By Shanon Shah
To turn a historical figure or moment into a musical, one needs a cult of personality, a particular chain of events unfolding an incredible destiny, that certain larger than life quality that only the sweep and pomp of musical theatre can justify. In The King and I, it was the clash of the imperial West against the Siamese royalty, expressed through the ideological and romantic tension between the obstinate Siamese King and the equally strong-headed British governess. In Evita, one woman single-mindedly rose from insignificance to national reverence, only to be cruelly cut down in her prime.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I went to watch Istana Budaya’s staging of Puteri Hang Li Po (Apr 22 – 28, 2004). A historical figure whose biography has become entwined with the stuff of myth and legend, Hang Li Po is a fantastic subject for musical theatre. According to the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) – the 16th century historical text by Tun Seri Lanang – Li Po was the daughter of the Emperor of the Ming Empire who was given in marriage to Sultan Mansur Shah. In the mutual diplomatic strategy by the Malaccan Empire and the Ming Empire, she was the seal. But even in the Malay Annals, things are not that simple. Sultan Alauddin II commissioned the Annals, and fact and legend are often deliberately combined to bolster his genealogical dominance. This fascinating albeit problematic mix has been the subject of many modern stage plays since the 1960s.
On the surface, this latest staging by Istana Budaya has managed to capture the sweep and the elegance of the story. The costumes (by Mah Goon Lam and Badrulzaman Abd Jalil) were lavish, and the set (by Mohamad Hanafi Abdul Wahab, with art direction by Sabri Buang) was simply stunning. The choreography (by Mahmood Ibrahim and Anthony Meh) was cautious but energetically executed by an enthusiastic cast.
But it wasn’t long before I realised that the singing was all pre-recorded. Call me a purist, but I really believe that part of the joy of watching a musical is marvelling at the skill and dexterity of the many performers who have to sing, act and dance – sometimes all at once.
The music (by Pak Ngah) on the whole was quite well conceived and evocative of the general mood. But even the wonderful music could not gloss over the disjointedness of the lyrics (by Siso Kopratasa, Ce’ Kem, and Rahimidin Zahari) and script (by Rahimidin Zahari). Some songs pointlessly reiterate the dialogue, in addition to the direct narration – the sum effect being that there were moments when the same message was relayed to the audience three times. And still, they were so banal I am hard-pressed to recall anything.
The first 45 minutes of the play was spent explaining to the audience just how powerful both the Ming and Malaccan Empires were, and how eagerly the Ming Emperor sought to forge diplomatic relations with the upright and just Sultan of Malacca. It was only much later in the play that the audience was introduced to Li Po, who was resenting the fact that she’s being given as a bride to a man she had not even met. Li Po was doubly enraged when her suitor, the Admiral Ming You, gave her up without a fight.
Given Li Po’s rage and despair, her eventual acceptance of her residence in Malacca was wonderfully set with tension and potential drama. The play toyed with confronting this massive conflict head-on, or at the very least, couching it in an expression of sacrifice for the greater good. But there was no moment of epiphany for our protagonist. Instead, a strangely drama-evading tactic was used – a jampi was cast by Tun Perpatih Putih, an admiral of the Malaccan court, onto her. Yes, seriously. The Sultan, as upright and just as he was, could not win Li Po’s heart without some supernatural intervention.
In another instance, the banter between Li Po’s nanny (played by the always-entertaining Louisa Chong) and the handmaidens of the Malaccan court (delightfully overplayed by Azizah Mahzan and Farah Ashikin) had to be reduced to racial stereotyping before they all launched into a song which tried to equate tying sarongs with multiracial harmony.
I suppose this is where I finally have to admit that as much as I wanted to enjoy and appreciate this particular staging of Li Po’s story, I was left quite disappointed. I saw so many opportunities to creatively and insightfully explore Li Po’s very real and very profound conflict: the theme of being “a stranger in a strange land”, the notion of trans-cultural and trans-national solidarities, the rightful role that women played in traditional Malay court politics – an aspect that has been glaringly absent in the many historical accounts of the period, including the Malay Annals. But the play took none of these opportunities. I ended up feeling like I was watching a slick and stunningly produced tourist brochure, when I was expecting a multi-layered exploration of my identity as a Malaysian.
According to various other historical sources, it is not even clear whether or not Li Po was truly a princess of the Ming Empire. There is no mention of her in documents elaborating the genealogy of the Ming Dynasty. And yet we have a perigi named after her that survives to this day. A perigi. Whether or not she was a real princess, someone called Li Po sailed all the way from the Imperial Ming Empire to marry a man she had never met before, in a land she had never even set foot on. This same woman is said to have died some years later while trying to save her husband, the Sultan, from the attacks of an enemy prince. This is the stuff that could feed a dramatic tour-de-force.
I am very heartened by the fact that Istana Budaya saw enough potential in Puteri Hang Li Po to spend so much time and money to bring it to life. I felt, however, that the end production could have also paid more attention to the actual substance of the story.
First Published: 06.05.2004 on Kakiseni