ZHAO ZIJUN

As a Brit who has never had the opportunity to travel beyond Europe, I confess I went into Atomic Jaya with very little knowledge of Malaysian history and culture. The glossary I was handed upon entry was therefore very much welcome, and well-produced in terms of both usefulness and appearance. While the team did cater to their white audience in providing the glossary, I was pleased that otherwise the production celebrated Southeast Asian culture and did not hold back in its parody. It was clear that some of the jokes I missed were due to my unfamiliarity with the context because those in the audience who did get the references responded well. It is a testament to the need for better representation in the plays we programme that the opening night of Atomic Jaya was so well supported by the Southeast Asian community in Cambridge; global plays are clearly capable of attracting a strong audience, and equally capable of being accessible and enjoyable across cultural barriers.

"What is so incredible about this production is that it makes the most of the comedy in the political satire"

Atomic Jaya was originally written as a one-man show (though writer Huzir Sulaiman and his wife, actor-director Claire Wong, have split the 16 roles between them in Malaysian and Singaporean revivals); this production, however, had 11 actors. The team managed the changes well, with smart directorial choices by Shameera Lin and Jonathan Chan ensuring that the play felt intended for its larger cast. Costumes (Khai Khai Saw and Emma Soh) were well considered, and technology (by Eugene Chia and Lyndon Teng) was used effectively throughout, with lighting changes to denote narrative shifts and projections for news broadcasts. Not all of our audience responded to the voiceover command to stand for the Malaysian national anthem (mainly because we were not sure whether it was actually expected), but standing did give a better view of the lyrics in Malay and English projected onto the walls behind the cast. Scene changes were playfully done with disco lighting and the actors dancing the props on to the stage to relevant music from Asian and Anglophone cultures. This sounds bizarre (and initially it is) but the quirky becomes funny as the audience buys into it. A similarly surreal highlight was the propaganda song about the bomb performed by the whole cast, revelling in its mediocrity.

The play follows Dr Mary Yuen (Iris Li) – a Chinese-Malaysian physicist who studied in America before returning to Malaysia in 1995 – as she reflects on the six months during which she helped to build the Malaysian atomic bomb. Li seemed initially nervous but quickly settled into the role, and her delivery was great throughout if her movements were occasionally a little too shuffling. Her narrative kept momentum, however, and her naturalism was all the better for its contrast to the stylised characters around her. One such character was General Zulkifli (Matthew Ryan), the Napoleon-obsessed military man overseeing the bomb project. Ryan portrays Zulkifli with gusto, sustaining a rigid martial posture and playing to the humour of the General’s naivety with heightened facial expressions and good comic timing. Ryan’s only slip was seeming slightly too proud of Zulkifli’s botched pronunciation of ‘c’est la vie’, but we forgive him for the amusement we share.

Dr Yuen’s colleagues making the bomb are the Malaysian Dr Saiful and the Indian Dr Ramachandran, both of whom are underqualified and undeterred by the fact. Both Christian Yeo (Saiful) and Dhruv Sharma (Ramachandran) made their debuts in Cambridge theatre with fantastically funny performances here, each amplifying the national caricatures. Special mention must also go to Claire Chung, who played Noraini and the Cabinet Minister and, despite only momentary appearances, made a lasting impact with her perfectly pitched characterisation; the audience were particularly pleased whenever the Cabinet Minister came on stage for another blatantly false statement. Southeast Asian accents were strong across the board, but unfortunately, George Solomou’s Russian accent (as Otto) slipped occasionally in his otherwise good performance.


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What is so incredible about this production is that it makes the most of the comedy in the political satire; potentially serious moments are undermined immediately by humour so frequently that it is easy to forget that this is a play about the atomic bomb and the very real devastation it could cause. As Dr Yuen faces this monumental moral dilemma, the audience laughs at the host of hopeless individuals around her, and her own inability to understand them. Atomic Jaya is a light-hearted parody of Southeast Asia, and while those familiar with the local politics and culture may get more out of the play, particularly in moments of quick delivery, it is nonetheless fun for all. I cannot recommend it enough.

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