- Parallel Streams:Two Currents of Difference in Kuala Lumpur's Contemporary Theatre
At the height of the turmoil that followed the arrest and trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister who had fallen from grace, the Instant Café Theatre presented Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Performed in April 1999, the production interwove English, Malay, and Chinese languages in the dialogue. The scene of the police beating the anarchist hit a raw nerve; it too closely paralleled the photos showing Anwar with a black eye, photos that shocked both Malaysia and the world. That year, the Instant Café Theatre celebrated its tenth anniversary, having offered Kuala Lumpur audiences a continuous program of both their weekly satire series and fully staged serious plays.
A year after the above events, another production, performed in a mix of English and Malay, was set during this same period, when demonstrations protesting the detention of Anwar were being staged at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the large plaza in central Kuala Lumpur. The play begins with four bystanders who, caught in the fray, rush for cover in the shopping mall beneath the square. Trapped below, the four strangers—two Malay men (an undercover cop and a cynical citizen) and two women of Chinese ethnicity (a poor little rich girl and a passionate demonstrator)—pass the time telling racy stories, contemporary adaptations of Boccacio's classic. The Malaysian Decameron (2000) emerges from Malaysia's politically plagued times. The play not only situates itself in the heart of a politically sensitive period, but replays the action on-site, in the mall under the plaza, where the characters took refuge—inside the subterranean Actors Studio Theatre. Written by filmmaker and critic Amir Muhammad, it was one of three new works produced by the Five Arts Centre's Directors' Workshop (Muhammad 2000).
Whether transposing a foreign drama or creating their own, many Malaysian dramatists are striving to explore their country's rich and unique cultural makeup. But political satire is only part of Kuala Lumpur's complex theatre scene. Also in 1999, on the other side of town, Datuk Rahim Razali was preparing Keris Sang Puteri (The Princess Keris), the first major professional performance in the newly opened Panggung Negara, the beautiful National Theatre.1 Given the largest [End Page 7] budget ever awarded a stage musical, it would test out the new facilities, with a cast of over 60. The premiere performance, however, was not merely a social and artistic event but one clearly tied to state politics. Presented in Malay by Malay-only actors, the Malay director expressed its goals: "We wanted a play that will instill nationalism and patriotism among people. As an inaugural production and in tandem with the recent National Day, we figured this was the right piece" (Ghani 1999). Set in the 18th century when the Malay state of Selangor fell to the Dutch, the story concerns the war between Malays and Bugis (people from the neighboring island of Celebes) that is held at bay only by the proposed union of a Malay princess and Bugis chieftain. The match is threatened when the girl falls in love with a local warrior, but in the end, she sacrifices love for the welfare of her people and their combined forces defeat the Dutch. Despite the excitement of the premiere, the play did not rouse people's nationalist sentiments as much as the theatre building.2
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Although not large, the theatre scene in Kuala Lumpur reveals the many layers of interaction and exclusion at work in Malaysian society in which all relations are complicated by ethnicity, class, religion, and educational background. In the English-language theatres, not only do the dramatists and actors involved reflect some of Malaysia's diverse ethnic population of Malays, Indians (primarily, but not exclusively, Tamil), Chinese, Westerners, Eurasians, and other mixed-race people,3 but also the plays they write...