Throne of Thorns
Directed by Norzizi Zulkifli
17-19 February 2017
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA
Review by Kaki Bangku
The evening sky in Kuala Lumpur last Sunday was thick with dark clouds, but rain seemed not to fall. As a tempest was brewing above the capital city, another Tempest was about to be performed at the newly refurbished Experimental Theatre (fondly known as ET) of the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA).
This much-publicised theatre performance unfortunately suffered the not-infrequent complaint of Kuala Lumpur living — street rallies and protests. While preview-show audiences’ highly positive reactions bellowed like sheets on a clothesline in strong wind, producers could not have been foreseen that the second show would be affected by the RUU 355 rally at Padang Merbok, just a stone’s throw from ASWARA. That led to a completely sold out show on Sunday night, with desperate audience members allowed to sit on the steps between the seats.
Their anticipation was well repaid. The challenge of staging William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Malaysia is an interesting one. The Bard’s eternally relevant plays have been shapeshifted across the centuries: adapted into telemovies, re-written into Hollywood chick flicks, gender-bent and swapped, presented in manga illustrations, given a hip hop treatment and other transformations too many to name, especially during the recently concluded 400th anniversary of his death.
But how do you translate a centuries-old play from Elizabethan England about magical creatures, sorcerors, kings and spirits into a play that is culturally and contextually relevant to a Southeast Asian nation today?
In this production of Throne of Thorns, director Norzizi Zulkifli, who devised the show as part of her PhD research at the University of Wollongong in Australia, decided to use the traditional Malay ritualistic dance form of Mak Yong (a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage) to retell Shakespeare’s Tempest, to incredibly effective results. The two forms of ancient art complement each other so nicely that their combination felt almost effortless and natural.
The traditional performance of Mak Yong, which involves rituals, dancers taking on roles of kings, consorts, court dancers, and jesters, was the perfect vehicle to drive Shakespeare’s story of ambition, revenge, love and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s text — of the wizard Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the air sprite Ariel, the monster Caliban, and the clowns Triculo and Stephano, on a magical island which has no name — gives the movement, vocabulary, music, and costumes of the Mak Yong great accentuation. Norzizi’s choice to use Mak Yong to tell the story of The Tempest may also have to do with the concept of ‘angin’, the spiritual energy which is central to the performance ritual, and endemic to this part of the world.
The duality of Shakespeare and Mak Yong was cleverly put on stage by Norzizi, quite literally for all to see. There were always two Prosperos — in this show called Raja — on stage. One was played by Wollongong graduate Cath McNamara, and the other by special guest Zamzuriah Zahari. There were two Ariels, called Tulus and Mulus. Each of the actors (besides Zamzuriah) played more than one role and changed costumes in sight of the audience on the edge of the stage.
While the all-but-one Australian cast said their lines primarily in Shakespearean English, they threw in a bit of Malay at the appropriate scenes: some to add weight and emphasis to an important line, and others to provide comic relief, especially by Pelawak (Trinculo) and Lalang (Stephano). Conversely, Zamzuriah’s lines were primarily in Malay, providing an excellent translation of the texts of the Raja just enough to move the plot forward without the need for surtitles for the Malay-speaking audience.
By placing Zamzuriah’s Raja at the top of the mountainous set throughout the show, while McNamara’s Raja roamed and commanded the rest of their subjects on the floor, Raja as a singular character was seen as an omnipresent being, almost god-like in this island where he was abandoned.
Meanwhile, Makhluk (Caliban), the original inhabitant and rightful heir of the island, was cleverly designed to be played by a group of actors at all times. The number of actors changed in each scene, giving the impression that this monster’s shape and form was not allowed to be captured by mere human eyes. Mahkluk was first introduced by the entire cast of nine, then withered down to a handful of actors, then grew again to seven, then down to two. At the end of the work, when all the other characters had left the island, Mahkluk alone climbed the mountain where Zamzuriah’s Raja once stood to grab his rotan berai (Prospero’s wand) to free himself from his master’s control.
Compressing The Tempest into one hour and fifteen minutes is not an easy task, what more with Mak Yong’s elaborate movement, singing and Kelantanese dialect thrown in. To the director’s credit, she chose to stage only the main plot, and introduced just enough of the other scenes to provide motivation for the characters’ action. What I couldn’t quite figure out was the need to translate the names of the character, which I thought confused the audience unnecessarily. This was compounded by the poor pronunciation of these names by the Australian actors (their emphases on the wrong Malay syllable did not help), and that the actors were all playing more than one character. Being familiar with Shakespeare and The Tempest, I found it was not difficult to guess the scene and characters playing in them. But the people next to me definitely did not share my insights; a family on my left were restlessly shifting in their seats, while an uncle to my right was checking his Whatsapp.
The costumes helped to differentiate characters to a certain extent, but after a while I certainly had trouble telling one character from another without a spoken prompt. I was more impressed by the magical multi-usage of the sarong, designed by artistic director Bayu Utomo Radjikin. Folding the sarong inside out revealed a completely different colour or pattern to distinguish common man from nobility, human from spirit. A slit in the sarong allowed the actors to wear it like a niqab to show Mahkluk hiding in plain sight from Lalang.
The music and live scoring of the show was done by maestro extraordinaires Kraig Grady, Dr Terumi Narushima and Baisah Hussin. The use of Mak Yong traditional musical instruments like serunai and rebak did not feel at all alien to Shakespeare, and fittingly accompanied the movements on stage. This also paired nicely with Dr Terumi’s more gamelan-ish sounds from a wooden marimba. My only complaint was the placement of the musicians behind and on top of the centre seating rows. Not only did I find it visually distracting to have to dart my eyes back and forth in order to watch the action on stage as well as the musicians, it must have been incredibly loud and disorienting for audiences seated just in front the musicians.
Norzizi managed to get the most out of the Australian actors replicating Mak Yong movements on stage. However, when you place Zamzuriah next to anyone, almost immediately you draw the two ends of the spectrum. Zamzuriah’s voice, loud and clear, trumpeted over all ten actors even when they were singing in unison. The quick and deliberate swivel of her curved fingers and her loud stomps commanded the attention of everyone in the room. Zamzuriah was the Raja of the night indeed.
I left the Experimental Theatre with conflicting feelings: satisfaction with this wonderful gem of show, but also a wanting feeling about theatre in Malaysia. A show of this unique experimentation of Eastern and Western theatre forms is rare, especially one initiated and directed by a Malaysian. How many times have we seen the Ramayana remixed and retold by a director from a Western framework? Sure, Shakespeare has been adapted by Asians too — but not in the way Norzizi did in this show.
Shows like these can happen when creative people invest the time, resources and energy to experiment. Be it abroad as Norzizi did or at home, the decision to research and to really polish their craft will produce results that can make the difference between mediocre and great art. However, that is easier said than done, when opportunities and resources for artists are scarce and constantly dwindling. Artists can’t afford to experiment nor invest in polishing a work for longer than financially viable. Perhaps that’s why it’s tough of Malaysian theatre to break through the fog of mediocrity.
Like the storm in the play that causes mayhem, I hope this show will cause a tempest in the theatre industry in Malaysia, by showing us a brave new world, that has such greatness in it.