hand along the center of the stage, separating the actors from each other. I think the text would be much stronger as two separate monologues. Santha’s monologue felt like the main story, and Sumathi mostly came across as a reactionary afterthought, a shadow to Santha’s emotional depth. Combined, they pulled each other’s energy down and turned potentially strong monologues into caricatures within a Madonna/Whore writing exercise.

Maybe the age of the text is showing itself as well. Sure, there were some real wicked zingers from Santha about Sumathi’s (lacking) dignity. And we have some intelligent acting from both actors. There are moments where the women delve into the past, and we are transported with them — that’s the stuff of good monologues. I liked the body language and movements, even the occasional singing. But jebus, was the 80s really so long ago?

Some parts of it felt as old as the text, like when a distraught Sumathi collapses in a prayer-like pose (cue: LIGHTS DIM). Or Santha’s climatic screech of pain, something I’ve seen in other productions but never been a fan of (cue: PSYCHO VIOLINS — fine, that didn’t exactly happen, but it may as well have). At least no one laughed when she screamed, which could really have gone either way with a Malaysian audience.

Anyway, I don’t think mine is the majority view. I’ve been reading praises for the performances and text from others who’ve watched the show. The audience seemed to like it well enough, while I didn’t even stay behind for the Q&A with KS Maniam after. There’s probably some stuff I didn’t pick up or understand. Like why it’s called The Sandpit: Womensis. Women-sisters? Oasis of Women? Saya pun tatau. I would really like to know what so many people enjoyed about it though.

Overall, for me, the reason to watch The Sandpit is merely this: People watched it a long time ago. It’s an interesting point in our theatre history. But…the play itself may be less interesting than its historical significance la.

*my math is terrible, and I would rather type this out than pull out a calculator.
*Also, I’m late for scale and rushing this post, so pandai-pandai la, don’t assume I remember/wrote everything accurately.