Five for Fighting

The week-long national Malay Language theatre festival that filled the auditorium at Malaysian Tourism Centre last month to the brim has had a long history that dates back to the 70s. Organised by the then Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, the event was formerly known as Pesta Tarian dan Drama (Dance and Drama Festival). It launched quite a few theatre activists in the 70s: Dinsman, Johan Jaafar, Supiat Mukri, Zakaria Ariffin to name a few.

Fast forward three decades and the Pesta Tarian dan Drama has morphed into Teater Festival Malaysia (TFM), with its first year under the new Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. What has been most consistent is the competition. It used to be open only to cultural groups registered with the Ministry. The biggest move by the festival this year was to open the competition to other theatre companies. An old requirement remains: plays can be fresh or old but they have to be in Bahasa Melayu.

Early every year, groups within each state ‘fight’ with each other. The state champions are then shortlisted to seven participants for the national level contest, the event proper of TFM, held at the Malaysian Tourism Centre. This year, however, only five entries were shortlisted: The Arts Stage Club’s Tinggi Tinggi Si Matahari (Selangor); Majlis Kebudayaan Tanah Merah’s Dilema Puteri Li Po (Kelantan); Majlis Kebudayaan Negeri Perlis’s Malam Jahanam (Perlis); Rumpun Seni Budaya Tawau’s Orang-orang Pulau (Sabah) and Fuzzy Logic Entertainment’s Tat Nenas (Wilayah Persekutuan).

As a practitioner, there were a few valuable lessons that were reinforced for me from observing and watching the five entries:

Good actors come from all over

I admit to urban arrogance: I think that we in the city have what it takes to make great theatre. Most of the time, such a stupid assumption is based purely on infrastructure, i.e. better lighting boards and sound systems, better stages, etc.

How about the quality of acting? Perlis’ Malam Jahanam was a perfect case in point: established Indonesian playwright Motinggo Busye’s tight and brooding script became a great platform for fine performances. Lead actor Yussry Edoo with his swaggering Mat Kontan, so cocky and yet full of vulnerability; third lead Mohd Rahmat Saidin, playing the village simpleton Utai with gusto; and lead actress Aini Nadia Ibrahim as Mat Kontan’s wife, Paijah, playing her steely and bitter, with an even more bitter secret to hide.

They went home with the Best Lead Actor, Most Promising Actor and Best Lead Actress awards, respectively. No small feat, considering that the three walked away with a total of RM7,000 in cash prizes.

However, future TFM committees should really work towards organising systematic acting workshops at state levels, perhaps way before any competition takes place. Planned well, a 3-weekend workshop could really boost and energise acting standards. And how about workshops in other genres of stage acting: absurd, non­-naturalistic, movement; perhaps a crash course on Bangsawan? There has been so much talk on preserving heritage. Teater Festival Malaysia is a prefect platform to revive interest in truly indigenous forms such as Bangsawan.

Good scripts always make better shows

Unless you are the virtuosic Krishen Jit, who can draw a decent performance even from a poor script, it’s always best to choose one that is gripping in its dramatic arc and character development. Scripts such as Motinggo Busye’s Malam Jahanam and local 70s playwright Malina Manja’s Tinggi Tinggi Si Matahari clinched second and third placing because of brilliant scripts.

Tinggi was a slapstick comedy of errors that looked at what happens when the Islam laws of talaq (divorce) is misinterpreted. The Arts Stage Club decided to go with an authentic 70s look in its production design – framing the play with its issue of unclear Islam teachings in the era was therefore very apt. Having said that, Tinggi also became a sad but clear indication of the colonisation and hegemony of television. The director had stuck with a television sitcom style: the set could have been perfect for this year’s Hari Raya special on RTM1.

Not so lucky were Majlis Kebudayaan Tanah Merah’s Dilema Puteri Li Po and Rumpun Seni Budaya Tawau’s Orang-orang Pulau, both written by the directors. They lacked the robust drama evident in the three winning plays. Because of this, the process from page to stage became a bumpy ride. There was hardly any development in the characters and the dramatic arcs were sadly flat; there were no high points or climbing drama. So, when staging a play, it is always better to choose well-established scripts unless you’re a discerning enough director, with an eye for spotting potentially great local works.

Again, future TFM committees should include scriptwriting workshops during the course of the festival in preparation for next year’s competition.

Do what you know well

When director Yaakob Azizi took on Malam Jahanam, it was clear he knew the play passionately, and so chose the traditional naturalistic mode as the script intended the performance to be. The set was a beautiful reproduction of a kampong, which added to the ambience of the performance. It was no wonder when it clinched best production design. It also had the best sound design of all performances. A stereophonic sound of a train travelling through the kampung did it for me. That’s paying good attention to detail.

Less is more

Kelantan’s entry of Dilema Puteri Li Po actually had a good premise. It tried to imagine the kind of life Princess Hang Li Po had in the Malay Sultanate. After a simple enough start, the performance became mired in slow momentum because director J’Deen just didn’t seem able to contain the story – which actually developed into a dream of the princess.

A lot of unnecessary frills were thrown in such as an opening Chinese dance sequence – this is period drama – that had a piece of Lunar New Year celebration playing! The dancers didn’t seem to have any aptitude in moving either. Then later on, a Javanese dance, where the male dancers were no match to the precise and muscular movements that was demanded. So, when in doubt, take it out. Or, research, research, research.

Push boundaries cleverly

Although the first and second runners-up were good shows, they were no match for the Wilayah Persekutuan entry, Fuzzy Logic Entertainment’s Tat Nenas. Also an original script, the present-day script took on a more experimental approach in its staging. It could have been easily entrenched in a naturalistic set but director Megat Sharizal took an artistic leap and used blocks for furniture, relocating them in different configurations to signify different spaces.

The story is a simple one where an artist searches for her ultimate creative expression and found it in a pineapple tart recipe. Other characters then fight to get hold of this highly secret recipe. The subtext was great – searching for a higher love and purpose in life – but dialogue was weak and the story-telling sluggish. Megat, however, managed to lift the script with clever staging.

The overall show was really not bad at all. That’s why Tat Nenas walked away with Best Play and also Best Director prizes, with a Best Supporting Award (Mohd Arif Mohd Fateh) to boot. The group Fuzzy Logic now have the privilege of staging their work in Istana Budaya as part of the reward for winning Best Play. A lot of work still needs to be done in editing and tightening the script, and director Megat will do well to think through some of his directorial choices. But all the elements of what makes good theatre are found in Tat Nenas. It is up to the director now to rethink the scale as Istana Budaya is quite a space.


But to truly prepare our young theatre enthusiasts for big stages, workshops are essential. The guys from Kelantan haven’t even seen a lighting board until they came to MATIC. Back home, they only had an on-off switch. But I believe lots of positive changes are about to happen with regards to subsequent TFMs, if the changes this year are any indication.

Among the ‘firsts’ this year were the ‘fringe’ affairs, which were meant to give more meaning to its nomenclature of a theatre fest. A series of short monologues added integrity and a bit of glamour to the main event with star billings by the likes of Fauziah ‘Ogy’ Ahmad Daud, Khalid Salleh, Jalaluddin Hassan, Indi Nadarajah and Allan Perera.

Talks and seminars were also held for the participants of the festival – namely the competing groups – running the gamut from theatre in education, concept and design (scenography) in theatre and thematics, to the marketing of the arts. Professional theatre companies and institutions such The Actors Studio, Dramalab, Fauziah Nawi’s Sanggar Teater company, Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (National Arts Academy) and Istana Budaya also set up exhibition booths in the foyer of MATIC giving out information to all. All in all, it wasn’t a bad ‘festival’ for there was enough variety to keep interests going.

I must admit that it was terribly exciting to be a judge for the national level, and to be a non-Malay judge at that. The other judges were noted theatre and performance personalities: Dato Johan Jaafar, Supiat Mukri and Rohani Yousoff of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan and Roslee Mansor of the Petronas Performance troupe. I was really in great, critical company.

There were the initial jitters that I was confronted by a barrage of Malay language plays but thankfully I could understand clearly everything on stage – fact is, I read and listen Bahasa Malaysia well enough. It’s when I speak it that even I cannot keep a straight face at the distorted pronunciations that come out of my mouth. The biggest lesson I have learned through this whole exercise is a familiar lesson which bears repeating over and over: Great theatre transcends language. And I did see some glints of greatness at the Festival. There’s no denying that a lot has to be done systematically to really raise the standards all over the country that would match, say a venue like Istana Budaya, but the state of Malay Language theatre in the country is not completely hopeless.


Lim How Ngean is an actor (7 Ten), director (Otak Tak Centre) and magazine editor (Wine & Dine).

First Published: 17.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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