Let's set the scene: swordfish attack Singapura, then part of Nusantara (or the Malay world), before going on to terrorise its inhabitants.
The kingdom is saved only when a young boy comes up with the ingenious plan of lining the beach with banana plant stems to trap the creatures. But instead of being honoured for his deed, the boy is executed by the Maharaja.
Drawn from the classic literature work Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), Singapura Dilanggar Todak (The Attack Of The Swordfish) is a familiar story ingrained in our collective consciousness.
Director Loh Kok Man – known for his experimental productions – hopes to take the cautionary tale of power abuse to a larger audience with his Mandarin translation of The Swordfish, Then The Concubine, which plays at Pentas 2, KLPAC from Dec 15 to 18.
Loh’s production will mark the first time the play written (in 2005) by veteran playwright/author Kee Thuan Chye is staged in Malaysia. The Swordfish, Then The Concubine, presented by W!ld Rice, first premiered at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2008. It was later staged with the same script as the Swordfish + Concubine: The Fall Of Singapura in Singapore in 2011.
The play could not have found a better theatre director to bring it to the Malaysian stage.
Loh, 44, the founder and artistic director of Pentas Project, is known for his political work, from a stage adaptation of the classic George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novel Animal Farm, which he staged in 2008, to Kee’s own 1984 Here And Now earlier this year.
For The Swordfish, Then The Concubine, however, Loh has chosen a more subtle approach, banking instead on the original foundation myths of Singapore to do the politicking. Or as Loh puts it: less agitprop and political posing but more Bangsawan-like wonder, comedy and music.
“I am focusing more on the physicality and play of voice of the characters. The politics, I prefer to leave to the audience. They can read more into the myths and make the link to contemporary society, if they want. Or they can just sit back and enjoy the folk tales.”
As written in the script, the play jumps to a generation later when the Maharaja’s son takes over the throne. He creates his own scandal when he breaks the covenant between subject and ruler by publicly executing his concubine on trumped-up charges.
This causes a rift in his court, which betrays him to the Majapahit Empire. Before long a Majapahit armada appears on the horizon, threatening Singapura’s sovereignty.
What draws him to the myths and the script is the sociocultural context, says Loh who has directed Uda Dan Dara and Ang Tau Mui (written in Hokkien), among others, in Mandarin.
“I am interested in bringing Malaysian works written in the different Malaysian languages to the stage, especially in Chinese theatre. For The Swordfish, I am particularly excited about infusing the traditional form of the local folk tale with contemporary elements and structures,” he says.
He adds that it is his way of understanding “his society and country more.”
The production, he enthusiastically shares, is also driven by his long-time fixation on Malaysiana.
The original script did not have wayang kulit but Loh has included puppet play – designed by his regular collaborator, multimedia artist Fairuz Sulaiman – in his production. It will, however, be limited to the portrayal of the young boy Hang Nadim.
But in Loh’s signature style, The Swordfish, Then The Concubine promises to be a visual spectacle with extensive play of lighting, animation and multimedia projection.
“You can say it’s a bit rojak – a collage of Malaysian life played to live music (by Orang Orang Drum Theatre).”
In sharing Loh’s vision, actors Valerie Chian, Thian Siew Kim, Yeo Lyle and Niko Hugh, who will play multiple lead characters in the performance, say they did not find the language and cultural difference a barrier to getting into character.
“The play is very Malaysian and contemporary, so getting into character – largely Malay characters speaking Mandarin – wasn’t difficult. We had to dig deep in our exploration, but I think it only gave our characters more depth,” says Chian.
Thian, who had to reach not only across culture but also gender to play the first Maharaja, agrees.
“For me, the challenge was finding a fresh take on the classic characters and breaking away from stereotypes,” she says.
The question remains though – can the jokes be translated from English to Mandarin, or does the humour get lost in translation?
“Why don’t you come watch for yourself? It was not easy but I think we have most of the humour from the original play intact. Maybe more,” says Loh with a grin.
The Swordfish, Then The Concubine will play at Pentas 2, KLPAC, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in Kuala Lumpur, Dec 15-18. Shows are at 8.30pm, with additional matinees at 3pm on Dec 17 and 18. Tickets are RM65 (adult) and RM45 (concession). For more info and bookings, call 03-4047 9000 or visit pentasproject.org.