The Princess who Went Up a Mountain and Came Down a Hit

Judging from the last two big budget Malaysian musicals I caught at Istana Budaya – Hang Li Po & Rubiah the Musical – I was ready to dismiss its latest offering, Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical, as yet another patronising and jingoistic production that is spending a lot of money and clichéd tunes to reinforce a Malay patriarchal status quo. After all, how is PGL really different from IB’s previously disastrous attempts at this much abused genre?

Does PGL have:

  1. A ripe young lass who ends up being pawned in historical and political circumstances larger than herself? Yes.
  2. A handsome Malay hero complete with keris, sampin tenun and tengkolok? Yes.
  3. Big musical numbers showcasing ‘ordinary Malay folk’ singing the praises of a historical albeit mythologised Malay kingdom? Yes.

And on and on. But my scepticism was quickly transformed into wonderment, awe and delight, because herein lies the difference between PGL and previous incarnations of ‘musical theatre’ at 18 – PGL is actually great.

For those who didn’t watch the movie, or who slept throughout Form 3 Sejarah or Form 5 Bahasa Malaysia (and why wouldn’t you?), here’s a rundown of the story.

In order to counter the threat of an invasion by Demak, the Adipati of Majapahit enlists the help of Melaka. But the Sultan of Melaka has a condition, he wants to be given the Adipati’s sister’s – the Gusti Puteri’s – hand in marriage. Unbeknownst to the Sultan and the Adipati, however, she has met and fallen head over heels in love with Hang Tuah, and Hang Tuah with her. Her attendant and confidante Bayan initially appears to be a protective maternal figure, but even she encourages the Puteri on, believing that she can only be happy if she is also free to decide her own destiny.

After a series of obstacles – war, subterfuge and suicide – the two lovers are reunited at the peak of Gunung Ledang. Gusti Puteri is overjoyed. However, her joy is short-lived when she discovers that Hang Tuah is there merely to escort her to the Sultan. Short of calling Hang Tuah a spineless schmuck, she imposes seven totally on conditions for her hand in marriage, topping off the list with a request for one bowl of Sultan Mahmud’s son’s blood. Unsurprisingly, the Sultan can’t take a hint, thus proving that men are really all the same.

Blind allegiance

The characters are never one-dimensional – even the bad guys are treated with dignity – their portrayal made possible by the excellent players. The Adipati is not merely a megalomaniac – he is a desperate ruler who views his sister as collateral for keeping his kingdom (his ego). AC Mizal as the Adipati sings and acts with gusto and magnificently controlled energy. The Sultan, as performed by Adlin Aman Ramlie, is so all-out sleazy that you’ll want to scrub yourself with Dettol every time he appears on stage. But he is no mere sleazebag – he is also a political creature who perpetuates the power structure that privileges men of status like himself.

Hang Tuah then is the flawed hero whose blind allegiance to authority allows that very authority to oppress innocent people. Portraying him, Stephen Rahman-Hughes’s one flaw is his discomfort with the language, but boy does he deserve an A+ for effort. And despite this, he manages to command the stage with his smouldering presence and a set of pipes that will knock your socks off – I kid you not.

Stephen wisely plays Hang Tuah slightly subdued in the first half, embodying the production’s portrayal of the warrior as (a) a sweet, tender, loving dude, and also (b) an unquestioningly obedient servant of the Sultan. Remember, the Puteri Gunung Ledang tale is chronologically supposed to have taken place after Hang Tuah had slayed his friend, Hang Jebat – also at the behest of the Sultan. Because then when Stephen really lets it rip in the second half, we can’t help agreeing with Gusti Puteri that yes, as sexy and sweet as he is, this Hang Tuah unfortunately is a bit of a schmuck, he just doesn’t have the balls to fight for his love.

Bayan, and to a larger extent Gusti Puteri, are not merely damsels in distress – they are women who are fully aware of the limits imposed on women, and are intent on breaking free. Sukania Venugopal achieves this by injecting her every spoken and sung lines, and her every movement, with a cool and confident sensuality. As Gusti Puteri, Tiara Jacquelina carries the show – not only does she ooze sex appeal, she makes Gusti Puteri highly intelligent and affectionate, yet impulsive and vengeful at the same time. These two women fight back in the only way they know how to.

Make your heart beat

This is one of those rare occasions in Malay-language theatre when I really feel that the able cast was not let down by substandard material. On the contrary, the material is brilliant. The book, by Saw Teong Hin (who directed the film) and Zahim Albakri, is literate and pithy, nicely supported by Adlin Aman Ramlie’s poetic and judicious lyrics. In fact, Zahim and Adlin’s combined direction manages to deliver a truly theatrical epic that never loses sight of the story of its protagonist, sustaining complex characterisations amidst spectacular staging. Pat Ibrahim’s choreography is sensuous, exuberant and stylish, while the lighting and set design, by Mac Chan and Raja Malek respectively, are stunningly imaginative.

Plus, the music is great. Singaporean composer Dick Lee’s compositions are challenging yet accessible at the same time. The majestic and percussive ensemble numbers for both Majapahit and Melaka will make your heart beat in time, and yet also skillfully foreshadow tragedy. Musical director Roslan Aziz and the music ensemble also provide competent interpretations of the score.

This is not to say that PGL is not without its flaws – I could do without some of the more cloying ballads, but what to do? The thing is, PGL so winningly shoots for the stars – and hits so many of them – that I am willing to say that it is proof that the magic of Malay-language theatre is practically revived. And if you’re wondering why I’ve made no reference to the movie version, it’s because I have no need to do this – PGL is a completely satisfying theatrical experience in itself.

Overwhelming historical events

Cultural anthropologists have long proposed that many folk tales actually emerged as means for people to grapple with overwhelming historical events – wars, invasions, plagues and natural disasters, for example.

Take the legend of Mahsuri. One version of the story suggests that the rumours about Mahsuri’s infidelity-while her husband was off fighting Siamese invaders – were started by Mahsuri’s jealous father-in-law, Dato Karma Jaya. It was he who then sentenced Mahsuri to death, but not before she laid her infamous seven-generation-­long curse on Langkawi. Upon being pierced, her white blood vindicated her innocence. Soon after Mahsuri’s execution, Dato Karma Jaya failed to defend the island from the triumphant Siamese invaders.

Thus, the legend of Mahsuri can be seen as an attempt to explain Langkawi’s humiliation at being colonised, by providing an indirect indictment of Dato Karma Jaya’s failed leadership. There are several parallels between the legend of Mahsuri – misogyny and all – and the legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang. Gusti Puteri’s conditions for marriage, similar to Mahsuri’s curse, could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Melaka’s fall to the Portuguese invaders. This tale suggests that in trying to fulfill the conditions, the Sultan displays his failure as a leader, thus sealing Melaka’s fate.

What is so brilliantly sinister about PGL is how resonant it is to us now. Watching the story unfold, it is easy to identify the Adipatis, Sultan Mahmuds and Hang Tuahs of today, leaders trying to stamp their superiority over other countries, sacrificing the innocent along the way, while their generals carry out their orders. Yes, the musical seems to reveal that while it might have been the Sultan who sealed Melaka’s fate, it was Hang Tuah’s reluctance to act upon his conscience that allowed it. Our hero could have tried to prevent it but he didn’t. Though framed as a romantic tragedy, the real heartbreaker in PGL is the tragedy of a hero who didn’t rise to the occasion. I might be imagining this, but this production has thus successfully captured the essence of what legends should do – entertain the audience, for sure, but also spur us to reflect about the present. Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical is certainly a legend for our times.

And herein lies the true brilliance of PGL. It not only allows these layers to emerge in the story, it also does this without any apologies. From the unforced feminism that is woven into the script – if you treat women like crap, they find ways to escape and protest and wreak a helluva lot of damage – to the casual portrayal of a Malay-ness that was at ease with both Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic influences, PGL makes sure to always respect its audience’s intelligence, while simultaneously fulfilling the audience’s craving for first-class entertainment.

So go and watch PGL. If you’re like me, you’ll be weeping by the fourth number of the first act. I wept in frustration for the millions of ringgit that have been squandered on other crappy ‘Malaysian’ musicals I’ve seen at IB and elsewhere, and I wept joyfully for how PGL proved itself worthy of all its adulations. And most of all, I wept at the end of PGL because I was truly moved.


Shanon Shah wants to see PGL the musical again. But since the show has sold out, he is willing to sell his body for tickets. Any takers?

First Published: 17.02.2006 on Kakiseni

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