Twenty years ago, Penang-born theatre practitioner Chee Sek Thim directed his first ever play called A Modern Woman Called Ang Tau Mui by prolific playwright Leow Puay Tin.
Since then, he has directed countless plays including Cakap Dapur: R&D Stories (2015), That Was The Year (2007) and Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (2000).
Even the 56-year-old Chee is surprised that it has taken him two decades to finally work on a Malay language play.
Chee directs the theatre show called Malam Takdir, which is written by Johan Othman. It opens today at Sinkeh in George Town, Penang, a space Chee owns and runs.
The 40-minute two-hander workshop performance features Hilyati Ramli and Noor Rizuwan, whose spooky play Fragrance was staged at Five Arts Centre in KL early this year.
“Strange that it took me so long ... Malay should have been a language that flowed through my veins but it stopped short. It remained outside, forever entangling and tripping up my tongue,” says Chee, who also founded and runs Reka Art Space, a Penang gallery that supports alternative artists.
“Working with a script in Malay was a decision that came about out of circumstance rather than by design. The people who are involved in theatre in Penang who have shown an interest in working with me, have either been more comfortable in either Chinese or Malay, ” he adds.
The last two plays that Chee directed - A Complete Woman (2017) and Taijituateow (2018) - were in Mandarin and Hokkien respectively.
“It's simply a matter of creating work with the talents that are accessible, rather than the other way around. It's a liberating experience to be able to walk into the realm that is defined by a particular language. Be it Mandarin or Malay, I've always felt to be on the outside of that realm,” says Chee.
Malam Takdir was originally conceived as a libretto in English for an opera. Chee and Johan had been developing the work since December last year. It was then rewritten in Bahasa Malaysia after its first reading in May this year.
“One of the elements that stood out was the many repetitions or cycles of words and phrases. Johan was interested in playing with the sound of the text, as a musician would.
“We reached a point where we decided that we had better work out the drama before we proceeded. We are performing the text without the singing and it’s working out quite well.
“It already sounds operatic and Johan and I are currently talking about the ways that music will possibly play a part from this point, ” elaborates Chee.
Malam Takdir is also inspired by an episode from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
It imagines a conversation between King Dhritarashtra who was born blind, and his advisor Sanjaya, who is gifted with foresight. This conversation takes place just before the epic Kurukshetra War where the Kaurava brothers - all 100 of them - are killed by their cousins, the five Pandava brothers.
This is not Chee and Johan’s first collaboration. The duo worked on Never Trust A City With No Ghosts in 2016, a performance of remembered personal histories inspired by a drawing by Penang-based visual artist Foo May Lyn.
Chee directed the piece while Johan created a continuous electronic mood-shifting soundscape that overlaid the performance.
As for Malam Takdir, Chee says "the initial idea was to move towards it being developed into an opera. How that will pan out, we'll decide after this run."
The Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana) is a strategic partner for Malam Takdir.
Malam Takdir is on at Sinkeh, 105 Lebuh Melayu, Penang from Nov 7-10. Showtimes: Nov 7-9 (8.30pm). Nov 9 and 10 (3pm). Tickets: RM35 and RM25 (concession). Facebook: Malam Takdir or Reka Art Space.
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