2-5 November 2017
Pentas 1, klpac
Written, directed and produced by Kee Thuan Chye
Review by Grey Yeoh
Kee Thuan Chye’s labour of love has finally been staged in Malaysia in its intended English form, with Kee wearing a triple hat as writer, producer and director. The play premiered in Singapore in 2008 directed by Ivan Heng of W!LD RICE, followed by Jonathan Lim of Young ‘n’ W!LD in 2011, also in Singapore. Noted Malaysian theatre director, lighting and set designer Loh Kok Man stole Kee’s thunder last year, when he premiered the play in Malaysia with a Mandarin translated version titled The Swordfish, Then the Concubine (剑鱼妾).
Swordfish+Concubine was inspired by The Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu), the romanticised historical literature on the origins of the Malay kingdoms and the Malacca Sultanate, composed sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries. The original covers the reign of several sultans of Melaka to the downfall and eventual exile of Sultan Ahmad Shah at the hands of the Portuguese. Familiar stories from this text, telling of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, Badang, Tun Perak and Puteri Gunung Ledang, are imbued with magic and fantasy, and have inspired numerous modern film, stage and musical adaptations.
Kee used the story of Hang Nadim and the fall of Singapura to highlight the fallacy of the judgements of rulers, the seduction of power and the betrayal of men for a nobler cause. The complexities of these human flaws are presented on stage through characters struggling with how the decisions they make impact the lives of others. Like most folklore, oral traditions and mythical stories, there are morals to be learnt: warnings against repeating mistakes, and calls to arms, to take action.
Kee’s choice to stage Swordfish+Concubine in a medley of theatrical styles was sometimes confusing but worked to a certain extent. He opened and closed the show with a musical-style overture in which the entire cast took part. The scene then took a sharp turn, with actors employing wayang kulit movements as a way to tell the back story of a sacred covenant between Sri Tri Buana (Qahar Aqilah) and Demang Lebar Daun (Na’a Murad) at the founding of Singapura. Two clown-like characters, Ris Kaw (Iefiz Alaudin) and Logod (Bella Rahim), then took the stage in contemporary clothing (sequinned jackets, large gold chains, copious bling and caps worn in reverse). They broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience to give context and explanations. This was an interesting strategy, to use jesters to fill in the plot gaps for the audiences, paying homage to the Wak Long and Pak Dogol characters of wayang kulit. Comic relief was aplenty in this tragedy: a group of warriors cast as a collection of uncoordinated cowards repeatedly attempted to flee clumsily at every chance of encountering the flying swordfish. Hang Nadim (Joel Timothy Low) also delivered some funny smart-alecky yet heart-warmingly naive lines early in the show, catalysing the plot which led to his premature death.
The cast had the unenviable tasks of portraying multiple characters, made more challenging as they raced through multiple locations, dynasties and generations of families within the show’s two hours. Dominique Devorsine’s beautiful costumes, while practical for character changes, did very little to differentiate the characters or the era in which they were born. The costumes for Sultan Paduka Sri Maharaja (Sandra Sodhy) and Sultan Iskandar Syah (Gregory Sze) were rather plain and indistinguishable from the other ministers. Similarly, Bella Rahim, Na’a Murad, Arief Hamizan and Sandra Sodhy struggled to create characters distinct enough for audiences to immediately recognise. An exception was the costume design of Tun Dara and Kesuma, two characters played by Amanda Ang who appeared within seconds of each other during a single scene. Tun Dara had a scarf attached to a headdress while Kesuma wore a modest vest/jacket.
A special mention goes to actress Bella Rahim, whose portrayal of a funny Logod and a righteous gutsy Rapeah stole the show. She played Logod with perfect comedic timing and deadpan delivery, while for Rapeah’s believable character Bella also composed and sang the syair lamentation after the death of Hang Nadim, which struck a chord with many audiences.
Loh Kok Man, who previously directed the darker and grittier Mandarin version of the play, was invited to design the set and lights of this show. Loh’s experience in blocking the stage and using lights to create boundaries of play was interesting, but not fully utilised by Kee. The majority of the action took play in the middle of the stage, wasting opportunities for performers to work with the width and depth of Pentas 1.
However, Kee’s choice to work with gamelan ensemble Rhythm in Bronze and percussionist Thong Yoong How has to be his best decision. With three weeks of rehearsal, the ardent musicians composed a fitting score for the play, stretching the dynamic sounds of gamelan and percussive instruments. It was a complete joy to watch the musicians play live, singing as a choir at certain scenes, while rhythmically clapping their hands at others. The music anchored many scenes of the play; who knew the sounds of gamelan could be so flexible?
Kee has also revised the script in each of its three stagings. In this version, he injected contemporary political references: fake news, permits for public gatherings, haze, C4 to blow up the body of Tun Dara’s baby, and sedition arrests. Kee even devised a press conference sequence, with microphones and spotlights, when the people questioned the Orang Besar, not unlike politicians today attempting to clarify/mystify a contentious issue.
I can’t say that this strategy worked. Sure, the gags elicited some laughs, and rapturous applause followed any mention of a sovereign wealth fund. An uncle next to me slapped his thigh every time he got a joke referencing the current political climate; at one point he said out loud, “1MDB!” But for these cheap shots at the current Malaysian administration, Kee sacrificed subtlety. It felt like he had created this play just for Malaysiakini readers: people who want to see the government hammered and ridiculed without restraint.
But a great play allows its audiences to make their own connections, using subtlety, symbolism and allegory – and there were interesting glimpses of this in Swordfish. Rapeah’s sexuality was suggested by accusations that she only sleeps with women; she defiantly retorts that there’s nothing wrong with that. Nurhalisa’s (Hana Nadira) feminist stance was shown through her resistance to Sultan Iskandar Syah’s advances in wooing her to be his concubine. In a scene in which the villagers argue about protesting the murder of Hang Nadim, a character suggests that they appeal to the Sultan. Perhaps this relates to whether our Conference of Rulers might rid us of our corrupt leaders today.
The play also abounds with meaty characters with tragic flaws. The egotistical and ambitious minister clinging to power. The conflicted Sultan Iskandar Syah who executes his true love as a result of a kangaroo court. The naive but strong-willed Nurhalisa rouses the people but is eventually betrayed by Rapeah and sentenced to death. Sang Rajuna Tapa (Qahar Aqilah) who, in grief over his daughter’s gruesome death, betrays his Sultan by tipping off the invading Majapahit, and, as punishment for breaking the covenant, is struck by lightning and turned to stone.
With its contemporary resonance and powerful characters, the play should have been compelling to watch, but too many unexplained director’s choices made it difficult to like. Dead characters walked off stage in the middle of subsequent scenes – I almost thought a new zombie plot had been introduced. Nurhalisa being impaled was unnecessarily gory and not child-friendly (there were plenty of children in the audience). And the horrible rap sequence ‘Mampus Kau’ was, like most local attempts at rap, anachronistic, cheesy and cringe-worthy.
While Swordfish+Concubine may have all the ingredients to be a great Malaysian play, this version fell short. Perhaps, like Paduka Sri Maharaja, the temptation to poke fun at the current government was too hard to resist, making the play a little less than it could have been.
All photos by Pam Lim, courtesy of Kee Thuan Chye.
GREY YEOH is an arts manager and producer based in Kuala Lumpur. He is a member of independent producer group ProPAU, a HAO Summit Singapore Fellow, an Asia Society Asia21 Young Leader, and a participant of the Advance Cultural Leadership Programme Hong Kong, and the European Festival Association’s Atelier for Young Festival Managers GWANGJU 2015.