If ever there was a case of knowing the life of the playwright by knowing his works, Datuk Syed Alwi Syed Hassan would likely be its embodiment. The Taiping-born theatre pioneer, named a national laureate in 2002, was very much a man of his time — in terms of the realism of his contemporary writing — and a man ahead of his time in the confident and unabashedly candid manner in which he portrayed the Malay community through his characters, many of them inspired by real-life people.
Those whose interest in the local arts only blossomed recently, and many of us of a younger generation, may not fully appreciate the significance of his contributions to Malay-language theatre (and internationally) and the national narrative — a shame, really.
That is partly why, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing in 2008, Tampakdara and The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat is presenting Teater YEOP: A Tribute to Dato’ Syed Alwi.
Director Rosdeen Suboh says the importance of Syed Alwi’s legacy has been forgotten by many, and as an academic, he felt a sense of responsibility to educate the people and shed light on the relevance of his work, which is particularly pertinent in these times. Apart from being a theatre and film actor (One Two Jaga), Rosdeen is a senior lecturer in Universiti Malaya’s drama department.
The announcement of the tribute performance carried this intriguing statement in small print above the title: The performance will be done in the style of the forum theatre. Created by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, the audience, or ‘spect-actors’, are engaged in the performance beyond merely watching, and are often given the power to stop and change the performance at key moments.
Rosdeen’s unique version of the theatre form was first presented last year, when he directed his students in the original tribute performance as an academic exercise. In the audience was Datuk Faridah Merican, who was curious as to how it would develop and translate onto a professional stage.
Taking a page from the blend of realism and fiction in Syed Alwi’s writings, Rosdeen’s objective is not to reminisce about the tokoh, but to reintroduce him, the essence of his works and their relevance today by creating a new narrative using scenes from three of his plays interspersed with real events and reactions.
It is why he cast some of the strongest theatre performers and directors in Malay language theatre currently — Naque Ariffin, Sallehuddin Abu Bakar, Yusmar Yusof and Norzizi Zulkifli. Nadia Aqilah was selected for her vocal prowess, as she will be performing a song.
“The performance will start in the foyer of the theatre,” Rosdeen reveals with a smile. On the notorious reticence of Malaysian audiences, he says the players will try their best to make them comfortable before that, and shares that a lot of the interactivity is worked into the performance itself, so as not to disrupt the fl ow of the 1½-hour performance as a traditional forum theatre format might.
“I don’t think it is often done here, this style of interactive theatre. Or rather, the only time I have seen it was when Rosdeen did it at Universiti Malaya,” says Faridah, who is executive producer. “Doing it in this manner is a good introduction to Syed’s writing. While he wrote in the Malay language, his following extended to the English-speaking crowd of his time, though the younger generation now would not have any idea who he is.”
The theatre doyenne shares some of her most beloved memories of a man she considered a good friend and mentor. “If you were lucky enough to know him in his prime…,” she says with pride, before laughing, “You know, he taught me how to gamble.” She points out that his unaffected personality informed his writing.
“The focus of his work has been on the Malay psyche, the ‘Malayness’ of the people he grew up with in the kampung, in Kuala Kangsar. He was very, very proud of his hometown. And his writings are all based on real people,” she reiterates. “Syed himself was like some of the characters he portrayed, blemishes and all. In that way, he was a Malay baru of his time.”
The works chosen by Rosdeen to showcase, arguably Syed Alwi’s best known plays, Alang Rentak Seribu (1973), Tok Perak (1974), and Going North (1980), reflect this element. The first, his most popular work, tells the comedic story of Alang, a knowit-all who encounters a group of filmmakers from Kuala Lumpur when they come to shoot a film about life in the kampung.
In Tok Perak, Syed Alwi depicts a medicine seller who re-emerges after more than 30 years to ply his trade once more in a new Malaysia (of that time). Going North is about a young, arrogant student’s encounter with an old man he thinks is uneducated at a small-town railway station.
It was in fact the first play he wrote, in 1949, as a secondary school student. The playwright once admitted that the character was based on his own encounter with a scholar at age 18, and it tied in with his own experience of forgetting his mother tongue while studying journalism and theatre arts at the University of Minnesota. Incidentally, while there, he revisited the work, reworking it in English as a stage drama for the American audience.
In Malaysia, Going North was the first locally produced English TV drama in 1965, after it was performed as a Malay radio play. It was only officially staged as Malay theatre in 1979 at Universiti Malaya. “Don’t we all know someone like Alang?” quips Faridah, who acted in both the stage and TV versions of Alang Rentak Seribu, as well as Tok Perak. She also produced the English staging of Going North in 2006.
Rosdeen says while he only met Syed Alwi twice, his works have had tremendous impact on drama students as material for contemporary writing. United by a common theme of scenes that revolve around kampung folk and rural settings, what the director hopes to convey are its key themes for today’s urban society.
“I was thinking about the issue of Malay identity, why we always shout about our Malayness. It is because we don’t know our roots and how to deal with change, I feel. We tend to be scared easily, especially when it comes to political issues … I think when Malays understand more about who they are and where they come from — I am not here to draw a conclusion but to hopefully open up an opportunity for us to keep thinking, keep on learning — you are not afraid of anything. You can see the past and the future because history always becomes the future. This is what I believe. It is about a mental revolution... this is triggered by Syed Alwi’s texts,” reflects Rosdeen.
'Teater YEOP: A Tribute to Dato’ Syed Alwi', klpac, Pentas 2, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah. Dec 27-29, 8.30pm; Dec 30, 3pm. RM60. Purchase tickets here. This article first appeared on Dec 24, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.