Before she became Malaysian theatre’s First Lady, Faridah Merican was a school teacher, newsreader and radio talk show host.
"Come and join us,” Datuk Faridah Merican cordially invites me, beckoning me to her table with a reassuring smile.
Maybe she noticed my hesitance. It is not often you get to break bread with the First Lady of Malaysian theatre and her equally charismatic husband Joe Hasham.
It is late afternoon and they are just having their lunch at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s (KLPac) Societe café.
I slowly make my way to their table.
“What would you like to have?” Faridah warmly asks.
“Just tea, thanks,” I reply.
“Good. At least we don’t have to spend so much on you!” Hasham cheekily quips.
Immediately, whatever reservations I had dissipated. I am well acquainted with the duo, make no mistake. But we have never sat at the same table and shared a meal.
The 74-year-old is currently in the midst of directing a musical. This is probably one of the few moments of respite she has had in days.
Once the meal was over, we proceed to the meeting room. As I set up my recorder and notebook, I show Faridah some photographs from her heyday that I managed to find in the archives.
“Oh, my god,” Faridah says, a big smile carving her face. Her eyes glinted with the delights of nostalgia. She looks at the photographs, relishing each of them. You could almost behold the flurry of memories flashing across her mind.
One of the pictures is from a musical she starred in more than four decades ago. It was Usman Awang’s Uda Dan Dara, with original music written by Dr Basil Jayatilaka. Faridah played Dara, a young woman from an affluent family who falls in love with Uda, a young man from the poorer societal strata.
Directed by Datuk Rahim Razali and produced by Datuk Krishen Jit, the 1972 musical was the Malaysian equivalent of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet and was performed at Universiti Malaya’s Experimental Theatre.
Faridah went on to play Dara’s mother in the 1984 restaging at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan and in 2002, was producer of the modernised version of the acclaimed musical, directed by Krishen and Hasham.
And now, Faridah returns to that same musical as the director of Uda Dan Dara at KLPac’s Pentas 1.
It almost feels like a full-circle moment.
“That’s how it seems to be but it was never intended to be. It does seem like a natural progression but I have not spent sleepless nights wondering if I will direct Uda Dan Dara!” quips the veteran thespian.
Confessing her love for the musical, Faridah just knew she had to do it. Of course, she was not spared from naysayers. Faridah shares one such experience when she announced her intention to restage the musical, to one of her friends.
“She asked, ‘Faridah, why? Is there no other play?’ I told her the emotions I feel for Uda Dan Dara at this moment in my life are very strong and very important, so much so that I want to do it,” Faridah asserts.
“Faridah was an influence in my life as I began to work on women’s rights. She lived her life without succumbing to dictates, she did not conform. I love this about her, a rebel with a cause and women like this inspired me to pursue my cause despite detractors,” shares Ivy Josiah, executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation.
For those who do not know Faridah, they may be surprised to find out that this all-round theatre veteran was once a primary school teacher. Her father, Basha Merican, was an English and literature teacher at the Penang Free School.
“I was 18 at that time. I told him that I wanted to be a teacher, too. My father was one of those wonderful human beings who never once said, ‘No, you must do this and not that,’ ” Faridah recounts.
She went on to become a primary school teacher after enrolling at the Kota Baru Teachers Training College and in 1962, entered the Specialist Teachers’ Training Institute to study physical education.
For Faridah, her “happiest days were wearing shorts in the padang (field), running around and making noise as a PE teacher.”
And it is this same vivacity and enthusiasm that carried Faridah through her multifaceted career.
“I think Faridah’s commitment to any show can best be seen through the enthusiasm she displays, and if you look for it, through the twinkle in her eyes when she talks about it. She has also been in every show – not as a director, but as an audience member.
“I don’t know how she can genuinely enjoy watching the same performance so many nights in a row!” enthuses actor Uihua Cheah, who recently acted in the latest instalment of Life Sdn Bhd called Hantu.
Recognising the need for an independent theatre space, Faridah and Hasham founded The Actors Studio at Plaza Putra, Kuala Lumpur, in 1989 but an untimely flood destroyed the place in 2003 and became the catalyst for the formation of KLPac.
Jo Kukathas, one of the country’s leading theatre actors, says by forming these independent theatre spaces, including the Performing Arts Centre of Penang, Faridah has “provided a space which any theatre or dance group can rent – and more importantly use without any censorship or restrictions to their creativity. It’s not easy running a space and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to do so for so many years.”
Josiah echoes Kukathas’ views and adds, “she did not give up despite huge financial constraints. The Actors Studio became a haven for performers hungry for space and at the same time raised professional standards in Malaysian theatre.”
Kukathas recalls the first time she met Faridah.
“I was about four, I think. My parents were going to Faridah’s wedding to Leslie Dawson in Penang. I cried bitterly because I wasn’t allowed to go. Guess I wanted to be where the theatre was.
“My father and Faridah go back a long way and I think that connection to an earlier time, to a shared theatre history, has made us fond of each other,” Kukathas reminisces.
Unfortunately, that marriage did not last long. After five years of teaching and joining Radio Malaysia as a newsreader in the early 1960s, Faridah entered advertising agency HS Benson – now Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) – as a props and casting girl in 1969. She now sits on O&M’s board of directors.
She was also making her voice heard on the airwaves with her two radio talk shows on theatre and advertising called Encore and AdTalk respectively.
As her professional career took off, her personal life hit rock bottom. The same year Faridah joined HS Benson, her marriage with her first husband ended. This would become a pattern in Faridah’s life, with one door closing and another opening.
It was at this crossroads that the allure of theatre beckoned. She was already part of an inner circle, consisting of the likes of the late Krishen Jit, K. Das (Kukathas’ father) and Datuk Syed Alwi.
Of course, Faridah already had a taste of performing when she played Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, while she was studying at the Kota Baru Teachers Training College.
“I think I was rather fortunate. I was placed, at a time in my life, with people who were able to teach me so much,” Faridah points out.
With no formal training in acting, Faridah, who was conferred the Darjah Dato’ Paduka Tuanku Ja’afar by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan in 2005, went on to take the post-colonial theatre scene by storm, with Lela Mayang, Tok Perak and Syed Alwi’s Alang Rentak Seribu, to name a few.
However, one of Faridah’s most defining roles was in fact Dara.
As the stageside story goes, Uda Dan Dara is a tragic love tale between two young people who come from different backgrounds. Uda, from the village’s poorer strata, falls for the wealthy Dara.
He moves to KL in search of a better job but his beloved is betrothed to another in the process. This tragic love story ends with Uda’s death and Dara’s descent into madness, unable to accept her lover’s demise.
Usman, the Johor-born national laureate, used this as a setting to explore issues of status, wealth and class discrimination in the country.
For the 2015 production of Uda Dan Dara (played by Mark Lim and Hana Nadira Zainal Abidin respectively), Uda is of Chinese descent, adding an additional layer to the story which tackles issues of status and power.
As the hour-long interview draws to a close, Faridah has this to say to the next generation of theatre practitioners when asked if they have what it takes to carry Malaysian theatre through.
“They’d better because we have spent so many years of our lives trying to make Malaysian theatre what it is today. If they do not take the ball and run with it, we will come back to haunt them! Those are Joe’s and my last words!” Faridah cheekily says.
“They’d better want to do it. It is an industry that does not come looking for you. You have to look for it, make it happen and never give up.
“It’s not about the money. Yes, you have to put money in the pockets, if not, you can’t do anything at all. The Government must understand that if you want to create a creative industry in the country, you must make sure your creative people are properly rewarded,” expresses Faridah.
“Otherwise, you can kiss goodbye and I don’t know what kind of rakyat you will be producing.”