Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Shakespeare in the Shadows

Monday learned about a very exciting project by Pusaka (Centre for the Study and Documentation of Traditional Performance in Malaysia), in association with The British Council. Called Macbeth in the Shadows, it involves the adaptation of Shakespeare's play for wayang kulit. The performance will be staged at the new Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in September.

The project brings together one of Malaysia's top dalangs (shadow puppet master) Abdullah Ibrahim (also known as Dollah Baju Merah) ; British novelist, playwright and illustrator, Edward Carey; and poet, writer and translator, Eddin Khoo. And its aim is not only to carry on the tradition of wayang kulit, but to expand its vocabulary with new stories, puppet design and techniques of crafting. You can read all about the project in Starmag, this coming Sunday, and also my interview with Edward Carey: I'll post links then.

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Carey and Khoo making puppets

Traditional art forms are in grave danger of extinction in Malaysia, and I thought one of the speakers at the press conference, YB Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, chairman of Pusaka, hit the nail on the head when he said: "The government as a whole should do more. If you don't keep this alive, then something more important will die too."

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Carey's drawing of the witches

Carey echoed this when I spoke to him: "It's awful what's happening to the culture. Things should be cherished. Mak Yong and Main Puteri are in a very fragile state. It's so important the work that Pusaka is doing. ... in many countries Pak Dollah would be seen as a national treasure and it's a great shame that he isn't."

I have only seen wayang kulit only once, and it was an unforgettable experience. Badan Warisan arranged a performance by a group from Kedah and it was held in the space underneath the "rumah penghulu": the beautifully restored Malay house. I did not understand too much of the Malay because the dialect was so thick - but it was so fast paced and exciting and very very funny with many contemporary puppets being used.

And so now I'm so excited that Macbeth is going to be given the same kind of treatment. Maybe, just maybe, it will revive interest in this wonderful art form and encourage others to approach it in new ways.

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