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A Haunting Experience Indeed



Five hours after leaving the Citra Istana Budaya auditorium – a grandly named island of culture amidst the woeful disarray of the National Cultural Complex – I am still haunted by PULAU ANTARA ~ THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN.


Director-playwright Jo Kukathas

“Did you know Kompleks Budaya was undergoing massive reconstruction when you chose this venue?”  I asked co-writer/director Jo Kukathas.  “That’s part of the set.  It wasn’t cheap!”  she quipped.  I guess excavators must cost a fair bit to rent.  The van shuttle between car-park and theater was certainly a novelty: no one expects to cross a muddy construction site to see a play, but that’s precisely the desired effect, the blurring of boundaries between “real life” and theater, between history and mystery, between the living and the dead…

PULAU ANTARA is a disturbing play, populated by characters from different times, different cultures, different worlds.  A collaborative effort involving the Tokyo-based Setagaya Public Theatre and Malaysia’s own Instant Café Theatre, the cross-cultural project was generously funded by The Japan Foundation.

Having witnessed the recent rape and ruin of the Selangor River Valley, the play’s theme – of trampling on the past and denying the present to build an illusory future – struck an immediate chord with me.  A beautiful, mysterious island in the Malacca Straits has been earmarked for development as a cyber-city, simply because it’s located at the mid-point of a colossal suspension bridge linking the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra: another megalomaniac scheme to get Malaysia into the Guinness Book of World Records.


Gene Sha Rudyn as Datuk Zainal

Would-be world-conquering architect, Datuk Zainal (an old boy of the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, of course), arrives on Pulau Antara to stake his personal claim to fame and fortune – aided and abetted by an ambitious young Japanese engineer, Ryo Tsushima.  They are soon joined by a female architect, Aida Ariffin, who quickly succumbs to the mysterious allure of the island.  Apart from Marvin Sung, a superstitious Chinese engineer on the bridge project; Mantok Pui, a sagely old man who seems to live between dimensions; and Ryo’s pregnant wife Mayumi – who unexpectedly arrives on Pulau Antara, never again to leave – the rest of the cast consists of ghosts and memories caught in a time warp.

There’s Colonel Okada, who died serving Emperor Hirohito in the 1940s; Englishman George, an affable failure in everything; Ananda the scribe, a relic of the Majapahit Empire; Oichi, a 19th century Japanese prostitute; Daiko, a “curse doll” (who represents all bad memories that won’t go away); Asif, a native lad forever dreaming of adventures on the high seas; the schoolboy Harun (a lost fragment of Zainal’s MCKK memories); a couple of other Sungs (Tze Toh, a eunuch emissary with Admiral Cheng Ho’s fleet and Kit Yeng, a jazz musician killed during the Japanese occupation); and there’s the Penanggal, the resident ghost of Pulau Antara that floats around as only a hideous head with gory entrails, dragging mothers-to-be to untimely deaths.


The “curse doll”

With such a motley crew of human and phantom characters jabbering away in three languages, the plot tends to become a crazy collage of absolutely brilliant bits mixed in with some murky, elusive moments.  Add to the complexity of the multidimensional drama, the need to “subtitle” the Japanese dialogue with back-projected text (in tiny fonts most unkind to the vision-impaired), and what you get is “ambiguous audience response.”

yinyangtreeMany elements were outstanding: the use of magnified leaf skeletons as large scene-shifting screens, suggesting intricate life-webs, neural circuits, arterial networks, topographical maps (harking back to the universal tree-of-life motif); the adroit lighting by Mac Chan; the intensely evocative music by Saidah Rastam; the elegant audio-visual effects by Bernard Chauly; even the meditative sound of lapping waves that preceded the action.  All these were examples of impressive stagecraft that lent the production a memorable luster.  The multicultural cast was a spirited and talented lot, but the non-linear, trilingual text and episodic scene changes made convincing characterizations well-nigh impossible at times.


Foo May Lyn as Aida Ariffin

Underpinning this cogent drama of conflict and reconciliation between magical and scientific world-views is a metaphysical commentary that makes PULAU ANTARA a very serious work indeed.  However, the heaviness is offset by a generous sprinkling of barbed witticisms.  For instance, Aida Ariffin wryly reports that some minister thinks the bridge “isn’t Islamic enough.”  And when Zainal claims the island on behalf of his race, he is challenged by the ghosts of many would-be colonists before him – which leads George (impersonating Mr Evans, the British principal of the MCKK) to assign Datuk Zainal a C-minus for history.

PULAU ANTARA is a breathtakingly ambitious cultural bridge between Japan and Malaysia which deserves to be warmly applauded, even if it leaves some theatergoers a bit confused and disoriented.

14 August 2001


A Lavish Paean to Muhibbah

Malaysia’s RM210-million Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture)

SIMFONI RAKYAT MALAYSIA was a pre-election promo for Malaysia Inc – but fortunately a well-produced one

With another general election around the corner, it was inevitable that the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism would seize the opportunity to present a glorious feel-good concert showcasing a veritable ethnomusicological rainbow – emblematic of a harmonious and prosperous national destiny. As to be expected, when a public relations agenda takes precedence over musical content, a large portion of the show was merely cosmetic – politically correct candy for the ear and eye.

Prestige, privilege, propaganda

Featuring the works of 10 prominent composer/arrangers – performed by a gigantic orchestra of 100 musicians and embellished by 6 popular vocalists – Simfoni Rakyat Malaysia came across in parts as a rustic roadshow with philharmonic aspirations.

Nonetheless, kudos are due to artistic director Sabri Buang, concert director Ridzuan Salam and music director Pauzi Majid for pulling off this spectacular multi-ethnic concert – considering the nightmarish logistics of working with such a motley cast and crew. So what if the vulgar reek of pre-election perfume was a bit obvious – there were enough sublime musical moments to make it all worthwhile.

Pretty but purely decorative

The first half of the program was celebratory and extrovert – with Liza Hanim’s soulfully patriotic rendition of Pahlawanku (“My Warrior”), followed by Elaine Kang’s elegant (but thematically trite) Shanghai Beach. Next came a spirited, Bollywoodish instrumental, Chinnamamiyeh, topped off with a scintillating vocal medley winningly performed by Datin Sri Manimala and Muthu Kumaran. Bland, safe, populist stuff indeed: a tokenistic kebaya-cheongsam-sari routine that would have looked good on TV as a Gongxi-Raya-Thaipusam greeting card from your friendly neighborhood government.

Not exactly the sort of fare that demands devout attention, but those caught sending SMSes were finger-wagged by an ever-alert Istana Budaya official armed with a walkie-talkie. I can understand strict adherence to the rules when attending a theatrical performance or classical recital – but the festive atmosphere, not to mention the almost deafening volume of the music, made us feel we were at an open-air pesta where eating, talking, and receiving phonecalls were all par for the course. That’s the Malaysian ethos for you: guided democracy, controlled fun.

P.Ramlee (1929~1973),
quintessential creative genius

The volume was mercifully brought down a notch or two for the second half of the show, which in any case carried a higher cerebral and deeper emotional content – with more adventurous and exploratory compositions/arrangements by Nasir Tan Sri P. Ramlee, Saidah Rastam, Yii Kah Hoe, Narawi Rashidi, and Ayob Ibrahim.

Nasir’s majestic arangement of Kau Laksana Bulan brought out the sheer visual grandeur of watching a hundred musicians perform as one vast organism – in itself a mighty accomplishment, and a fitting acknowledgment of his late great father’s monumental contributions to contemporary Malaysian culture as an iconic singer-songwriter-actor-filmmaker of the 1960s.

Teguh, an original work by outstanding avant-garde composer Saidah Rastam, was a bold departure from the tried and tested. The music’s sonorously dissonant harmonics were poetically offset by a recitative sung with passion and verve by Khir Rahman. However, the orchestra sounded a mite tentative at moments and might have performed with more conviction and feel, given more rehearsal time than was possible under the circumstances.

Representing the richness of Sarawak’s “world music” resources, Narawi Rashidi’s Berserumpu featured young sapē virtuoso Jerry Kamit in an instrumental romp through a lush, metaphorical rainforest (alas, with all the lumber that’s been exported, not much of the real thing remains).

Yii Kah Hoe, cutting edge
serious composer

Yii Kah Hoe – young maestro of traditional Chinese music – composed, arranged and conducted an immensely interesting piece (unfortunately not listed in the souvenir program) which generated an uneasy dynamic tension even as it sought to integrate Chinese, Malay, Indian and Greco-Roman musical modalities. Perhaps Yii was simply being realistic in articulating the difficulty of fully reconciling the frequency differences between pentatonic, Moorish, Carnatic and Western musical scales. Yet, mysteriously enough, it did hang together as inspired music – despite strident altercations between reed instruments from different traditions (but, then, it’s always the wind instruments that represent ideological discord).

Ayob Ibrahim, now deacon
of Aswara’s Music Department

The concert’s high point was undoubtedly three numbers arranged and flamboyantly conducted by Ayob Ibrahim, featuring the legendary Ramli Sarip, fondly known as Papa Rock (from his heady days fronting the rock group, Sweet Charity), and the charismatic Zainal Abidin (who rose to fame as lead singer of Headwind, and subsequent international acclaim as a solo act).

Raspy-voiced Ramli’s phenomenal stage presence – but most of all his virile blend of earthiness and mystical ardor – lent the entire exercise in racial-harmony-through-music an authenticity and heartfelt warmth that more than justified Simfoni Rakyat Malaysia’s RM400,000 budget (a ballpark estimate I heard mentioned). His moving renditions of Kampong Rakit and Nyanyian Serambi (in which the indigenous Semai troupe were finally given a prominent vocal and rhythmic rôle) cut straight to the core and brought a tear of joy to many an eye. Conductor Ayob Ibrahim succeeded in making the huge and ethnomusically disparate orchestra sound like a very tight jazz-rock combo, generating an infectious and effortless groove.

“Papa Rock” Ramli Sarip, a living legend

Zainal Abidin

Even a hardcore cynic would have felt a surge of loyalty and pride during Ramli Sarip’s authoritative and impassioned performance. And when Zainal Abidin belted out his greatest hit, Hijau, accompanied by smiling dancers waving daun pisang (banana leaves), nobody seriously minded that the production had veered dangerously close to definitive Bollywood kitsch.

The show really should have ended right there with this obligatory nod at cinta-ing our natural heritage… but, sadly, artistic director Sabri Buang was either too naïve or too docile to say a firm NO to attaching a truly tacky Malaysia Truly Asia as grand finale, thereby dashing any hopes that may have arisen in my heart that at long last our cultural bureaucrats have realised that if a woman is truly beautiful, it’s overkill and counterproductive to include the description “Beauty Queen” on her calling card. 

10 March 2004


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