By Pang Khee Teik
Mahsuri dies. No surprises there. What led to her death, however, remains a debate. The origin of the 200-year old curse on Langkawi (seven generations of barrenness) has many variations, including one told by Tunku Abdul Rahman himself (who was responsible for discovering Mahsuri’s tombstone as well publicising the tale, when he was just a young District Officer in Kedah). According to Malaysia’s liberator, Mahsuri is the cause of a squabble between three freshly returned warriors, Kelana, Deramang and Lela. In the end, it is Kelana who catches the flower falling from Mahsuri’s window, and thus her hand in marriage as well. Then the war against Siam calls Kelana away but before he leaves, he instructs his buddy Lela to take good care of his wife. Deramang, who is still sore that he didn’t get the chick, uses the opportunity to vindicate himself. Catching Lela emerging from Mahsuri’s pad, he promptly accuses them of adultery and has them hauled away for a good old traditional execution: burial in the sand up to the head, plus two keris through the shoulders into the heart. But no normal keris can pierce Mahsuri. And I am not sure if she is stupid or what, but she goes and tells them where to find the keris that can. Mahsuri bleeds snow-white innocent blood. She curses the island. She dies.
In the recent production of this legend by the Temple of Fine Arts, this is what we are told. In the beginning, fishermen and silat warriors inhabit the island. Everyone is happy. Mahsuri is well loved by the beautiful people of this paradise island. They call her Angel of Langkawi. Mat Deris appears out of the cast of 60; they fall in love and then marry, in a long wedding scene. Everyone is happy. Then he leaves the island for, of all things, business (I know, not as glamourous as fighting Siamese). Meanwhile Mahsuri lip-synchs to the corny pre recorded English voice-over, “Oh, when will the busy bee return to the red red rose to sip of its nectar again?”
That was Act One, a whole one hour plus of beatific bliss and very little drama. Then in the second act, Deramang the minstrel comes and charms the locals with his flute-playing as well as his sepak takraw-playing. Mahsuri offers him shelter. He declines. She offers him food. He accepts. They become friends – but platonic only, you know! Everyone is still happy. Up to now, we have not met anyone nasty or sore or vindictive, no one seems to have a cause to be unhappy with Mahsuri. But suddenly, out of nowhere, a bitchy neighbour reports the ‘unnatural friendship’ to the mother-in-law. Mother-in-law, outraged, brings the troops on the lovers and demands the death of Mahsuri. They pierce her, she bleeds white blood, she dies.
The fact that the Mahsuri legend has as many as 14 variations should encourage a writer to take creative liberties with the story. Unfortunately, the writer-director-lyricist of this musical, Lam Ghooi Ket, decided to be conservative and too respectful to the material. In a musical, plots tend to get simplified. Still, an effective song can forward the plot, thicken the tension, increase the conflict, stuff like that, and not just paint a picture over and over again, of, yawn, perfect harmony between man and nature. Unless, of course, this is avant-garde deconstructed musical theatre, where you up the chirpiness to such a surreal level that when you exact the inexplicable horror on the happy characters, their initial happiness mocks them.
Okay, I have to admit at this point that there were many good things about this production. The use of state-of art stage technology for one. The big sets (by Badrulzaman Abdul Jalil, lrwan lsmadi Shahrim) which recreate the kampong settings and the beach, make good use of the lstana Budaya’s nifty pulley system, having the wooden houses and coconut trees slide in and out from the top and the wings. The industrial-strength fans blowing from the wings during the death scene manage to recreate a believable storm on the stage. As far as technically possible, everything else serves the vision of perfection. The plethora of colour lights (by Abdul Razak Rahman, Chandra Eliathamby, Ravi Shetty) used in shocking abundance, manages to blend and cast a utopic eternal sunset glow on all and sundry. It is a great show to look at.
Despite the occasional corny English lyrics, the music (by Kumar Karthigesu, Jyotsna Prakash) was rapturous, and occasionally just a little too sweet and draggy. One drawback was that it was all pre-recorded (even the dialogues), and though exquisitely sung and accurately lip-synched to, they lack the chemistry of live performances. The syncretising of Malay and Indian musical elements (sometimes even using ritual musical elements), however, was boldly conceived. The sepak takraw dance scene, which employs the spoken Indian percussion sounds (‘Ta… ta… ta-ta-ti-ka…’) to dancers kicking an imaginary takraw ball, is ingenious and engaging. In fact, the group choreography (Azman Abu Bakar, Hasnul Hassan), is probably the show’s strongest suit. Some clever decisions were made through movements. At the end, nobody even said the words ‘white blood’. Instead, the dancers just put their hands on the floor and lift them up, staring at their palms and displaying them to one another in sheer horror.
This horror could have affected the audience deeper if the dramaturgy had served the plot and the characterisation better. We needed to love Mahsuri as much as the happy island folks in order to feel the tragedy of her death, or given to understand the motives of those who seek her death. Or perhaps, because this production is meant to draw tourists to Langkawi, they just don’t want to show that Malaysians are capable of such malice.
Even now, people like to say that the curse on Langkawi is over as the eighth generation of Mahsuri’s descendants (who live in Thailand) has arrived. The island is prospering again: see how we are digging and constructing the paradise into a beautiful tourist trap? Yeah, who needs the Mahsuri’s curse when you have the Ministry of Tourism’s? See? We are surrounded by so much irony in Malaysia that it is a wonder none of it surfaces in our national theatre.
First Published: 12.08.2002 on Kakiseni