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Session 6 - Death

Writer-in-residence, Kembali: Dia Hakim Khaeri

Engagement date: 7 July 2022


“Performance is ephemeral, as it is enacted, so it does die.”

Nabilah Said, Pretty Displaced (2019, ArtsEquator).

There is a dua (prayer) that I say on autopilot when I hear about a death. “Innalillahi wa innali rajiun”. To Allah we belong, and to Them we return.

In drama school, I’ve learnt many things about performance. It doesn’t matter where it lives – dance, theatre, the cinema screen. But of course, dance and theatre stick painfully out next to the screen. The live element of performance lasts only for the show. The moment a movement – a flick, a wave, a turn – is placed on stage, it dies immediately. Sure, moments can be photographed. But even the best post-production photos will never match up to the feeling that both the artist and audience feels in the place they are performing. A gravestone, almost. Or perhaps the funeral, eulogy and burial all crammed into one.

Immediately, there is a sense of irony that I feel as I think about Both Sides. Bear with me. When death is closely intertwined with performance, I started to wonder how meshing the very concept of death – bare, using the word death death death in all the shows, scripts and talks — would bode on stage. It may sound pretentious, but again, bear with me.

Theatre is no stranger to death. Beyond the philosophical concept of death in performance, we have our share of displaying what it means to die onstage. Shakespeare contemplates death in the height of Hamlet. Euripedes allows Medea to murder her own children. Konstantin outright kills himself by the end of Chekhov’s Seagull, his pre-planned death given to the audience with the existence of a gun onstage. Seemingly useless, almost a more decorative prop right up till the end.

All these examples mentioned are tragedies. One could probably infer by those endings or instances in those plays alone.

Strangely enough, the Islamic concept of death is no different. As a young, unsuspecting Muslim, the message of death being painful, slow, that lasts till the very end – disgusted me. My mental illness quickly made me fall fast and hard for a quick one. When your life becomes so closely intertwined with death, any age beyond 30 feels old, a shell of yourself that probably shouldn’t exist.

Sitting with the participants of Kembali, I start to feel like the title of the piece is apt. To kembali – to return. When I have wanted to die, I never thought of death like it was an act of returning. I associated my death the same way performance dies. Gone when the moment ends, to never ever be seen again. Unless someone asks for a DropBox link of my photographs.

Flowers given to the makciks. They helped to arrange them into bouquets.

When we think of death onstage, we seem to be obsessed with the idea of this grandeur display of how it is enacted. The blood. The horror, the sinking disgust that both the character / performer and their audiences have to sit with.

Kembali is different. There is a sense of care that hangs in the air when being with these older women. These women have lived, much longer than I, much longer than the organisers of Both Sides, much longer than their potential audiences.

I wondered, quietly. If it is blasphemous to reconnect this sentiment with performance. In creating, we kembali to things that seem minute at a glance. They magnify when we rework, reconstruct, rebuild them.

To ask an old person what they think about death might be a slippery slope. The person themself is already more than acquainted with the subject. To ask feels almost rude. How can you ask someone so “close” to death what they feel, especially that their days seem to be more numbered? Let alone ask them to perform with you – complicit in another simultaneous death while onstage?

Hasyimah and Haizad in the midst of the ma