It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to hear a new play read before it goes into production and while it is still rough around the edges, in fact. Particularly when you know the play is an important one for Malaysian theatre. Particularly when you have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with playwright and director and cast afterwards - and your views are sought before the play goes back to the drawing board (writing desk) for another round of editing.
Rehearsed readings as opposed to full performances of the plays, also allow you to concentrate on text because the visual dimension is largely missing. (The actors did walk it through, but there was no scenery, lighting, costumes, and director Zahim Albakri read the stage directions aloud.)
Two plays were read Saturday afternoon. The first was Kee Thuan Chye's long awaited new work The Swordfish, Then the Concubine (great title!). Political satire, of course. The story is a weaving together of two unrelated tales from The Sejarah Melayu but within a contemporary framework, and set in a country choking in smog ... metaphorical as much as physical.
The concubine story tells of a woman arrested for following a deviant religious sect (one which preached - shock horror! - love and kindness and had a giant kettle). She is put to death by impalement (not very nice) for plotting to murder the Raja's consort.
The swordfish story is so absolutely surreal! I first came across it in Second Link (my copy of The Sejerah Melayu is thus far unread - though now I'm inspired to pick it up!). Of course, it's all too clear why poor old Hang Nadim gets bumped off for showing initiative and imagination - qualities that are way way too dangerous for a society to deal with. Get rid of the bright guy, least he usurp you. (Now what does that remind me of?) Mediocrity Rules Oh Yeah.
The play was clever, pacy and funny, the dialogue well-written and at times deliciously "manglishy". I find it such fun that Thuan Chye has his Star Mind Our English column where he fights fearlessly for correct grammatical usage, (he picked me up for a spelling error on this blog too the other day - can I ever escape my editor??) yet he delights in using local varieties of English when he writes plays and fiction.
I did ask a question afterwards, but it probably sounded a bit inane. Why these two legends? What parallels were you trying to make with contemporary Malaysian society? The playwright was rightly tight-lipped. (Dummy, go work it out for yourself! Want me to get ISA'd by being too explicit, is it?) In fact, you didn't have to look too far to pick out the contemporary references (loved the send-up of Malaysian Idol,* for e.g.!) and the political subtext. But want to see it again /read it, to make sure I've fully "got it".
Will be very interested to see how the play will be staged - especially the flying swordfish part!
The second play was Ann Lee's Tarap Man. It's also a political play on one level:
... about modern-day Malaysia reflected in the metaphor of a mental patient who is kept in captivity for decades because of reluctance by the authorities to properly investigate his case ...It is, at the same time, an exciting mystery story.
Set in Sabah, it is the story of disgraced and cynical journalist, Anandan, working to investigate the case of the so-called Tarap Man, whom he believes innocent of the murder rap that has kept him imprisoned for half a century. Anandan is forced to take under his wing an idealistic young reporter, who tries to prove her mettle to him by helping him gather information for the exposé he plans to write. The interplay between the main characters as respect and friendship grow is one of the main strengths of the play. The story is quite complex and I'm not too sure whether all the strands of plot quite tied up. (I'd like to know more about the letters.)
Perhaps too it needs more focus. "Whose story do you think it is?" asked Ann afterwards. Anandan's, yes ... but what really drives him to investigate this case and what darkness is he himself carrying within him? (The pills for depression hint at it.)
I have to mention that the casts of both plays were excellent! I was quite stunned that with a mimimum of rehearsal (Ann's play had only had one previous rehearsal) the standard was already this high. I particularly loved Indi Nadarajah who played (no, not played - became!) Anandan with Joanna Bessey as his wet-behind-the-ears sidekick.
I'm really looking forward now to seeing the finished plays after this appetite-whetting sneak preview.
*That should read Akademi Fantasia, apparently. I wouldn't know because I haven't seen either.