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TRIBAL TOTEMS & TABOOS – AND HOW TO BREAK FREE OF THEM!

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Antares catches Kee Thuan Chye’s epic Swordfish + Concubine

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Writer/producer/director  Kee Thuan Chye

As long as I’ve known journalist turned actor-playwright-author-director Kee Thuan Chye – and our friendship dates back more than three decades (including almost a decade when he “unfriended” me for bashing his 1992 staging of that infamous Scottish play) – he has struck me as a clear-headed, straight-talking sharpshooter who enjoys taking aim at all that’s mediocre, unjust and tyrannical. Whether through the written, spoken or dramatized word, Kee rarely beats about the bush. This makes his voice as a public intellectual good medicine for the national soul, even if subtlety is often sacrificed for accessibility.

This was once again evident in his latest theatrical production, Swordfish + Concubine, which marks Kee’s dramatic comeback after a long hiatus. Swordfish is an energetic, eclectic and electric take on an instructive tale recorded in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), wherein a precocious and perspicacious lad is deemed a potential threat to the mediocre powers-that-be and summarily executed. When I first came upon this fascinating folktale a long time ago, I saw it as a perfect metaphor for the intellectual and moral stagnation characteristic of feudal despotisms wherein tribal totems and taboos conveniently serve to dumb down the populace and keep them docile, servile, and blindly loyal to debauched and decadent overlords.

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Kee in his producer’s notes states that he has been shaping and reshaping this punchy parable for a good twenty years. Its first theatrical expression was in 2008 when Ivan Heng of  Wild Rice  staged it at the OCBC Singapore Theater Festival; three years later a revised version directed by Jonathan Lim was staged at Singapore’s Drama Center Black Box; and less than a year ago Swordfish was staged in Mandarin by Loh Kok Man at Pentas 2, KLPAC. So much effort has been channeled into molding this work because it’s a play that lends itself Lego-like to a variety of dramaturgic interpretations.

A bit of Brecht, a dash of Shakespeare, a whiff of Ionesco, throw in some Bangsawan and Wayang Kulit elements, insert some hip-hop  – and the result is an engaging mix of pungent satire, socio-political commentary, polemical theater and tragicomedy with a distinctly Malaysian flavor (even if the setting happens to be Singapura, an island off the Malayan peninsula once known as Temasek).

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With a dynamic, cohesive, ensemble cast of 12, a strong blend of experience and youth, and no prima donna roles, the action is a liquid, continuous flow – with dead bodies resurrecting themselves to reappear moments later in a different scene and costume changes occurring as if by magic. It wasn’t easy to keep track of the parade of personalities, as each performer played two or more characters. They had to act, sing, dance, fight and move props around as each scene merged into the next. But it was undoubtedly an enthusiastic, disciplined, focused and poignant ensemble performance – veering from commedia dell’arte style hijinks provided by Ris Kaw and Logod (the clownish “Greek” chorus, adroitly played by Iefiz Alaudin and Bella Rahim) to dark, dire and distressing theater noir (the public impalement of the Sultan’s concubine Nurhalisa, gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Hana Nadira).

As Hang Nadim, the young genius who suggested building a palisade of banana stems against the swarms of killer swordfish, Joel Timothy Low won the audience over from the outset, so that his cruel and unjust murder elicited vicarious outrage. Veteran actors Sandra Sodhy, Na’a Murad and Lam Ghooi Ket lent professional gravitas to each character they played, while the younger ones (Alfred Loh, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Qahar Adilah and Gregory Sze) gave vigor and vitality to the proceedings. As Sultan Iskandar Syah, Gregory Sze was marvelously narcissistic, vulnerable and schizoid, sentencing the woman he loved to death by impalement just so he wouldn’t be seen as a weak ruler. Alfred Loh’s portrayal of the inquisitorial trial judge was blood-curdlingly convincing; and Amanda Ang’s Tun Dara, Sultan Iskandar’s love-deprived official consort, was sensitive and poignant.

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Rhythm In Bronze (Jillian Ooi in the middle) Pic courtesy of Bella Rahim

A crucial dramatic element was the mesmerizing live “soundtrack” provided by the celebrated contemporary gamelan ensemble Rhythm In Bronze, under the masterful musical direction of Jillian Ooi and Teuku Umar Ilany (featuring guest percussionist Thong Yoong How). Indeed, almost everyone will agree that just listening to Rhythm In Bronze in action alone was worth the price of admission, they are that captivating. Choreographer Faillul Adam, costume designer Dominique Devorsine, and lighting/set designer Loh Kok Man deserve mention and a hearty round of applause for their excellent work on Swordfish + Concubine.

The political dimensions of Kee’s play are, of course, worthy of an academic treatise and everyone in the audience was electrified by the cogency and relevancy of his numerous allusions to the rotten state of affairs (at least in old Singapura, where the action takes place). All-too-familiar to us were the complacent, self-serving, sycophantic palace officials and ministers and their cunning machinations just to maintain their privileged positions and the corrupt status quo. The deification of royalty and the sanctification of “The Covenant” – a mythical Social Contract handed down from generations long gone – serve as tools of mass mind control, leading to cultural stagnation, abuse of the law, political paralysis, allowing criminals in public office unchallengeable impunity.

Setting up a “sovereign fund” and milking it for all its worth to support lavish lifestyles… the usual shenanigans that go unreported and unremarked in the muzzled media… arresting citizens for gathering without a permit in public places, charging them with sedition in the spurious name of stability and security… a secret police network payrolled by authoritarian paranoia… the very ingredients of a failed state once known as Temasek, now fallen into the hands of invaders.

But Swordfish + Concubine closes on an upbeat, optimistic note (“It’s time to rock, yo! And move to your own beat”) as the citizens begin to awake and embrace the possibility of – nay, the necessity for – radical, liberating change, a complete break from stultifying, toxic tradition.

4 November 2017

[First published in Eksentrika 4 November 2017. Production images courtesy of Pam Lim]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Knock Funny Money?

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The original Charley’s Aunt by W.S. Penley

Antares reviews Charley’s Auntie! 

Was it really worth getting totally drenched, riding through a torrential downpour on the wettest day in recent memory, to catch a Sunday matinee performance of Charley’s Auntie! at the Actors Studio Box?

Probably not. But I can’t say I didn’t have as good a time as Mr Vincent Teoh, a retired school teacher sitting next to me, who told me this was the first theater production he’d seen in his life. What prompted him to see this utterly silly but endearing (and enduring) farce? Apparently his good friend Dr Ho (from Muar) insisted that he come along. Judging from the satisfaction on his face, Mr Teoh obviously thought it was a jolly good show and would make it a point to go watch more plays in future.

This is enough to warm the heart of anyone who loves the theater and would like to see it flourish in Malaysia. There’s a vast potential market for upbeat, escapist stage productions beyond the British Airways dinner theater scene – especially for general audiences who would balk at the thought of forking out RM90++ for a few forgettable laughs to go with some fancy cuisine. And what if the material can be adapted and packaged for TV…?

The last time I was at the Box, it was to witness William Gluth’s virtuoso interpretation of I, Cyclops – which, as theater fare goes, is about as esoteric and highbrow as it gets in Kuala Lumpur. It was nice to see a full house this time and happy faces on the way out.

Sometimes, it’s a blessed relief to experience a blast of unpretentious mainstream theater. I saw The Sound of Music last year and was thoroughly delighted. I’m really not into dark and brooding, angst-driven dramas. I appreciate well produced, well performed fluff like anyone else who occasionally turns on the telly and soaks up a couple of laugh-a-minute sitcoms.

ImageAnd the great-grandmother of sitcoms has to be Charley’s Aunt – Brandon Thomas’s Edwardian masterpiece of orchestrated chaos and over-the-top foolishness – which has been running since the 1890s and has seen countless productions, amateur and professional, throughout the world.

Richard Harding Gardner wrote and directed this effervescent adaptation for a Malaysian audience, aided and abetted by producer (and accomplished actress) Chae Lian. Gardner is quick to point out that members of the cast contributed significantly to the very local flavor of the lively repartee. Indeed, there’s no way Gardner could have stopped the likes of Na’a Murad or Indi Nadarajah from embellishing his script with their own irrepressible wit. Both have performed in and contributed material to the infamous Instant Café Theatre skits. Nadarajah, in fact, is co-founder of The Comedy Court with the remarkable Allan Perera, and their hysterically funny “Loga and Singam” routine has been an indisputable runaway success.

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Na’a Murad

As Fadzil the wolf in aunt’s clothing, Na’a Murad’s expressive exuberance banishes forever the popular misconception that he isn’t every bit as cute, clever and talented as his celebrated brother Jit. And as Taufeeq the sleazy lawyer, Indi Nadarajah fully deserves a Slimy Award. Taufeeq’s profit-motivated and ardent pursuit of Charley’s “aunt” provides an excuse for a profusion of giggles and guffaws and ribald innuendo. In the best bangsawan folk theater tradition, the broad humor in Charley’s Auntie! runs the gamut from exquisite sarcasm to ludicrous farce.

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Indi Nadarajah

Rope in two energetic, fresh-faced young Romeos named Rashid Salleh and Khaeryll Benjamin as Charley and Johari; add a couple of seasoned stage veterans like the redoubtable Azean Irdawaty and the supersuave Othman Hafsham (as the Baroness and Major Ghazali); toss in the luminously beautiful and delightfully capable Joanna Bessey (last seen on TV as the new millennium Lux girl); garnish with a couple of “marriageable” debutantes like Natasya Yusoff and Fash Stephenson (as Kitty and Amy); top it all off with some genuine goonishness, courtesy of David Lim as the chronically befuddled Ah Boon… and voila! you have the makings of a potential money-spinner.

Never mind political correctness as long as the ethnic mix is right. So what if all the men are conniving twits and the women twittering coquettes and the token Chinaman is acutely acumen-deficient? In khalwat-conscious Malaysia, the basic premise of the plot – that Charley needed his aunt’s visit as an excuse to invite Amy and Kitty over for tea – isn’t too far-fetched, especially if you set the action in an upper class boarding school in the early 1960s.

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Richard Harding Gardner

Writer-director Gardner, as it happens, is also a filmmaker and creative consultant with an audio, video and multimedia production house. So it makes perfect sense that Charley’s Auntie! be videotaped and edited for local and regional television. Sounds like an idea that ought to have taken off ages ago. Indeed, it should have happened way back in 1987 when Thor Kah Hoong came up with his eminently televisable Caught In The Middle series. As for the Instant Café Theatre, everyone knows why they still haven’t been taped and televised – they’re just not inoffensive enough!

What the televised version of Charley’s Auntie! will look like is anyone’s guess. Should this independently funded experiment succeed in gaining a TV audience of millions, it might pave the way for a self-financing resurgence of the performing arts in Malaysia. Theater practitioners will be lured into signing lucrative contracts, to hell with High Art. Acting, set design, stage lighting, and directing will become viable occupations. Professional theater will, at last, be part of mainstream Malaysian culture.

Will this inspire nothing but a slew of recycled stage hits targeted at a much broader “consumer base”? Such a trend is not without its dangers. Once you start playing to “market forces” and the lowest common denominator, you tend to get a bit too glib and end up with nothing worth saying. Oh well, another face of “globalization,” I suppose.

31 May 2002

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