Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), one of Malaysia’s most prestigious school of the arts , held a Penilaian Tahun Akhir for their degree students from the theatre faculty. It was a three-night event, consisting of three plays, but we,unfortunately only, managed to watch one – Keraton.
Keraton is a mystical tale of megalomania; how listening to the whims of desire (personified as the devil) and succumbing to greed can eat a person up from the inside. Written by Aim Zackry, and edited by Intan into the Indonesian Javanese language – giving the play a traditional yet ethereal lustre to the play, whilst still being comprehensible to the Malay-speaking audience. The choreography (down to the walk of the actors) and the ambience beautified by the gamelan fooled me into thinking it was a wayang kulit, but (pardon the pun) in the flesh.
The exposition of the play was lumbering at first, but once the introductions of the characters were done, the rest of the monologues and soliloquy turned into something entrancing. Embellished by a beautiful stage setting – made to look like an old Hindu-Buddha temple, I came in with minimal expectations considering it was a student project, but I’ve never chided myself even more for bearing such assumptions. It was evocative, and at points transcendent (with parts that were subtly ominous and blood-curdling in its depiction of the demon that possessed the king). The roles were played with gusto and bravado – befitting an operatic epic of love, betrayal and avarice.
It was right after the play ended that I fell into introspection. Why did I expect so little? There is of course a ‘bigger picture’ problem here. Some might say it’s simply an under-appreciation of local talent, after a nominally saturated amount of exposure to globalization – but that is not even remotely correct. I have seen wonderful, borderline life-changing local stagings. Every Brilliant Thing from last year still leaves a mark, Kau Rasa was an amazing theatrical piece. Both plays were heavy in moral resonance and brilliantly written. More importantly, both plays were also minimal in its scenography; the painting of the landscape done more by the words of the script and the eloquence of the actors rather than prop design.
Keraton was not minimal. It was ornate and elaborate. From the beautifully-crafted backdrop to the exaggerated tragedy of the dialogue. Yet it was wonderful.
As an average theater-goer with no expertise in this matter. That being said I’ve developed a certain aversion to grand-stage plays. There is a presumption I hold (which is occasionally proven wrong) that people would care more about the aesthetic of props, effects and costumes more than they do the story or the acting.
There is always a tinge of absurdity in evaluating plays, especially when they are of different feathers and flock. It’s all about knowing context, and understanding genres. Comparing Bare Beckett, or anything by Samuel Beckett for that matter, to Dato’ Seri (a Malay Macbeth adaptation done last year) is ridiculous – not because the former is in English and the latter in Malay,but because the former is post-modern and deliberately unconventional while the latter is just your run-of-the-mill classic tale without any “meta” endeavours. Overall though, I still can’t but help feel that the plays that fall through tend to do so because too much care is placed upon the visuals. Keraton, was a play that succeeded in both. It was grand, but not at the expense of everything else that matters. A great exception.
To enlighten myself further, and to ensure that I don’t sound too much not just a raving philistine, I had a chat with a theatre faculty lecturer from ASWARA, Iefiz Alaudin, and asked him a couple of questions in order to get his two cents.
1) What was your opinion about the play (Keraton)?
I thought it was a well-made play. The direction, acting and scenographic elements were in sync with one another and considering it was the student’s final year project , I am very satisfied and overjoyed with what I saw as I was with all of them as their coordinator since day one. The students worked really hard and that brought the best out of them as well as the whole production.
2) What do you think about the state of the theatre industry at the moment? Any problems that need to be addressed?
I wouldn’t call it an industry yet as it is still very much unknown and not the most favourite form of entertainment in this country but nonetheless theatre practice in Malaysia is slowly flourishing. In order to make a good play, one must be able to adapt to the ever-changing context and issues in this country.
Nowadays, people are more obsessed with form over context which is quite worrying, especially young directors who are very enthusiastic and wants to put everything on stage until they lose the context of the play but again all of this depends on individual’s taste, some prefers wordy lengthy plays and some prefers a more visual play i.e big sets, projection, colourful lighting, exaggerated costumes etc. Of course theatre in Malaysia is not without its problems but theatre practitioners in this country continue to endure and create work that often entertain and sometimes challenges theatre audiences in Malaysia and abroad.
3) Is there a significant difference between university productions and productions outside? (KLPAC, other indie production houses, etc.)
There is a slight difference between the two – with University Productions, there will be a budget allocated for the students, there is a free space and other theatre facilities that’s available for them. Their productions would have some sort of supervision by the lecturers to help them in terms of giving comments and feedback to further develop their skills in theatre-making but there are a few guidelines that are imposed upon each productions as part of the health and safety measures as well to ensure the quality of the productions.
Money will always takes centre-stage when it comes to making theatre outside but with the growth of indie theatre/production houses and venues such as KLPAC, Revolution Stage, Markas KD, Stor DBP, DPAC, Blackbox Publika etc. it makes life easier for the indie artists to express their creativity on stage as these indie theatre houses offer a reasonable rental price plus other theatre equipment and facilities . Of course, independent artists have to work harder especially to find money and to promote their artwork. but it creates a healthy competition. This will naturally invite more thought-provoking works.
A lot more needs to be said of course. For example, some would wonder if it’s right to prize “lengthy narrative” plays over “visually brilliant” ones. Surely,everything is subjective to each their own?
Personally, there is a balanced composition that can be struck depending upon the context of the play. The problem is that some people want to make the stage look beautiful and tell a story – but they sometimes fail to do the latter. A lot more insight can be had as well, as people from a variety of theatre backgrounds would convey different experiences – and maybe explain a lot better regarding why theater is the way it is. Maybe there is merit in staging wonderful props and effects with a minimal budget that deserves more credit? Or maybe a story is worth all the recognition in the world, even if it is told in an empty, nondescript black box?
Let us know what you think!