While every generation has its own stories, there are always lessons to be learnt from the past. That is the crux of Malaya Relived: The Fall of Singapore, a musical that promises a refreshingly different effect.
The company behind it is Liver and Lung Productions, a theatre outfit based in Malaysia and the UK, and helmed by a British and Malaysian duo. The 26-year-old Malaysian co-founder is Shafeeq Shajahan, who wrote and composed The Fall of Singapore after a visit to the National Museum of Singapore.
“As I was walking around and reading about the Japanese occupation, I was drawn to the trauma that Malayans went through during that time. We don’t talk about that episode in our history anymore, and I don’t know why — especially since 1942 is not that long ago — but the visit gave me flashbacks to when my mum told me stories about my grandmother, of her having to hide underneath straw mats because she was afraid of the Japanese soldiers finding and raping her,” says Shafeeq. The visit inspired him to write the melody of a song while still at the museum. “Everything then kind of took off from there,” he adds.
In the musical, set in three different years of 1938, 1940 and 1942, Zubaida and Zabir are siblings who find themselves at odds over their father’s mysterious death, even as they grapple with the grief and changes in the family. As time passes, their response to the tragedy takes on two diverging paths — Zubaida clings on to her British soldier beau for survival while Zabir retreats further and deeper into the world of black magic. Soon the looming threat of the Japanese occupation brings things to a head.
“The historical events form the backdrop here,” says Ian Nathaniel, the musical director and arranger for The Fall of Singapore, adding that the focus is nevertheless on the characters and how their lives play out at a time global powers are shifting.
“Liver and Lung, which I started with my friend Hannah Shields while studying Economics in London, has always been about the more immersive sort of theatre. The stories that I am interested in doing have that cultural inclination, an intersection of the liberal Western values that I learnt, the Eastern ones that I grew up with. To try and find a union of both,” says Shafeeq.
This can be seen in their previous works. For example, in their first production in Malaysia back in 2016, Leila/Laila, Shafeeq and Ian presented a musical fusion of traditional Indian Kathak dance and the Spanish flamenco, revolving around the story of a relationship through an East-West perspective. Next came Mahsuri, a web of four popular Malaysian folktales retold with a modern, liberal and feminist slant. The work won them an Innovation in Musical Theatre Boh Cameronian Award.
Asked how a visit to the museum inspired such grand themes for their latest show, Shafeeq says, “Obviously, we relate to being post-colonial. I think, personally, I have that chip on my shoulder as well, having that love-hate relationship with the ‘white man’, the Westerner … and my journey in creating art has been about reconciling the two worlds [that have influenced me tremendously] and see where I sit in all of that.”
Liver and Lung proudly wears its enthusiasm for challenging the norm with the vigour of a young company. And it has made a good show of it, from Mahsuri to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the UK, where a play named Submission was longlisted for the Freedom of Expression Award in 2017.
For The Fall of Singapore, Shafeeq and Ian follow in the vein of site-specific shows that the company has come to be known for. As the musical is taking place in a space at the new GMBB artisanal mall in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the audience can expect to spend two hours in a kampung house, where all the action unfolds as they enjoy some kuih and tea.
Ian reveals that the music and songs will be delivered live via two instruments — the piano and the violin — which will be used to create a medley that reflects strains of traditional Malay and Indian musical rhythms and melodies.
“You will see how the arrangement can create a full sound with just these two instruments,” says the 27-year-old musician, who dived into theatre as a way to branch out and freely express himself as an artist, and also partially to get out of the shadow of his father, Edwin Nathaniel, founder of the Aseana Percussion Unit.
The Fall of Singapore will be the first of what the duo hope to be a series, and is actually the Malaysian debut of Liver and Lung’s Relived string of performances. “The Relived series was actually launched in London, where we did three shows — The Speakeasy, Relived; The Disco, Relived; The Rave, Relived, Shafeeq explains. The concept involved us converting non-conventional spaces into parties where people would come in, drink and slowly watch the events of the play unfold.”
For Malaysia, the series will focus on history, with this performance being the first of a planned trilogy. “The second episode will be about Merdeka, which we will stage in April, also at GMBB. Our goal is to actually do one every month down the road,” says Shafeeq. “Kind of like a TV series, but live,” Ian adds.
As their name suggests — Liver and Lung is inspired by the idea that our emotions come through our breath and more traditionally, emotions are connected to the state of our liver — they hope to stir things up with an immersive experience for the audience. “No, we don’t do the happy, clappy, jazz hands musical theatre. I understand people usually go to a musical to be entertained, but I would like to think that we kind of take it a little bit further.”
'Malaya Relived: The Fall of Singapore', GMBB Gallery, 2 Jalan Robertson, KL. Mar 22-24. RM70. See here to book. This article first appeared on Mar 18, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.