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Reviewed by:
  • Ola Bola the Musical dir. by Tiara Jacquelina
  • Susan Philip

Malaysia Approaches 2020: Two Visions/Versions: OLA BOLA THE MUSICAL. Adapted by Tiara Jacquelina and Shamaine Othman, directed by Tiara Jacquelina, music by Mia Palencia, lyrics by Palencia and Altimet. Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 8 February–11 March 2018 and VERSION 2020 directed by Mark Teh. Five Arts Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 16–18 March 2018.

Theatre goers in Kuala Lumpur were able, in February and March 2018, to enjoy two remarkably different performances, both of which spoke in different ways of what it means to be a Malaysian. The two plays were: Ola Bola The Musical, a musical extravaganza which took advantage of the staging technology and large stage available in the Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture); and Version 2020 by the Five Arts Centre (FAC), a much smaller production staged within the narrow confines of the FAC's Kotak, a small, black box performance space situated in a suburban housing area.

Ola Bola, which ran from 8 February to 11 March 2018, trades on nostalgia and past footballing glory, while Version 2020 (16–18 March 2018) bridges past and present without the rose-tinted glasses implied by the word "nostalgia." Ola Bola tries to unite its audience around a particular vision of a Malaysia long gone. Version 2020 offers no "unified" picture of Malaysia, focusing instead on individual experiences. Both resonate in different ways with a contemporary audience.

Ola Bola The Musical is an adaptation of a 2016 film, called Ola Bola, which was directed by Malaysian filmmaker Chiu Kheng Guan. The film is a fictionalized retelling of one of Malaysian football's [End Page 239] moments of glory, when the national team (known as Harimau Malaysia, or Malaysian Tigers) qualified for the 1980 Olympics, only to find that Malaysia had decided to boycott the Moscow games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The film was extremely popular, touching as it did on national sporting pride, nostalgia for the glory days of football, and, for many, the simpler days when racial difference was not a constant in Malaysian society. While there were many rivalries among the teammates, the film never tied these rivalries to racial issues. Given the prevalence of racialized rhetoric that seems to dominate much political and civil discourse in Malaysia now, with calls to defend Malay rights, or demands that non-Malays "go home," this refusal to politicize race was unusual and moving. Personally, watching the film, I found myself nostalgically tearful at this vision of a unity that seems now to be subordinated to questions of race. It was a reminder of what the nation once was.

The musical was directed by Tiara Jacquelina, who also wrote the adaptation together with Shamaine Othman. Music was by Mia Palencia, with lyrics by Palencia and popular rapper Altimet. Although the play is set in 1980, the music is very contemporary, with a great deal of emphasis on hip-hop—following, perhaps, in the style of Hamilton. The driving rhythms of hip-hop were not inappropriate—they were strong and energetic, and reflected something of the need of the team to find their own drive and rhythm.

The staging of the play was ingenious, combining high- and lowtech to create surprisingly convincing moments of action on the football pitch. In some cases, the actors would interact with on-screen projections. In other cases, where more human tension was needed, the director resorted to simpler, more immediately physical tactics. In one or two memorable scenes, for example, a ball was affixed to the end of a stick, which was slowly twirled by a figure clad in black. The footballer who needed to kick the ball was lifted into the air by two more black-clad figures, so that he could execute a leaping kick in slow motion.

The production should also be commended for the consistently high quality of the performances, especially given that many of the cast members were not experienced stage actors. I particularly enjoyed the appearance of Altimet who (aside from cowriting the lyrics) played the role of Sergeant Ahmad, who gets the players working as a...


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pp. 239-245
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