The year started on an optimistic note with the conference on Krishen Jit’s Performance Practice and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre taking place in Kuala Lumpur in January. All the keynote addresses, panel discussions and workshop dialogues pointed to a whole lot of problem-solving for theatre here. It was a big group hug for the industry, but as the months went by, it looked like nothing had changed.
Theatre, in general, kept to its mainstream ways, and was swamped by foreign plays, adaptations, satirical comedy and jukebox musicals.
Is there any hope for original thought-provoking works and insightful plays?
To a certain extent, original theatre work – raw in parts – such as The Taste Of Water (The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat), Kedai DVD Paralel (Idebewe Production) and How I Learnt To Accept Reality By Sleeping Through It (theatrethreesixty) did bring some cheer.
But one of the best theatre productions – an international adaptation – was theatre- threesixty’s Angels In America, written by Tony Kushner. There is nothing wrong in staging foreign plays, but when will we see theatrical works which can rival these award-winning plays?
Surely something is amiss here. Is it funding? Is it governmental support? Is it pandering to commercialism?
How many more major arts conferences do we need to make real changes? Your guess is as good as ours.
If anything, we did manage to pull out five arts highlights from 2015 that made us live in hope:
Cakap Dapur: R&D Stories
Good monodramas are hard to come by. Good monodramas with a capable actor and a deft director? You have to be dreaming. But veteran actor Chee Sek Thim’s Cakap Dapur: R&D Stories was definitely a theatrical treat for the masses at DPAC in February. The play was adapted by playwright Leow Puay Tin based on a series of lectures by Professor Mohd Anis Md Nor. The one-man show was both directed and performed by Chee. The gravitas and honesty Chee brought to the stage made Cakap Dapur one of the most relatable shows in 2015. Chee’s endearing and congenial personality was refreshing. Beyond Chee’s engrossing performance and the show’s minimalism (a lone wooden chair on an empty stage!), the text itself made Cakap Dapur a highlight. The unconventional script and the themes it explored (identity, culture and nationhood) made it an insightful study of Malaysian performing arts and hopefully, we’ll get to watch more of such works in 2016. – Dinesh Kumar Maganathan
Love your neighbour! We’ve all been taught that, but most of us know this is easier said than done. Particularly when it comes to Singapore ... most Malaysians probably have a love-hate relationship with our neighbour across the Causeway. Singapore-based W!ld Rice’s cross-border collaboration Another Country, however, reminded us just how much our two nations have in common. The Another Country shows that played at DPAC in June definitely proved that working together was a good thing. Directed by theatre big wheels from both sides of the Causeway, Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng, the ensemble consisted of 10 actors, five from each side. Five talented Malaysian actors took on an eclectic collection of Singaporean texts, while their Singaporean counterparts gamely tackled our local works, resulting in a humorous and poignant celebration of shared culture and heritage. And what other show also comes with a free recipe for Hainanese chicken rice? – Terence Toh
Malam Terang Bulan
You think local history is boring? You should watch Malam Terang Bulan if it ever returns next year. This orchestral “concert with narration” at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas last month was a stirring tribute to our country’s rich and colourful musical heritage. Centred around the origins of our national anthem, Malam Terang Bulan featured evergreen tunes from some of our most beloved composers and performers, from Jimmy Boyle and Alfonso Soliano to P. Ramlee and Gus Steyn. Whether it was clapping along to a spirited singalong of Malaysia Berjaya, or staring misty-eyed at images of old KL in Steyn’s Kuala Lumpur Overture, there was plenty for the audience to soak in during this delightful show. And yes, there were a few tears shed, I can tell you, when the nostalgic pangs of patriotism (from the nation’s early, idealistic days) hit home. – Terence Toh
Angels In America: Parts I & II
Christopher Ling’s recent staging of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part saga is without a doubt one of the highlights of Malaysian theatre this year. The theatrethree- sixty director already proved his prowess as a theatre maker when he staged Part 1 (Millen- nium Approaches) in 2014. Ling’s daring treatment of a play that’s heavy on tough issues and social commentary definitely earned him brownie points with us. Keeping the set to the bare minimum, Ling stripped the play of any razzmatazz and instead masterfully carved a very human story with a talented ensemble. The vulnerability, truthfulness and maturity exuded by the cast made Angels a very captivating experience. Ultimately, Ling’s staging proves that honest storytelling is all it takes to produce good theatre, even if it’s a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play. – Dinesh Kumar Maganathan
Tales Of 4 Dialects
Asia Musical Productions, helmed by founder and director Ho Lin Huay, has kept busy this year with three original musical productions. It kicked off the new year with yet another replay of its very popular Prince Siddhartha The Musical, followed by the fourth edition of Above Full Moon in April.
The brand-new Tales Of 4 Dialects, presented in Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Teochew (with English and Chinese subtitles), ran at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in November.
A charming take on retracing a turbulent past and finding hope in the everyday, Asia Musical Productions once again showcased its use of drama, dance and music in this show. Brought to life by a talented cast and brilliant musicians, the production’s greatest strength lies in its effective storytelling and captivating performances. – Rouwen Lin