Let it snow in Penampang: Dickens' Christmas classic given Sabahan flavour


Welcome to Penampang: Natalie Makulin (right) and Qahar Aqilah star in Theatrethreesixty's Sabah-inspired 'A Christmas Carol', directed by Christopher Ling. Photo: Benjamin Khong Tze Keong

Ebi Monjungkil is your typical miser. For this cold-hearted and cynical man, it’s still business as usual on Christmas Eve, pandemic or not.

But on that night, a ghostly visitor appears to him in his quiet Penampang home in Sabah. He’ll soon learn the true meaning of redemption, hope, and compassion.

Sounds familiar?

The Yuletide season comes early to the Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre (PJPac) with Theatrethreesixty’s reimagining of Charles Dickens’ festive classic A Christmas Carol.

Theatre director Christopher Ling, who helms this 90-minute show, injects local flavour to this Christmas story.

The multilingual A Christmas Carol opens on Dec 2 at PJPac’s Nero Event Space and features English, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Kadazan (with English surtitles).

Stage actor Qahar Aqilah plays the miserly Ebi, the local version of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge and Sabahan musical theatre performer Natalie Makulin tackles 22 other roles.

Kirthana Kuhendran composed the soundscape for the show with lighting design by Nicxon Tan and choreography by London-trained dance artist Kenny Shim. Homegrown composer Nick Choo wrote the main theme Let Hope Arise.

Ling, 46, reveals a peculiar memory after his last directing stint – Orang Bulan at PJPac – in April.

“I experienced a rather strange period of nine days where the themes of A Christmas Carol – ghostly visitations and the idea of living in the past, present and future – kept appearing constantly,” he says.

Talk about life imitating art.

Ling, Theatrethreesixty’s co-founder and artistic director, has worked on A Christmas Carol before, so this isn't a completely new project for him. The director previously staged it with a large cast at KLPac in 2008.

“So I thought the challenge of directing a small cast, localised version of the play updated for the pandemic would be apt,” he shares.

Christopher Ling (left) hopes to bring joy and hope with his staging of 'A Christmas Carol'. Photo: TheatrethreesixtyChristopher Ling (left) hopes to bring joy and hope with his staging of 'A Christmas Carol'. Photo: Theatrethreesixty

A Christmas Carol sees Ebenezer Scrooge lost not only the spirit of Christmas, but also himself somewhere along his life’s journey. Enter the three Ghosts of Christmas “Past, Present and Future” to shake, rattle and roll him back on the right path, and help him find redemption.

Ling delegated the task of updating Dickens' 1843 novella to both of his actors rather than hiring a playwright.

“We started off with a few sessions of ‘getting to know Sabah’ and the local culture. I spent a generous amount of time talking about my family, my childhood and upbringing in Sabah.

“This was very important to the team to understand the socio-cultural context impacting the newly adapted characters,” shares Makulin, who brings her own understanding of Sabah culture to the table.

What the team discovered, she mentions, is that “our current struggles are somewhat similar to that of Dickens’ time, only manifested in different layers through different people.”

Qahar, on the other hand, says he focused on the storytelling and the theatricality in the writing.

“The result is a light and somewhat faithful adaptation, but with an East Malaysian vibe, instead of the usual teh tarik and nasi lemak Peninsular Malaysian vibe, which is the staple of almost every ‘Malaysian’ adaptation of a Western story,” he offers.

"I've always been fascinated by the crusty Malaysian, who is raised middle class, with an educational background during the tail end of the colonial Malaya period, who spoke with the Queen's English and had a general sense of superiority towards other Malaysians, in the present and the future.”

Qahar has a role to relish... that obnoxious elderly uncle everyone tries to avoid at a family gathering.

After nearly two years of darkness and theatre disruptions, Ling and his team are excited to bring this joyful Christmas story about hope, redemption and second chances to the Klang Valley audience.

“The play reminds us that we all are entitled to the same second chance (and many more) as experienced by Monjungkil.

“His redemption is found in the second chance that he gets to rectify his past mistakes. More importantly for us, we have a second chance to take back everything that Covid has stolen from us,” concludes Ling.

A Christmas Carol is supported by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), MyCreative Ventures and PENJANA through the Performing Arts Presentation Funding grant.

A Christmas Carol plays at PJPac, 1Utama Shopping Centre, Petaling Jaya in Selangor from Dec 2-12. The theatre space capacity admits 100 people per show and public health SOPs must be observed. More details here.

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