No Political Agenda

The elections are over: BN is still the ruling party, the oppositions are still yelping, Anwar is still in prison, and DBKL still controls the increasingly pushover KL theatre scene. In the midst of this, The Actors Studio’s stages Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, a play based on the story of Thomas More, a man who stood up against the corrupt, heretical and polygamous King Henry VIII. The King wanted to divorce his second wife to marry a third and was willing to alter the laws of religion so that his actions would appear church-sanctioned. More refused consent and was eventually beheaded in 1535, and beatified by the Catholic Church exactly 400 years later. It certainly sounds like a story that will resonate with Malaysians.

But as we know, The Actors Studio has always been in favour of working with the authorities instead of fighting them. Faridah Merican said in an interview for Astro Magazine, “I think the control factor is small minded. If you want to come down to their level and fight it at their level then you are also making yourself stupid. My advice to people is just do it. Just do the shows.” And do the shows they have: Rashomon, Life… Sdn Bhd, etc.

But now: A Man For All Seasons. Is The Actors Studio finally trying to say something? Is this their creative response to recent political events? Kakiseni sent Elaine Tan to ask director Joe Hasham if this was so. – Pang Khee Teik

So why A Man for All Seasons?

It’s a wonderful play – probably one of the best plays that’s ever been written. It has a wonderful story; it has a lot of relevance; it has great characters. And the first time we performed it back in 1991, it was the first production that actually broke even for The Actors Studio.

What relevance?

It has relevance to the way we lead our lives – not just in this country, but in any country in the world where you have religion and politics and the mixing of the two. It has relevance because sometimes religion and politics become confused – and there are people in this country, and in other countries, who have the same problem. We can separate the two. We can be very steadfast and very firm in what we believe and not confuse the two issues.

What is the message of the play regarding politics and religion?

I don’t think the message of the play is about religion and politics. I think the lesson of the play is about the resolve and faith of one person who can overcome anything and put up with any kind of persecution, even to the extent of losing his life, for his beliefs.

So that’s the basic message you want to get across as a director?

No. As a director first and foremost I want to entertain the audience – with any play I do. If we start wanking and thinking that we’re going to be able to change the way people think and behave, we’re fooling ourselves. The first job of theatre is to entertain the theatre-going public. If, perchance, you have something in the play that will make people think, talk, change – then that’s fine. But the ultimate purpose is to entertain.

Having said that, it’s not necessary to make people laugh to entertain them. You can entertain people with a story, emotionally, dramatically. I have no – and I have to make this very clear – no political agenda. I am not a political animal. I have my own views on politics and they are my views. I don’t – never have, never will – introduce politics into a play just for the sake of introducing politics. I don’t think that my style of theatre is the forum for that, there are other people who do that, and they do it well. I simply want to present good theatre.

It seems a strangely political play for someone who’s politically apathetic to choose.

I am not politically apathetic. I have very strong political beliefs but I don’t like to put my politics into a production.

Why do you think A Man For All Seasons – such a serious play, such a political play – was the first to break even for The Actors Studio?

Well, it is a multi-award winning play. It also won six Academy Awards as a film, including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Director. But also if you put it into a Malaysian context… I think anyone in this country, whether they be Christian, Hindu or Muslim, can relate to the play – they can see the relevance of good versus evil.

The story revolves around Sir Thomas More and his refusal to endorse Henry Vlll’s wishes that he could get rid of his wife to marry someone else. He’d already done that once and got a dispensation from the pope. This time around, there was More. More felt it was not right but whatever he believed he kept to himself. Because of his loyalty to his king and his country, he wouldn’t say anything against them, yet he would not publicly agree… he would not give his seal of approval.

Mind you, Henry didn’t need his approval. There is a beautiful scene in the play, when More says to Henry, why do you need my approval, you are the king, why do you need me to endorse it? And Henry quite openly says: because you are honest…  and more to the point, you are known to be honest. It’s really like today, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. This play is based on the Reformation. Of changing political and religious structures. And yet you say that there is no connection, no message to the audience.

There is no message coming from the director or the cast, but if it comes from the play, then fine. But it wasn’t chosen for that purpose and nothing you can say will make me say it was chosen for that purpose. It was chosen purely and simply because it is such a wonderful play and what makes it a wonderful play are these very issues you’re talking about. People are transported by this play. They are taken on a journey. They identify things in themselves or the people around them. But it’s up to the audience.

I am not a person who tries to be controversial in that sense. I think theatre is for the audience to decipher. I don’t want to lead the audience in any particular way. My main intent is to do justice to the play.

Since you’ve done this play before, what’s different about this production?

To start with, there is an entirely new cast. The approach is also very different because of the younger actors.

The first time round, I concentrated more on the theme – the story – rather than the so-called visual aspects of it, even though we had a magnificent set which cost us over RM30,000 and we had period costumes. This time round, the set is less extravagant; it allows the actors and director to set the scene. The costume is contemporary. People are wearing suits, and we’re fortunate that the Millium group are providing the costumes. Some of the people on stage are wearing five thousand dollar Hugo Boss suits.

It’s been a challenge because I still have strong memories of the ’91 production. So much so that I have been consciously staying away from what I did then. Then it was a classically stylised production. This time around, it will be much more naturalistic.

How different is it to work with a younger cast?

One of the reasons I chose today’s style of clothing and not use elaborate costumes and wigs and all that – besides the fact that Malaysians sometimes look quite funny in them – is to make it more accessible.

Same thing with the choice of actors – Fahmi and Kubhaer have never done a straight play before. They’ve only done devised plays; their main genre is physical theatre. Young Aleya has never worked on stage before; she’s a film person. Bridget, who has a very small role, was one of my students.

They are younger, but language is not a problem. The problem is in understanding what they are saying and why they are saying it. You could do this play by learning the lines and speaking beautifully and get away with it. But when the actors don’t understand why they are saying what they are saying, then you lose out on many layers.  So that’s been my biggest difficulty in having a younger cast: in finding the subtext. It’s not what you say, it’s what you’re thinking while you saying it.

Have you ever thought about Malaysianising the text?

No. I have Malaysianised a number of plays but for this one, I wouldn’t even consider it because it’s a classic piece of theatre that relates to a specific time and specific events in history. But because of the overriding theme of the play, people of any race, any country, any religion, can relate to it.

Maybe I’m old fashioned. I believe that the play itself stands on its own and like all good plays, people can interpret it any way they wish. So I’m not going one way, or the other way. And I’m not going the safe route either. In fact, I’m taking a very dangerous route.

Sounds pretty safe to me… and to a theatre activist.

It would be very easy for me – as a director, alright – to take the activist route! Hey, how easy would it be to take some of the things that are happening in the play and relate it to some of the things that are happening in this country? That’s the easy way out! I think the tough way is to tell the story, and let the audience make up their minds: whether the guy was right, whether he was stupid, whether things like that are happening here, or in Singapore or in Thailand, or Indonesia or the US.

People will look at this play and take out what they want to take out or what they think my intentions are. I want them to think but I am not in any way, shape or form going to please the activists by going that route. I’m not here to please a small faction of people. I’m here to put on a play, to tell a story, to entertain – to the best of my ability!

First Published: 06.04.2004 on Kakiseni

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