Tan Sri Muhammad Ali Hashim and Omar Ali share some insight into their upcoming adaptation of Macbeth which opens next month at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC). This article, reproduced with permission, was originally published in the May/June issue of Living Arts Magazine. Get your FREE copy from The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, selected cafés and performing arts centres in KL!
“MACBETH” IN SHAKESPEARE’S DAYS – some historical context
The Tragedy of Macbeth was first staged by Shakespeare in London in the early 1600s, in times when England was experiencing what Catharine Arnold in her book “Globe, Life in Shakespeare’s London”, (2015) described as “seismic events”. Those were times of extraordinary political turbulance caused mainly by uncertainties over the passing of Queen Elizabeth 1 without an heir to the English throne. The volatile political climate was preceded by an earthquake that had rocked London, the plague, followed by poor harvests, rising food prices and steep taxes causing “severe anxieties” among the population.
England’s political instability and the people’s anxieties were exacerbated by two other significant events. Firstly, the Earl of Essex’s rebellion, allegedly contesting for England’s throne, resulting in his trial for treason and ultimate condemnation to death by a public beheading in 1601. This was followed by a failed assassination attempt to blow up the Palace of Westminster in 1605 by a Catholic convert, Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes, spearheading a movement to seize political power through violent action inspired by religious motives.
It was said that the staging of Macbeth by Shakespeare was “designed to impress the [new] king…”, which was James I of Scotland, who ascended the English throne in 1603. Magic and witchcraft had played an influential role in English and Scottish societies then. It was also said that King James’ preoccupation with witchcraft had inspired Shakespeare’s staging of Macbeth – “… a Scottish play about witchcraft for a Scottish king obsessed with witchcraft”, as well as “…responding to the external public fascination with the supernatural.”
MACBETH AS “DATO’ SERI”
Earlier last year, when Artistic Director, Joe Hasham, and Executive Producer, Dato’ Faridah Merican, started talking about the year-long Shakespeare 400 Festival in KLPAC, Omar brought the news home to his father, Muhammad Ali. It didn’t take long for the casual conversation to evolve into a serious discussion. “Macbeth!”, suggested Muhammad Ali, vividly reminiscing his days of reading the play as a student of English Literature, sitting for his Cambridge School Certificate examinations at the Muar High School in 1963.
After much deliberation as well as a couple of further re-readings of the play, both father and son agreed that Macbeth was an appropriate choice for our very own near-contemporary adaptation into Bahasa Melayu. “Dato’ Seri” suggested the son, to the instant agreement of the father, and now, co-adaptor. This is our first time working together.
Like all his other famous plays, through Macbeth, Shakespeare had left an indelible impact on the hearts and minds of generations of followers and admirers, including those among non-English speaking nations. Macbeth is a play about an extremely successful court warrior who had served his country well but was torn between his loyalty to his king on one hand, and his personal ambitions and grievances on the other. Macbeth details his personal struggles, the choices he makes and the consequences that come with them; set in a backdrop of fate, free will, and destiny.
One of the many beauties of Macbeth, in our opinion, is the scale of its narrative: from the wider perspective of feudal politics right down to the nitty-gritty of individual conscience and personal strife. As a tragic hero, therefore, Macbeth can resonate with all of us who are stuck in our daily rat race; as well as those whose lives and careers are dedicated to the pursuit of power, position, fame and glory.
Another beautiful thing about Shakespeare’s original work is that it was written a little over four hundred years ago, set in a society and a culture that is very far away, and quite different from our own. And yet, its themes and – dare we say – lessons are still very relevant to the political realities and the human condition of today, from whatever cultural background we might come from. Four centuries have passed, with vast improvements in terms of what we know and what we are able to do, but here we are; still struggling with the same issues of yore. As Malaysians, perhaps its time we reflect and ponder upon Malaysia’s identity as a nation going forward; especially in terms of its sociopolitical culture as defined by its political elite who are shaping the nation’s future direction and destiny.
It was for the above reasons that Dato’ Seri was first conceived, deliberately set in an alternate-historical Malaya of the 1960s. It focuses on a political elite obsessed with the pursuit of power and glory, with the spotlight on our rather unique and extraordinary obsession with honorific titles and all the exaggerated trappings of high office that go with them. Dato’ Seri retains its equivalent share of witchcraft and black magic elements as practices that were not unknown among Malaysia’s political elite, in spite of unequivocal religious (Islamic) injunctions against them.
There is therefore so much that we, as Malaysians, could consider and reflect upon about where we are headed as a nation; especially when our society is being divisively polarised and are exposed to the many anxieties caused by “seismic events” of domestic, as well as global proportions, that have the potential to tear our relatively young nation apart.
If there is one conversation that Dato’ Seri aims to start, it is this: moving forward, we can no longer afford to remain in our respective comfort zones, behaving like the proverbial little frog; prefering to stay under its coconut shell, albeit a polished and shiny one, gilded with today’s luxuries. Indeed, Malaysians can no longer afford to just sit idly by and do nothing. The challenges of the 21st century have also deprived us the luxury of just doing more of the same.
We cannot allow ourselves to remain stuck in a cycle of repeating the same thing over and over again (under the guise of varying political rhetoric) and expecting different – if not better – results. This, as a great man once said, is tantamount to madness.
Written 19 April 2016. Make sure to catch Dato’ Seri at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre from 1 – 5 June 2016. You can also get more information from the show via Facebook!