After about 17 years, the original English version of Kee Thuan Chye’s Swordfish + Concubine is finally being staged here in Malaysia, directed by the playwright himself.
For the theatre veteran and former journalist, the production is a culmination of years of waiting, revising and, finally in the past year, laying the groundwork for it to come to fruition. “It is a play about Malaysia, written for Malaysians,” says Kee.
Best described as a dramatised re-telling of two key historical stories from the Malay Annals, also known as the Genealogy of Kings in Arabic, Swordfish + Concubine relates the tale of Hang Nadim and the mythical ikan todak (swordfish) attack on Singapura, as well as the downfall of its last ruler, Sri Iskandar Shah, after he punished one of his concubines.
“The Sejarah Melayu [Malay Annals] is such a rich work that gives good insight into our national past. And I think during the 1990s, there were certain things going on in Malaysia that triggered the idea for this work, from which I drew my inspiration. There is the boy who saves Singapura, but gets unduly rewarded, and then the concubine who is found guilty on trumped-up charges and sentenced to death by impalement. Both stories are dramatic and intense, and historical, but I also saw them as stories that reflected the present as well,” says Kee.
What makes the play unique is its one-of-a-kind staging. “The whole play is written in a very eclectic way,” summarises Kee, adding, “It is meant to be epic and theatrical. There is a lot going on in this play, with a lot of movement. That’s how I envisioned it.”
To give an idea of what that means — the opening sequence is a rap piece played to a gamelan beat, which will be performed by Rhythm In Bronze in the upcoming show. The whole experience will be a package of satire, comedy, drama, song, dance and even silat, seasoned with Brecht theatre and Bangsawan elements, and splashed with a hint of Tarantino-esque dark humour.
Sounds incredible? Well yes, but the director promises that it comes together well. “Even though it’s eclectic, it’s not done for the sake of embellishment. Whatever form is being used is to enhance the theatrical experience without losing sight of conveying the import of what the play is about. Even the gamelan and hip-hop — it is fun, but there is reason for it,” Kee says.
The nuances and allegories have not always been grasped by its audiences. Swordfish + Concubine was first staged in 2008, when famed director Ivan Heng of the celebrated Wild Rice Theatre debuted it as part of the OCBC Singapore Theatre Festival. In 2011, it was staged again in Singapore by the company’s youth division, Young & Wild.
Last year, Chinese theatre director Loh Kok Man produced a highly stylised Mandarin version, which cut two characters from the original text with Kee’s permission. By then, Kee had made multiple revisions to the original text. “This play has been like a living organism, it’s been evolving and has undergone multiple transformations,” he says with a laugh.
“There was a certain justification for the criticism,” he acknowledges, “at the time, I was trying to satirise a few things, such as the Ayah Pin cult and the reality singing contest phenomenon, but it was not disciplined and tight. Also, the tone was more Bangsawan-ish than it is now, and the issue of mediocrity that I tackled did not go down well with Singaporeans. Perhaps because they don’t understand mediocrity the way we Malaysians do,” laughs Kee.
Those who saw the first staging can expect quite a different production this time, with arguably more clarity and focus than before. One part Kee is keen to keep under wraps would be the concubine’s crime, which has been changed in each production, and includes being a cult member, attempted murder and unnatural sex. “This year, it is for the audience to find out,” says the director.
What will remain are the themes fundamental to the play. “There cannot be any hits or misses about what they are … certainly abuse of power, and the sacred covenant on loyalty that is central to the story, which have been central to our mindset and still prevail today. People may wonder why I am writing from the Sejarah Melayu, but it is part of my heritage. These stories must have happened, maybe not quite the exact same circumstances, but in another form or manner they must have. More importantly, the covenant has entered the psyche of our people today,” Kee says.
It is just as well that the production only came together now, when the issues addressed in Swordfish + Concubine are more pertinent than ever. Motivation came from a rather unlikely source — a social media post by a friend that highlighted veteran musician Datuk Ooi Eow Jin’s financial plight. It caught the director’s eye, and gave him the sense of urgency needed to put together a show with the aim to raise funds to support Ooi.
“It’s a costly production, but I’m very grateful that after encountering shut doors, I managed to raise enough seed money to kick-start this production through ex-schoolmates, old friends and a couple of university friends. I am touched by their generosity. I also have an amazing cast of established and fresh faces, nine musicians and some top-notch designers,” says Kee.
This will probably be the closest to the ideal that he has envisioned for Swordfish + Concubine to come alive on the stage. Now, all he needs is for the audience to show up. “Just come with an open mind,” he says simply.
Swordfish + Concubine will be staged from Nov 2 to 5 at Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, KL. Tickets are priced at RM75 and RM95, with part of the proceeds going to Datuk Ooi Eow Jin. To purchase, visit www.klpac.org or call (03) 4047 9000.