Gadis Ayu Terakhir
Diversity is a buzz word in theatre at the moment but often people’s perception of what diversity means can look just one way. Challenging this is Gadis Ayu Terakhir. The creators of this show, Alysha Nelson and Alisha Rahim strive to present theatre for the diasporic community through a unique and alternative lens, challenging the cultural consensus on what ‘diversity’ really means.
Gadis Ayu Terakhir uses traditional Malay theatre to explore the exotification of Southeast Asian women. The play delves into the urban legend of Mahsuri, hailed as the most beautiful woman in Langkawi. She married a warrior but when he went away to war, she was accused of adultery. She tried to defend herself but nobody believed her, and when she was finally stabbed white blood flew from her body – signifying her innocence. With her dying breath she cursed Langkawi to seven generations of bad luck. They were soon invaded by the Siamese army.
In order to tell this story, Gadis Ayu Terakhir weaves together many different artistic and theatrical elements from both a virtual world and the real world. Their company used projection mapping to demonstrate technology’s relationship to preserve and exploit cultural heritage, deliberately altering the data of a real time game engine to imbue it with underrepresented perspectives. This was done in accompaniment to their performance of an ancient form of Malay performance art (Mak Yong – a UNESCO protected artform that was outlawed in SE Asia after the wake of colonialism); an intensely effective use of exploring the cultural vs the capital.
The audience see Alysha and Alisha perform live, often incorporating traditional Malaysian movement and dance in front of a film with both historic and current footage from Malaysia. Interspersed with all of this is the fact that key words and phrases such as ‘Where Are You From/Where Are You Really From’ and ‘Graceful/Beautiful/Beast/Commodity’ flash up and signify that the footage and the narrative may not quite be as simple as it seems. At times a shadow world, Wayang Kulit (a traditional Malay puppet theatre) was also projected onto the set. All of these elements work together to really show the audience just how stark the relationship is between Western colonisation and intracultural objectification.
The show is also an interesting watch when it seems like there is a huge amount of discussion currently around Women’s rights, following ‘that’ speech in Barbie! (Who would have thought I could discuss the Barbie movie and Gadis Ayu Terakhir in one post!). Whilst I adored Barbie the movie and the sentiment behind it, there exists an intricate nuance surrounding femme South East Asian bodies that tends to remain less explored in mainstream discussions, particularly when it comes to how they intersect with the modern West. With other shows around such as ‘Untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’ (which is running again in London at the same time as Gadis Ayu Terakhir), one might suggest viewing both to get a deeper understanding of these themes in very different stylistic depictions.
The performers Alysha and Alisha perform with ease and open the show luring the audience into almost a false sense of security that the show will be a comfortable watch for them however by the end I found myself examining my own lens that I often view things through. Their expressions were also perfectly pitched, at points mirroring the gaze that the women depicted in the video have and at others a cold hard stare which raised questions not only about the objectification of Femme South East Asian women but more particularly the performers we saw in front of us.
Camden People’s Theatre also seems like a great choice of venue. Situated at the centre of a multicultural city, London’s acknowledged diversity and vibrancy are readily apparent. Yet when examined in more detail through the lens of this show, a more intricate narrative emerges. Here, the concept of multiculturalism becomes entwined with a historical tapestry of colonial dominion. Productions like Gadis Ayu Terakhir play a crucial role in illuminating these underlying facets.
For those that often speak about diversity in theatre then I would suggest seeing Gadis Ayu Tarakhir, it provides a lens to see theatre from an unexplored point of view and one that you may find your own assumptions challenged.
The show itself was performed at Camden People’s Theatre on 13th March, although it is returning later this year. If you want to see for yourself what this show is about then it can be found at Camdens People Theatre on the 26th and 27th September. You can book tickets here.
If you like this article you might also like my article on why amateur theatre is racist.