Is this a keris which I see before me? Watch Macbeth in Malay

Father-and-son creative team Muhammad Ali (left) and Omar co-adapted Shakespeare's Macbeth into the Malay language called Dato' Seri. Photo: Ridzuan Rashid

It was nearly a year ago when Omar Ali brought home the news that the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre will be helming the Shakespeare 400 festival. It was an exciting project. Both Joe Hasham and Datuk Faridah Merican, co-founders of KLPac, had asked Omar if he wanted to be part of the festival.

“I didn’t think too much about it,” reveals Omar, KLPac’s director-in-residence, in a recent interview in KL.

“I went home and during (the family) dinner we kind of talked about,” he adds.

“And I immediately said Macbeth!” interjects Tan Sri Muhammad Ali Hashim, Omar’s father.

The last time the 69-year-old Muhammad Ali read the Bard’s tragedy was in 1963, as a student of English Literature, sitting for his Cambridge School Certificate examinations at the Muar High School in Johor.

After several re-readings and deliberations, the father-son duo agreed that Macbeth was the most appropriate choice. It was going to be a faithful adaptation of Macbeth into the Malay language.

And as with any adaptation, the question of the title lingers. Should the original title be retained or should it be called something else? Omar had an ingenious idea. Dato’ Seri was picked as the title, a local angle that kept with the conventions of contextualising a play here.

“It fits in with the ranks mentioned in Macbeth and Dato’ Seri is after all an iconic title nowadays,” says Muhammad Ali.

Dato’ Seri opens at Pentas 2, KLPac on June 1. As the stageside story goes, Dato’ Seri follows Dato’ DiKajang (Radhi Khalid) who actuates the prophecy of three witches about his ascension to the throne by killing his own king. His is a bloody path of power and ambition. But how true does Dato’ Seri stay to the original play? Quite true according to the father and son team creative team.

The process began with Muhammad Ali making a literal translation of Macbeth into Malay as he believes one “must be loyal to Shakespeare.” The adaptation came next, where cultural and socio-political context had to be identified.

This of course proved to be tricky.

“I wanted it to be more hard-hitting in terms of political stances and commentary. But as we went along, I think it would be terrible of me to want that and not honour Shakespeare’s story,” says Omar.

“So I had to pull back from my political views and to just allow the text to get to the point on its own,” he adds.

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Dato’ Seri uses bahasa istana (court speech) and colloquial Malay. Beyond that, Omar says the duo discovered many peribahasa (Malay proverbs) which could be “seamlessly integrated into the text.”

But the most iconic element incorporated into the play in the keris.

“The keris is the symbol of power and authority in this country,” says Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali, who started his career with Bank Negara and later served as the CEO of Johor Corporation (JCorp) for 28 years, has had his fair share of dealings with politicians, government officials and the Johor royalty itself.

“Fundamentally, power is power. It is everywhere. It’s a question of how people respond to power. My life experience tells me that we cannot just do more of the same,” he maintains.

In these troubled times, Dato’ Seri, even as a piece of theatre, is bound to have a sharp political edge.

“Many Malaysians are overwhelmed with the fascination with feudal trappings. Datukships and what not. I’m not looking at it negatively. I hold the title of a Tan Sri. But this fascination with titles and so on is a cause of concern and we need to have a conversation about it.

“I therefore think the best way to have this conversation is perhaps through the arts. I mean, how do you arouse that spirit of change in society without demonstrating on the streets? The arts,” concludes Muhammad Ali.

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