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When translator and poet Eddin Khoo met Edward Carey while on a writing programme in the United States three years ago, he realised he had met the ideal collaborator for a project very close to his heart – that of adapting a Shakespeare play for wayang kulit. That dream is now set to come to fruition, with Macbeth in the Shadows slated for performance at Kuala Lumpur’s new Performing Arts Centre in September.
Carey carries a most unusual portfolio of creative skills. A novelist with two highly-praised novels under his belt, he is also an artist and freelance illustrator. One might think there would be a conflict between the two, yet he sees visual art and writing sitting very comfortably together. He began as a playwright and stage designer, and so has always thought of his writing in a visual way.
Carey has always drawn the characters he writes about and each of his books has a separate art project running alongside it. “The first thing I do when I’m writing a book is to draw the characters. It’s both a way of relaxing from the writing and of concentrating ideas.”
He cites artist/illustrators including Mervyn Peake (author of the classic gothic novel Gormenghast), Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, and Bruno Shultz (a Polish writer who wrote two books of short stories before being murdered by the Gestapo) as being important influences on his work.
When Carey came to write his second novel, Alva and Irva, he made an intricate plasticine sculpture of the imaginary city in which the story is set. And for the novel he’s writing presently (to be published later in the year), he reckons he will have completed several pieces of sculpture, including a four-by-six-feet ventriloquist doll which wears a wig made from his wife’s hair, carved wooden masks and a wax death mask.
The novel, his longest yet, is provisionally titled Little, referring to the stature of its diminutive heroine. It is set during the French revolution in Paris, where he now resides with his wife.
Carey knew very little about wayang kulit when he first arrived in Malaysia, and had just two-and-a-half weeks to learn about its cultural heritage, performance, and puppet design and manufacture under the tutelage of Khoo and shadow puppet master Abdullah Ibrahim (Dalang Dollah Baju Merah).
But he has some background in puppet theatre; he worked on a production of Pinocchio with the National Theatre of Romania and designed the grotesque puppets which he describes as a cross between traditional figures and Giacometti statues. He is currently working on a production with British theatre company FaultyOptic: Horsehead, scheduled for performance in the autumn, is “about the declining fortunes of a pantomime horse.”
However, designing the puppets for Macbeth in the Shadows entailed new challenges. For a start, Carey avoided the puppets of the traditional characters from the Ramayana story as he felt that they should be considered sacred heroes. (An exception was the clownish character Pak Dogol, who has been pressed into service as the porter in the only comic scene in the play.)
There had to be new ways of doing things and most of the puppets were designed from scratch using traditional methods,” he said. There were technical challenges for Carey in creating the wayang kulit. As an illustrator, he initially found it hard to create characters without being able to put shading on their faces. Also, he was used to making puppets with many moving parts.
These problems overcome, he found himself comfortable working with shadow puppets, and employing traditional methods. And whilst most of his designs are fairly simple, his sense of the grotesque came to the fore when designing the witches.
“It’s been a most astonishing learning experience’ is how he sums up what he has gained from the project. He feels especially privileged to have had the opportunity to work with Dalang Dollah Baju Merah. He has the most amazing presence and the way he moves the puppets is extraordinary.”
It is a great pity, he adds, that the old man is now weakened by a stroke and has not been able to get an apprentice. “In many countries, Pak Dollah would be seen as a national treasure and it’s a great shame that he isn’t.”
In the process of working on the project, Carey became aware of just how much under threat traditional theatrical forms, including wayang kulit, are in Malaysia. “It’s awful what’s happening to the culture. Traditional performance should be cherished. It’s so important the work that Pusaka is doing.”
Pusaka, a centre for the study and documentation of traditional performance, will present Macbeth in the Shadows in association with the British Council.
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