MAHSURI, the mythical beauty whose legacy still lives in Langkawi today, once cursed the island upon being put to her death in the late 1700s. Her story is one of immense tragedy: envied intensely by her sister-in-law Wan Mahura, Mahsuri was accused of adultery in the absence of her husband (who was sent to war) and sentenced to capital punishment for a crime she did not commit.
But how many of us still know of this story today? Giving Mahsuri’s tale a contemporary twist are the folks of Liver and Lung Productions, a collective of independent theatre-makers keen on bringing Malaysian folklore to the stage.
Created by Shafeeq Shajahan and Ian Nathaniel, their new, original musical Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) will take place this Friday to Sunday at Melt’On Cafe, Subang Jaya.
But don’t compare it to Disney products such as Into The Woods as these guys have their own unique approach to their source material. Comprising four female-led Malay folk tales, the latest production aims to resurface some of Malaysia’s most important female characters through the ages.
There will be a contemporary twist — these stories will be told by a young boy at his sister’s workplace, whose position on the autism spectrum keeps him manageable but not immune to causing trouble.
Staged in an intimate café setting, Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) revamps four riveting Malaysian legends with a clever, modern twist. An autistic boy sits in the corner of the café. Unable to manage his stress and anxiety levels, he is given a book of Malaysian fables to calm his nerves. As he reads, the café and its patrons evolve into a backdrop for four harrowing tales. With original music and lyrics, witness Pontianak, Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, Mahsuri and Puteri Lindungan Bulan as the tales unravel before the boy’s eyes, capturing his attention and captivating his heart.
— Show synopsis, Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales)
Shafeeq, marketing strategist at Axiata during the day and director of Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) by night, chose the four stories based on their powerful female figures.
“I’m a bit of a staunch Nazi feminist,” he jokes, “but in all seriousness, these plays feature a contemporary take on strong women from Malaysian folklore. In Mahsuri for example, Wan Derus sings about feeling safe in Mahsuri’s arms, as opposed to offering her protection.”
Indeed, The Daily Seni is able to testify to Shafeeq’s claim after a preview of Mahsuri’s segment during rehearsals in Kelana Jaya.
Their version of the story takes its liberties — Wan Mahura is made mother of Wan Derus while the character of Deraman is now Mahsuri’s long-time friend — but the script also acknowledges this, with its autistic narrator dropping terms such as “artistic license”.
“I spent three years in London and trained in a Western, Euro-centric manner,” Shafeeq laments. “One day it dawned on me that I was so disconnected from own culture; I have been ignoring the wealth of culture my background provided me.”
His last production with Liver and Lung, Leila | Laila also explored his connection with culture, but did so in grand fashion — held at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in April, the performance starred writer and poet Melizarani T. Selva.
Fusing Spanish and Indian art, Leila | Laila explores the dilemma that many young Malaysians face: should we embrace our inborn cultural roots or reject them for Western ideology? Sameer and Rani’s story is told through the artistic lens of Flamenco and Kathak dance, respectively comparing their modern and traditional values.
— Show synopsis, Leila | Laila
Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) will star young up-and-comers Badrika Bahadur, Nabilah Hamid, Phraveen Arikiah and Iz Sulaini — all of whom were last seen in sassy Christmas musical Follow The Light, by award-winning composer and writer Nick Choo. Also in the cast is a young boy of 15, Badrish Bahadur, who plays narrator.
“Badrish is remarkably mature for his age but he also has a great voice I am not showcasing in this musical,” explained Shafeeq.
“Phraveen meanwile has one of the most versatile and sensitive approaches to musical theatre acting, which is very rare in Malaysia. There are two very important things in performance — sensitivity and flair — and Phraveen has both.”
One thing immediately noticeable during the preview of Mahsuri’s segment was that these actors can really sing.
Despite performing in the living room of director Shafeeq, all of them blew the roof off with their pipes and strong musical compositions. Their simplistic summary of each story is more fun than factual, but the results are nevertheless highly engaging.
Claiming to represent a new breed of Malaysian theatre producers, Shafeeq and team hope to bring their brand of musical aboard; the team is already planning an intimate staging in London to showcase their product to an international audience.
Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) will take place at Melt’On Cafe, Subang Jaya from 27 to 29 May 2016. Tickets are priced at RM70 and RM55 (concession) and can be booked through this online form! For more information, check out Facebook!