White Man’s Burden

It could be said that Sir Frank Swettenham invented Kuala Lumpur. It was he who turned the combustible wooden town into brick with streets and clean water. With his imperial energy, vanity and colossal arrogance he gave order to the streets that we know today in the old part of KL. He oversaw the building of the Sultan Abdul Samad building and all that surrounds the padang; he was essentially disliked by his fellow colonials, was painted by John Singer Sargent, had a port named after him and was knighted for being one of a thousand men who made a multinational that was even bigger than he, into an Empire on which the sun never set. But what, playwright Sabira Shaik wonders, would it have been like to have been married to such a man? The answer is not to be found in Lady Swettenham. But I have to admit that I can’t put my finger on why.

Director Christopher Jacobs suggests: “Take away the political, administrative and commercial activities connected with Sir Frank Swettenham’s presence in Malaya and we are left with a fascinating and intriguing story; the story of two ill­suited, ambitious people, who, having made the expedient, yet ill-considered decision to embark on married life together, suffered the inevitable consequences; and for Sydney [Lady Swettenham], a descent into madness”. This neatly describes the angle that was taken in exploring Lady Swettenham’s life but unfortunately if one is to “take away” all the above then one is left with a context-free domestic drama. It is akin to writing a play about Winston Churchill’s wife without mentioning the Second World War. Granted that Lady Swettenham’s world was smaller than her husband’s – she may have involved herself in parties and tennis matches whilst he was putting his stamp on Malaya – but even if her world was small that’s no reason why the play’s world must be small.

The play charts Lady Swettenham’s life from 1876 when she met and quickly married Frank, through their dead marriage until she sits alone with her memories in a nursing home in 1938. We jump around time continually from the young Sydney to the old. The direction uses the several planes of the stage expertly, if a little coldly, to constantly highlight the wilful Sydney’s sense of separateness from the society in which she finds herself. The (sadly dour) set design lends little but also doesn’t distract from the mood.

But we are left with mood, direction and acting alone. The story itself lacks thematic spine that can help the audience know where they are which makes the exploration of Lady Swettenham’s life a trudge through a sometimes jarring series of anecdotes. For a brief moment, at the beginning, there is a feeling that we will explore themes of control. The young Sydney was controlled by her father, she complains, and now she is controlled by her husband. Will we see how she wishes to take control of her life? Will we see how Frank controls himself and Malaya, how the Sultan seeks control over Selangor? In a tiny way we do but without creating a thematic image and language system to do with control (and its opposite – freedom) to help continually draw us back to how the story of control has progressed, the playwright lets the chance slip. In the absence of clear, larger themes that mirror the character’s growth or demise, the play lacks nuance and depth. It isn’t ‘about’ anything.

I mentioned ‘jarring’ because in one scene later on, Sydney suddenly stands up for the natives. She attacks Sir Hugh Low and her husband for building a railway simply for their own (and the Empire’s) benefit and not for the natives because the railway stations are far from their kampongs. The scene is indicative of the play’s failings because at no other point is it mentioned that she takes any interest in the socio-economic plight of the locals. The lack of thematic consistency simply makes her look annoying.

Sabira Shaik took on a difficult task when choosing to write a play about Lady Swettenham. Sir Frank Swettenham led the more immediately exciting, plot-driven life. But it is an intriguing and laudable exercise and her research and empathy for Lady Swettenham are clear. I just feel that the target was missed and that the text is two drafts away from completion.

One, for me, essential element would be to give the play greater complexity. It is set in a time when an English wife was her husband’s complete legal possession. He could control her absolutely. He could have her committed to an asylum if he wanted to. Divorce was difficult and to have a mistress was to be human. In addition to this legal and societal power granted to a husband, Sir Frank’s own ambition and immense power makes the situation for an equally ambitious and wilful wife looks bleak. That was the context for a British woman then and it is a context that many women would recognise here and now.

Stepping out of the newly restored DBKL theatre when the play was over I saw the buildings around the padang that Lady Swettenham would have recognised. It was the most perfect venue for the play. But I felt hard-pressed to form an opinion on the play. The lack of themes or argument meant that it wasn’t about anything so I could neither agree nor disagree with anything. Sydney kept saying “I want to go home” but it meant the same thing each time she said it- there was no nuance progression. So I went home. I went past the Lake Gardens that she laid out and where there is still a Sydney Lake. Port Swettenham, on the other hand, isn’t called Port Swettenham anymore.


First Published: 06.05.2004 on Kakiseni

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