A play made for Malaysians returns home.
“I’ve always wanted to stage the play here, and this opportunity gave me the impetus.”
Kee Thuan Chye isn’t the type to sit still and stay quiet.
With a history (and a reputation) of pushing the envelope during his stint as a journalist (more on this in another feature – stay tuned!), his “right makes might” ethos spurs him to take action whenever there is an injustice to be confronted, or a need to be met. It is from the latter that he saw an opportunity – to stage a play made for Malaysians, using it to raise funds for said need.
The play in question? Swordfish + Concubine, finally making its proper premiere in Malaysia, after almost two decades since its conception.
“One of the themes of this play is the abuse of power, and also the belief that is at the core of our mindset – the (lop-sided) covenant between a ruler and his people.”
Hmm. Resonates with you, doesn’t it?
I’ll let Kee elaborate further on what the play is about.
“The play is based on two stories from Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). They’re not really connected, but what I’ve done is forge a connection between them. It’s not a retelling – I’m playing with them to reflect on Malaysia today, and Malaysians. Although the story is set in ancient Singapura, there are a lot of anachronistic elements, and the style is very eclectic; it borrows from all kinds of forms, and there’s a lot of fun, even if the theme is serious.”
As for what you can expect?
“There’s drama and comedy, song and dance, gamelan music, silat – it’s that kind of a play.”
Oh, if by any chance you’ve seen it in the past, don’t enter with the assumption it’s the same play. According to Kee, its current iteration is significantly different from the original.
“The play has undergone many transformations since its beginnings 17 years ago. I see it as a living organism – constantly evolving. From the time it was first written until now, it has gone through multiple revisions. The current version you will see is probably 50% of what it used to be. Of course, it must always cohere to the times.”
Originally written for Malaysians, the play didn’t see its local premiere until recently, as cost was a factor.
“It had always been my dream to do this play in Malaysia – in fact I wanted it to premiere here. But it was expensive to mount, so eventually it premiered in Singapore in 2008, and re-staged there in 2011.”
Last last year, it premiered in its home soil – albeit in a Mandarin translation.
“In December 2016, it was staged in Mandarin Chinese by Loh Kok Man, one of the leading Chinese language theatre practitioners. He did a fabulous job with it, and the response was good!”
Now, if you’ve read Kee’s body of work, a common thread is him pointing out the inconsistencies of the powers at play. Though it’s the same here, it didn’t start out that way.
“I didn’t start out writing political plays. It was only after I came down from Penang to KL in 1979; I saw the contradictions. Penang is a world of its own – more insular. When I came to KL, the contradictions were more apparent.”
Now, for context – the need behind the play. Kee was spurred to start the play after hearing the plight of former RTM Orchestra conductor Datuk Ooi Eow Jin. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his son Raymond homebound due to a brain tumour, the family relies on Elaine Khaw, Ooi’s wife, as their caretaker. His story was shared in the papers and online, and Kee heard of the need.
“What actually happened was my friend read about their plight on the papers, then tagged me on Facebook, wanting to raise funds for the family. So I said, ‘Why don’t I stage my play and raise money from that, for them?’”
And that set into motion the plan to bring Swordfish + Concubine home.
“So once that was decided, I then concertedly went out to seek the funds to do the show. I’m happy to say that although corporations turned me down, I approached my old friends, and they have been very responsive, and weren’t expecting anything in return. When I found out that I had enough money to start, I launched it.”
I did ask: of his body of work, why this particular play in his repertoire, and why now?
“It has never been done here before, and I wrote it for Malaysians. Of course, the Singaporeans (where it premiered in 2008) thought it was part of their story, not just because the setting is in Singapura, but also our shared commonalities between the power systems of our countries.”
With budget being a consideration, Kee won’t budge (heh) on one thing: keeping it affordable. To Kee, affordable art is accessible art, and accessible art can reach the common man easier.
“This production is very high-cost, but I’m trying to keep ticket prices as low as possible – I want people to come to the theatre; I want them to come and see plays. As long as I can recover my cost, and also have some money to give to the family, that will be fine.”
There you have it. A man who saw a need, and decided to assemble an army.
Here are some details on Swordfish + Concubine:
Venue: KLPac Pentas 1
Dates: Nov 2 – 5, 8.30pm (3pm matinees on weekends)
Tickets: RM95, RM75, RM45 (students and the disabled)
For more information, kindly contact KLPaC Box Office at 03-4047 9000 or visit www.ticketpro.com.my.
In case you missed it, theatrical performances have been taking centre stage in Malaysia as of recent, as exhibited by the first ever ETM by Chivas Regal.
*All images of the play courtesy of Mr. Kee Thuan Chye.