It would seem that at the end of what has been a not-so-prolific year for local theatre, an intriguing show is now making its exciting entrance. When Shadow in the Sun popped up on the radar a short while ago, the synopsis indicated something entirely new to Malaysian theatre — a dramatisation of the historic chain of events leading up to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
As it is, it is not quite the usual historical play, though that in itself is a rarity here, but what is more interesting is that the story is told through intimate and revealing personal letters between Mary Stuart and her cousin, England’s Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.
A drama involving not just one but two famous queens would naturally be daunting for most actors, but the names Susan Lankester, Sarah Shahrum and director Datuk Zahim Albakri at the top of the bill make it a promising treat for theatregoers, even if Lankester quickly points out that they are trying to fill the big shoes of two iconic figures.
The understated work was first staged in 2004 in the UK, written by and starring British soap actresses Kate O’Mara (of Dynasty fame) and Patricia Shakesby (Coronation Street, Brighton Rock, Howard’s Way). The latter, who played Elizabeth I, happens to be Sarah’s aunt.
“When I visited her in the UK a couple of years ago, I asked to have a look at the script. After I read it, I wondered if we could somehow put this on in Kuala Lumpur. So, I approached Zahim with the idea and suddenly everything just fell into place. Su [Lankester] came on board, Hayley Holle came on board as producer, Melinda Looi came on as costume designer, Raja Malek became the set designer … and this is where we are now,” says Sarah, adding that E&O Group also gave its backing as sponsors for the show’s run in Penang.
The trio remain tight-lipped about the details of the play, but reveal that the spoken words are extracted and paraphrased from selected letters, backed by other historical documents.
“What you will be hearing are the voices of the two queens themselves. It is not a conventional play, that is one of the things that attracted me to it. The storyline is not put together like a writer writing it and the flow is different. But what fascinates me is that this is not a writer’s interpretation, but their own words. While they aren’t talking directly to each other, O’Mara has chosen to put them together in a way that indirectly creates exchanges and dialogue,” Zahim says.
This also means that the performance will be delivered in Tudor English, staying true to the language of the time. “People nowadays are so exposed … the exciting thing about this production is that it’s wholly Malaysian, yet we have a full experience, including the costumes. Melinda Looi has done an amazing job with the attention to detail and research. So why not do it as it is intended to be when we could?”
Zahim has taken some theatrical liberties to enhance the storytelling and added context to the original work. One is the addition of a male actor, who will narrate and play all the male characters that are mentioned. Another is adding a few more letters to give a sense of closure to Mary Stuart’s execution.
Shadow In The Sun is the first time Lankester and Sarah have shared the stage, though they have been involved in the same productions before. Lankester — whose debut in the 1983 film, Mekanik, won her a Best Supporting Actress Award at the Malaysia Film Festival — says she immediately said yes when the opportunity came: “I think in a play like this, every actor wants to get involved. It’s a perfect role for someone my age — to be able to sink my teeth into it and do the best I can to walk in Elizabeth’s shoes.
“She’s such a cool character. She’s actually a real bad ass and I loved finding out the way she behaved and how she controlled the men who tried to influence her. Her feelings for her cousin were also quite true, but in the end, it was also politics. If you place their story in any other time, this would highlight women in power, and that doesn’t happen very often,” says Lankester.
People nowadays are so exposed … the exciting thing about this production is that it’s wholly Malaysian, yet we have a full experience, including the costumes.
For Sarah, playing Mary Queen of Scots is a chance to tell the story of someone who is often seen as a controversial passing character in Elizabeth I’s story. She says, “People forget that she spent 19 years virtually imprisoned, in terrible conditions, and yet she was so tenacious. She just kept going and picked herself up each time. She was desperate to get away, to get out, to see Elizabeth, though that favour was denied.”
The stars and director readily admit there is the pressure in portraying legendary historical figures, though the research process has been enjoyable and rewarding, judging from their excitement in sharing insights into their characters. Coincidentally, all three are of Malaysian-British mixed heritage.
“I found some connection with my mother’s hometown through this,” shares Zahim with a smile. “She’s from South Yorkshire, and I found out that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed two nights in the town where my mother is from, in a chapel nearby. I didn’t realise that a lot of the time she spent imprisoned was in the area.”
“And that’s why we have Zahim as the director,” quips Sarah, with Lankester chipping in, “This is the first time Zahim is directing me, and it’s been a pleasure, because his insight and attention to detail are quite amazing.”
Lankester adds, “It’s really about making her (Elizabeth I) as real and human as possible … to play her as a person, understanding who she is, understanding the language and then getting that message across well.”
“Mary is the total opposite of Elizabeth. She was politically naïve, unlike Elizabeth. The English queen’s training brought out her survival instinct, but Mary didn’t have that opportunity. Her downfall was men — she chose the wrong men and made bad choices. But in the age she lived, it was a means of survival,” observes Sarah.
Ultimately, the play offers a chance to view two different monarchs — powerful women of their time with contrasting personalities — who by a quirk of fate co-existed and whose paths crossed. “I don’t think you have seen anything like this,” Sarah sums up.
Shadow in The Sun will be staged from Nov 8 to 18 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Empire Damansara, Damansara Perdana. Tickets are priced at RM55, RM110 and RM120. To purchase, visit www.dpac.com.my.