Cheeky cross-cultural drama triumphs
Chinese cast electrifies Sejarah Melayu in Mandarin
OUR creative community performs theatre, dance, and music, within tidy ethnocultural enclosures. Then along comes the racial and linguistic dissonance of The Swordfish & The Concubine!
This crossover drama played a four-day season mid-March, at the KLPac in Sentul Park, to an audience locked in Covid-geometry, and primed for period Malay drama.
The backdrop framed a giant wayang kulit screen, with gamelan brass, gongs, and drums to the side, for the Malay court epics lifted from their ethnic moorings. Wake-the-dead drumming pulsed the action, gripping performers and audience in a mesmerising Nusantara trance.
The show opens with Sri Tri Buana descending from the Heavens. Demang Lebar Daun, the chief of Palembang, surrenders his autonomy and pledges loyalty to the superior being. They discuss terms (including Demang’s beautiful daughter) as wayang kulit puppets-in-conference.
The “Ancient Covenant” derives from this epochal Divine-Human accord, for the Daulat of rulership. A key provision is that human descendants will not rebel against the divine lineage, even if the latter abuses power. Loyalty has to be total. The Raja cannot be questioned. He is descended from the gods, to rule mortals.
But wait, the Royal court raps in Mandarin, with an all-Chinese cast! This inversion snaps the audience into a surreal Sejarah Melayu time tunnel. The exchanges slip into Chinglish, too, on the fly, with comic effect. It is not all gloom and doom. The repartee is peppered with irony, jest, sarcasm, and sycophancy – like all good wayang kulit storytelling.
English surtitles above the stage clue non-Mandarin speakers. It is so electric, I return for a repeat experience on the final day. The gamelan brass-drum cacophony and the Mandarin-speaking courtiers rivet the audience – conditioned by now to artistic audacity. It was a bold experimental drama that works with wide creative license.
The characters pop out of the Malay Annals with its conflation of myth, legend, history, and fantasy, along with frisky concubines. The cast is well-schooled in stylised palace affectation and obeisance. You are a fly on the wall as scheming court officials mislead the Sultan. It is very convincing palace intrigue. Traditional masks render the court scoundrels even more sinister.
Boy outwits swordfish
The Swordfish and The Concubine are separate tales, but are merged into the play as an integrated narrative.
The darting swordfish barrages occur in the reign of Raja Paduka Sri Maharaja, of Singapura. They leap out of the sea to shaft villagers on the beach. Sri Maharaja orders his warriors to stand a wall of bodies. The swordfish gut them.
A boy, Hang Nadim, suggests that banana tree stumps line the beach instead. Waves of aggressive swordfish bury their snouts into the banana stumps. The surviving warriors hack them at will. The village is saved. Sri Maharaja celebrates the victory and wonders why his ministers failed to think of that?
State kills boy & girl
Nervous courtiers warn Sri Maharaja of the boy hero’s popularity with the people. Hang Nadim is a clear future threat to the throne, they say. Sri Maharaja nods for the boy to be killed. Hang Nadim’s state-sanctioned murder curses the land. Singapura is overrun by enemy forces after Sri Maharaja’s demise.
In The Concubine, Sultan Iskandar Syah executes his favourite courtesan – accused of infidelity by his jealous consort and a false witness. His Treasurer prompts Majapahit to invade, to avenge his daughter, throwing open the fortress gates, as the Sultan flees via Johor to Melaka.
The one upfront champion of justice for the oppressed, is the forthright Nurhalisa, daughter of Treasurer Sang Ranjuna Tapa. She appeals to the Sultan to free a couple wrongfully detained. Sultan Iskandar Syah is besotted with her as she rejects his advances. He finally makes freedom for the prisoners, conditional on her becoming his concubine.
Nurhalisa agrees, after initial misgivings. She coaches him about good governance. The Sultan falls totally under her cheerful spell. His consort is furious, as are everyone else at the palace. That leads to the infidelity accusation. A trial is held. Nurhalisa’s friend Rapeah testifies against her.
The Sultan flies into a mindless rage for his impugned manhood. To the shock of the court, and of his scheming consort, Sultan Iskandar Syah decrees the ultimate cruelty and public humiliation – that Nurhalisa be stripped naked, and impaled – the dreadful Hukuman Sula – rarely ever invoked, even for treason.
‘Ancient Covenant’ taboo
Treasurer Sang Ranjuna Tapa broke the Ancient Covenant. The Heavens strike him and his wife into solid black rock. The Ancient Covenant holds that the descendants – in perpetuity – of Demang Lebar Daun, cannot rebel or resist, even if the ruler is tyrannical.
The Malay Annals capture the brooding power, and hubris, that pertained then – but not anymore? The stark power asymmetry between royalty, political elites, and citizens, endures. The tales provoke introspection about the nation’s wobbly governance.
Playwright Kee Thuan Chye weaves 1MDB, moral impunity, and collateral murders, into the dialogue. He throws in the poodle press too, for good measure. The audience absorbs the flash-forward dialogue as dramatic incongruence with a purpose.
Graphic animator Fairuz Sulaiman projects the furious swordfish leaping out of the raging ocean, and slaps a gruesome graphic of a hapless, spread-eagled, wide-eyed Nurhalisa, gravity-slumping down a metal spike. The gamelan clamour combines with graphics and lighting, to spine-tingling effect.
Valerie Chian as Tun Dara the consort is the comeliest stage presence with her elegant costume, gliding movement, and the most graceful feminine body language. She plays the shallow, bitter, and dispirited consort the Sultan disdains.
Stage role aside, Dara reminds us of the natural charm of Malay womanhood, in the kebaya elegance, and the melting smiles, that have receded into the past. An upbeat joget joviality bookends the drama on a positive note, to rally all to hope for a better future.
Director Loh Kok Man teased the best out of his actors, musicians, costume designer, choreographer, and technical crew. The seven-member cast switched multiple roles, costumes, and props, without skipping a beat.
Kok Man celebrated his 50th birthday on stage while producer Pam Lim managed to fill the limited seats despite the Covid fright. – The Vibes, April 21, 2022
(Cyril Pereira, Malaysian in Hong Kong for 37 years, is former publisher of Asia Magazine.)