Homegrown theatre production Swordfish+Concubine, based on the classic literature work Sejarah Melayu, is set for a contemporary update when it opens at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre on Nov 2. And the latest version of this play has something for everyone.
The original title The Swordfish, Then The Concubine has been changed to Swordfish+Concubine to give the work a new zip.
As for the script, think dramatic lines and splashes of humour. Add battle scenes and wayang kulit. Not to forget a grand mix of bangsawan theatre and some of German dramatist-director Bertolt Brecht’s perspectives on contemporary social realities. To lighten the mood, a musical theme called “gamelan rap” is also on the cards.
Swordfish+Concubine combines the stories of Hang Nadim, a brave and smart boy who saves Temasek (Singapore) from a deadly swordfish attack, and Nurhalisa, a tough and defiant concubine sentenced to death by impalement.
The acclaimed play from Kee Thuan Chye, written in 2005, will be performed in its original English form for the first time in Malaysia (a Mandarin adaptation was staged in 2016). The Swordfish, Then The Concubine premiered at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2008.
The upcoming performance, produced and directed by Kee, features a broad cast that includes Na’a Murad, Sandra Sodhy, Qahar Aqilah, Alfred Loh, Hana Nadira, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Bella Rahim, Gregory Sze, Iefiz Alaudin, Lam Ghooi Ket and Joel Timothy Low. The show will also have music by percussion group Rhythm & Bronze.
At a recent rehearsal session, Hana, 32, who plays concubine Nurhalisa, and Low, 12, as Hang Nadim, tell us more about this epic play.
“I play many parts, including a warrior,” says Hana. “But Nurhalisa is my main role. She’s a very well-read, educated and privileged individual. However, she’s also a bit naive in terms of how things work.”
Hana points out Nurhalisa’s idealistic views and how she wants to change the world. “She is not aware of how the real world works, with all the backstabbing in it. She goes after what she wants with all her heart.”
Low, who usually acts with his contemporaries, is the youngest actor. He's unfazed about this challenge. “My character is really smart. He likes to study things because he wants to be a Sultan some day,” Low says. “Hang Nadim is quite a character despite his age. He tries to prove people wrong.”
At the play’s rehearsals in a studio in Petaling Jaya, the mood has been lively with the cast in good spirits. Hana maintains that there is still a big part of Nurhalisa’s character that needs to be explored and figured out.
“I’m still discovering my character. In fact, I find myself going back to my younger days where I really believed I could make changes. When you grow older, you become a wee bit cynical (laughs). I had to jog my childhood memories, trying to remember the last time I stood up for something.”
Both Hana and Low have a couple of highlights to mention from this production. “My favourite scenes are the easy ones, where I get to be a warrior or to joget! It’s no pressure there. I get to be more physical. I admit that playing Nurhalisa is very challenging. She’s tough, but the other scenes are more fun!” says Hana with a laugh.
Low isn’t one for spoilers, but those familiar with Sejarah Melayu will know what happens to Hang Nadim. The heroic acts from this young boy, who saved Temasek from an attack by shoals of swordfish, didn’t go down too well with the royal court back then. In the end, Hang Nadim was seen as a threat and thrown into the sea.
“It’s the first time I’ve died in a show. It’s a new experience! I didn’t know how to die,” says Low.
In many ways, Hana feels that Swordfish+Concubine will continue to have an avid following in any language because its themes are very relevant today. The classic story, with its moral arguments, invites audiences to understand them and draw conclusions. This long-awaited English staging is bound to have a broad appeal.
“There’s so much going on here. There’s drama and tragedy. It’s a realistic play, capturing the mood of the times, and presenting a satire of things that go on in our society today. It talks a lot about issues we don’t always talk about,” Hana concludes.