Back after two decades, the playwright-director Kee Thuan Chye returns to produce Swordfish + Concubine, turning two beloved tales from Sejarah Melayu; Singapura Dilanggar Todak and a tale about a sultan’s favorite concubine who was put to death by impalement that’ll take us on a journey back through time into historical Malaya, to create this expansive modern-day adaption of Malaysian history, culture and values in our people. Taking place from the 2nd to the 5th of November 2017, the play will be staged at Pentas 1, KLPAC and some it its proceeds will go to raise funds for the family of Ooi Eow Jin, a former orchestra conductor of RTM.
In its essence, Swordfish + Concubine doesn’t have a straightforward narrative about the stories it has chosen to present but focuses on the delivery of the message it intends to share with the audience. While focusing on turning heritage into masterful contemporary adaptations – “[it’s] not a re-telling, it’s actually a story about the present, not the past.“, as mentioned by Kee Thuan Chye– as he finds a way to bridge two non-interrelated tales into one big picture through its characters and meanings.
It’s a story about Malaysians, for Malaysians
Technically speaking, though the English version of the play has been staged in 2008 and 2011 by Singaporeans, Kee Thuan Chye has always strongly felt that Swordfish + Concubine has always had a certain quality that is reserved for the Malaysian narrative. It strives to make the audience think, but couples the intensity with an influx of humor, love, action, and drama- but it also created to capture the splendor of theatre to Malaysians as well.
“As a Malaysian, I consider Sejarah Melayu as my heritage because there are so many fascinating stories, which we don’t delve into enough- this is our cultural legacy,” Kee notes.
The determination is something refreshing to experience, seeing that the popularity of works inspired by traditional Malay culture is slowly fading away after years of neglect, but a surge of plays and music taking on different and beautiful adaptations or inspirations from our culture in recent times has been on the rise; and this play definitely has a major role in this, especially since it will be in English. After several revisions took place and the play is only 50% from what it originally was, but it turned into this bigger tapestry of fantastical tales from the times of Bunga Emas and more. It’s timeless, in a sense- because everyone can relate to the morals of these stories.
For the most part, the story is still heavily inspired by the covenant made between Sri Tri Buana and Demang Lebar Daun: who calls for complete loyalty to rulers, as long as subjects are not put to shame. Kee Thuan Chye found this to be relevant and true to the mindsets of Malaysian people even to this day, and thus worked on this feeling and idea that he was strongly passionate about. Other than passion, its poetic yet dynamic build placed Swordfish + Concubine in the top five plays at the International Playwriting Festival in 2006, which was then known as “The Swordfish, then the Concubine.”
“The play is a living organism, “- Kee Thuan Chye
Part 1: Kee Thuan Chye, Alfred Loh and Qahar Aqilah talk about the story behind Swordfish + Concubine
Bringing an old dream to reality
Working with a diverse cast each with a unique style to their name- Swordfish + Concubine brings an impressive lineup center stage: Na’a Murad, Sandra Sodhy, Qahar Aqilah, Alfred Loh, Hana Nadira, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Bella Rahim, Gregory Sze, Iefiz Alaudin, Bright Ong and Joel Timothy Low.
The play gets immensely physical- and we aren’t just taking the fighting scenes into consideration- the incorporation of dance styles like hip-hop to Gamelan music is an example of how active and organic the play is. Each actor plays at least 2-3 core roles and other minor parts- making the play very vibrant, even more so with a cast of 12 taking on every character in the story.
Qahar Aqilah talks about the writing of the play; “With Thuan Chye’s writing, it’s very straightforward and the challenge is to simply rise up to the occasion.” The idea of the play being a musical is that Chye believes that it should be presented as something theatrical with as many elements that can be drawn from, making it as eclectic as possible. Each section has a specific purpose and a carefully crafted frame to do justice to it- from the characters to the music and the overall feel of each act. “That’s the beautiful thing about theatre when the audience watches it, there are nuggets of subtext that are not only resounding and meaningful to the actors but can be felt by the people who receive the performance,” says Alfred Loh.
We talk about the cast of Swordfish + Concubine and whether it’s satire
More than just politics
The notion of Swordfish + Concubine being a story about political satire is partially true, but it doesn’t fall into the Klang Valley-esque trope of 0n-the-nose anti-establishment with a dash of comedy.
While the main plot surrounding the covenant is political, when the play was written in the 90s, there were moments in history that fit into the play but it is that came about naturally rather than something purposefully manufactured for that specific intent.
The political references are there to only capture more understanding about the context of certain acts in the play; like the central themes of abuse of power that are more socio-political about the psyche of the people. It might be fair to say that it could be somewhat Hamilton-like with a Nusantara twist, but it would ignore the other aspects of how innovative it is in terms of its production, action, and music wise. Taking inspiration from the East and to the West, from bangsawan to Brecht, Swordfish + Concubine cleverly interweaves drama with nuanced humor, the powerful elements of Silat with the promising use of Gamelan-infused rap music to create the play that it is today.
Despite some hard-hitting and aggressive scenes, Swordfish +Concubine is a play that welcomes viewers of all ages – whether you’re there to enjoy the drama and satire, or to appreciate the music and action scenes, bring your family members and friends for a pretty educational time about Malaysian history at its finest.
Kee Thuan Chye, Alfred Loh and Qahar Aqilah talk about child actor, Joel Timothy Low!
Swordfish + Concubine is premiering in KLPAC tomorrow! Get your tickets quick before they’re sold out by clicking on this link