Frenemies, by Navtej Johar

Ng Yi-Sheng

July 3, 2015

Ooh boy. This one’s a weird show to talk about.

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A little buzz went around the Internet regarding how this production is extremely queer, and that all us LGBTIQA+ folks should come down and support it.

Frankly, its queerness should’ve been pretty obvious to anyone reading the advertising. It’s an adaptation of the controversial gay French playwright Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, which is about two young housemaids who play weird romance/dominance/submission games with each other in their mistress’s bedroom, each pretending to be the other’s mistress and/or lover in turn, both rebelling against and reinforcing the social structures that oppress them.

The Maids
US (1976)
Film
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Btw, some folks claim Genet intended the show to be performed by young boys in drag. Yep, he was not Monsieur Wholesome, that man.

But Frenemies is… different.

To start off with, it’s a dance duet. Bharatanatyam, performed by Navtej Johar (also the choreographer) and Lokesh Bharadwaj. And here in Singapore, it’s pretty revolutionary to have traditional Indian dance performing ANY narrative beyond the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. There’d be congratulatory squeals about the bravery of using bharatanatyam to perform a Shakespearean O-Level text, by god.

And here they’re doing a queer play about two queer maids who want to murder their mistress. And it’s stated that they’re referencing the lives of other cloistered women in Indian history: the devadasis or temple dancers, the tawaifs or courtesans.

But there’s no drag. Instead, it’s all stripped-down, fine white linens, no attempt to show Navtej as anything other than a massively moustachioed middle-aged man, no hiding of Lokesh’s well-toned and fuzzy chest.

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And yes, it is all fine – every movement seems borrowed from classical dance, even the strange moments where they tremble holding teacups or cradle forks and platters. Even as (particularly when?) they dominate one another, asserting mastery and servitude…

They become one another’s nawabs and slaves, one sitting and gazing imperiously at the audience while the other fans the other, like something out of a Mughal miniature…

And it’s queer rather than gay. I can see why the MDA didn’t have any problems with it. There’s no kissing, no sexual desire per se, more of a longing for human contact, the cruelty of the beloved to the lover…

Okay, maybe it is a bit gay, because there’s this marvellous sequence where they take a tablecloth and fold it, fold it again, fold it into a rope which they twist, moving their bodies around one another under it ripples into a bouquet of folds, holding it, as if consecrating their relationship.

Until they unfold it and one of them just steps all over it…

Yeah, not a gay pride thing. This show isn’t proud of male-male love. It’s interested in how (when?) it doesn’t work.

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But that moment towards the end, where they move into a divine pair, standing, progressing slowly towards us as if in a dream or mist, like a god and his consort…

I don’t have the vocabulary, the training, to talk about dance. It’s hard for me to process non-verbal performances, always, let alone critique them. And I have to confess this was difficult for me. My mind wandered, I noticed my boyfriend falling asleep…

And yet he says he loved it. Five out of five, he says. Some of it was the entrancing music (Arvo Pärt FTW) but he loved how clean, how simple it was. And I appreciate how strange it is, how brave it is, to move tradition (embattled tradition, chest-thumpingly nationalist tradition in the age of Modi) into a new level of discourse and possibilities.

Mind you, Keng Sen was able to appreciate it on a whole different level since he actually acted as the Mistress in a 1986 production of The Maids, clad in a chrysanthemum gold dress by Thomas Wee, with Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu at his beck and call…

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He insists he was just an overgrown primary school kid back then.  Which must mean that he was a very stupid child, because according to  his birthdate in Wikipedia , he must have kept back in primary school till the age of 23. (Cackle, cackle. )

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  • 2015