I have followed a series of plays ( or theatre) this year at the Istana Budaya. Beginning with Puteri Gunung Ledang, I witnessed Cuci the Musical, The West-End Story, P.Ramlee the Musical, Tun Mahathir the Musical, and the preview of Natrah, with a few in between which I missed and can't recall their titles while the Istana Budaya Portal does not provide a ready list of theaters over the years aside from the concerts and other miscellaneous shows . Previous to that I have also watched Samad Said's Pentas Puteri Pinki and MaMa Mia. On most occasions the theatre hall was booked to full capacity.
That was a big surprise to me, knowing that in previous years theatre attendance had been lack luster. I've had the experience of watching the hall half-empty before and people leaving the theatre halfway through the play, leaving the hall almost empty after the intermission. I've also seen some members of the audience falling asleep after a half hour run of the show. The Bahasa shows were normally attended more by the Malays while the English presentation more by the non-Malays. I've heard of ticket prices being slashed due to a very poor response.
All those seemed to be a matter of the past. Starting with Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical, I have witnessed Istana Budaya becoming the venue of well-dressed theatre enthusiasts from all ages and racial origins, before the start of a show. Yes, people in coat and ties, evening dresses that glittered with sequins, and prosperous-looking tycoons trooping into the theatre. Even the cafe at the entrance to the IB was crowded with hungry people who had no time to dine at home and had to come early to avoid the traffic and get some good parking spots, close to the building. Slowly I saw the dress becoming more and more casual as the Istana Budaya relaxed its dress code. For the Natrah preview I even saw some guys in t-shirts and discolored jeans. Of course the preview was open to media personnel., not the paying audience, while the IB dress code, I believe, remained in force.
But that's a different issue. What I want to stress is the revival of interests in theatre performance. Or is this an entirely new development after the death of the old Bangsawan shows? Have Malaysians finally woke up to the norms pf a modern, culture-loving and high-brow society who are known to be the patrons of the performing arts, as different form the younger middle-class urbanites who only had a love for the movies? Yes. I've attended the movies too ( Avatar, Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, Pisau Cukur etc) and the crowds have indeed swelled to give film-makers their multimillion ringgit box-office collections. While the new generation movies thrive on Computer Generated Images (CGI), what has the theatre offered to entice the more cultured and elitist audience?
Obviously, the theatre had improved considerably in terms of its decor. props and technological gambits including computerised lighting effects and audio suppport. The multilayered and gigantic rock formation in Puteri Gunung Ledang was really impressive and realistic. So was the train and railway station in P. Ramlee the Musical, the tall buildings in Cuci the Musical and the cargo ship in Natrah. Theatre audience can now experience more authentic replica of scenes, locations, furniture and gadgetaries going back into the past. What is still lacking is a sense-surround effect which only Disneyland shows can create ( Star Wars). Otherwise, Istana Budaya had all the cutting-edge technology and facilities to stage a world standard theatrical performance and only the Directors' imagination is the limit to the sophistication of the presentation.
What must rest entirely on the Production people to generate in order to achieve international ( or Hollywood) standard is the screen play with its plots and sub-plots, the acting, the choreography and in particular the dialogues. Even a good literary product may fail to create a successful theatre performance with verbose, circumlocutious and dry dialogues. There must be plenty of witty and humorous lines to punctuate a long drawn conversation, argument or monologue. Beautiful literary lines might have to be replaced or at least interspersed by rib-tickling humor or even deceptively stupid/unexpected jokes (Cuci had a lot of this!), Even technological wonders can bore if the dialogues are too literary, pedantic or melodramatic. Aflin Syauki and Awi can even get away with impromptu mumbling to cause extended bursts of laughter ( Cuci the Musical again}. Siti Asmah tickled the audience when she aped Mahathir's way of saying "Ase Mana?" ( Where are you from? ) in Tun Mahathir the Musical. To include some witty lines in the play is obviously the concern of the writer but the producer or director of the play must also help to plant in some "laugh bombs" to wake up the audience when facing long-drawn interlocution.
Well, so far the series of plays I've attended had enough of the interest- and attention-jerking gambits to take us through without being bored. This new tradition of theatre must be developed further and nurtured by the younger writers while Producers must nurture and encourage them to write more plays for the theatre. There are many prize awards now for the movies, film/TV actors and actresses and for singers. It's time that the theatre be given its own awards and recognition if the theatre in Malaysia is to develop into a status symbol for the connoisseurs and lovers of the theatrical art and the creation of such a community within the Malaysian society.