Thursday, November 25, 2010

Revival of the Theatre

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.           


kaykuala said...

Akhi Norzah,
When I was young, I was privileged to have been brought along to attend 2 performances at the old City Hall Theatre ( next to the Courts ) and once at the British Council Hall ( it was ‘Arms and the Man’ or something) I was overawed by the dignity and the discipline of theatre goers. You could literally ‘hear a pin drop’, no whispers, nothing at all. That’s how it should be. Just the clear, crisp and sometimes shrill voices of those on stage.

A later one was where Aishah Zahir, Tan Jin Chor and Krisen Jit were featured. I couldn’t recall what it was or where. I’ve not been to the theatres lately. The T-Shirts and faded jeans must have been during the review.

At the Times Square in New York, it was a mix . The tone of Anthony Quinn’s voice ( this was in 1984 ) droned across in his rasp, rough but very strong voice. It was such a pleasure to savour him in person. And the dignity and discipline of the audience was at its best. The dress code was maintained mainly because everyone wore jackets ( we had to leave our overcoats outside at the reception)

But if you get into one of NY’s lesser known movie theatres, yes movie theatres, you suddenly get nauseous. I didn’t know then what the funny smell was until we came out. One of the guys then told us it was ‘ reed, grass ‘ or whatever ie marijuana. These movie theatres were just about a stone’s throw away from the posh and dignified ones.

NY movie tickets were expensive. But you can get a discounted ticket on the day of performance at the TKT booths. I used to get them at the World Trade Centre ( it was still standing then) outlet. It was less crowded than those at Times Sq.

norzah said...

Akho Kaykuala, going to the theatre overseas is a real experience, an expensive one since the ticket costs a small fortune. I went to see the Cats, Les Miserab and a few others in US and UK. The discipline and dignity of the audience was indeed, as you said, at its best while the dress code was strictly observed. Hey,I did see a show in Egypt and if I remember correctly everyone was in coat and ties while the ladies put on their best.
I learned later that theatre in Egypt was for the rich and high-brows. The tickets were very expensive. I bought the best seat and was surprised to find myself being escorted right to the front row. ( I thought it was a film show, hehehe).
Well, I think you should go and see one of our very own shows at Istana Budaya, since you haven't been to the theatre a long while. You'll be quite surprised by the standards we have achieved.

norzah said...

Hey, I see that you've added a profile pic now. Is that you in the picture or someone else? I'll to blow it up to know!

kaykuala said...

That's me in '73. Was in Holland for a course. We travelled around during long weekends, Brussels, Paris, London and some German cities.

Yes, in London I got to see 'Hair' at Broadway ( reputed to be one of the longest-running in history)

Got to see some of the local ones. Regret missing them.

kaykuala said...

Correction. 'Hair' was a Broadway production brought to London's West End where I saw it in '73.

abdulhalimshah said...

Akhi Norzah,
I am glad to be proven wrong when I commented to the officer-in-charge then during the construction of IB that it was a waste of money. Now it has become a respectable icon for theatre-goers like you. I am still reluctant to even enter IB not because of anything but the price of the tickets put me off.

norzah said...

The quality of the shows then did not merit the building of IB, Akhi. But things change and this is a case where supply creates the demand - the facilities provided encouraged the staging of international classpresentation and performance. Of course, a lot more improvement to be made.

The ticket prices are real steep, like theatre tickets in other countries. Theatre performance are meant for the elites and high-brows, the royalties, in the past. That's why we expect the audience to come in their sunday best. In fact the theatre hall like IB should be the place to show off all the new styles in dressing.

I think pensioners like us should be given a special discount so that we can attend as many shows as possible and become staunch supporters of the theatre - the cultural flagship of a nation. Foreign dignitaries should be treated with a show at the theatre to appreciate our culture, a real international class theatrical performance - NOT A CHEAP AND BRIEF PRESENTATION OF THE ZAPIN, JOGET ETC. A visit to the theatre should be a real cultural experience.

IB should be commissioning famous ASEAN epics
theatrical production like Hang Tuah, Cindo Mato, Rancak di Labuih, Mahsuri etc along the standard achieved by Puteri Gunung Ledang, or even more dramatic. Only then would the theatre become the desired cultural flagship which we still lack though the infrastructural facilities are already there ( the IB).

Al-Manar said...

Sdr Norzah

I often tell myself how living where we are we, me and wife, miss the goings-on in the City of KL, among many things is the theatre. We have been wanting to attend one but the distance to travel just for that is rather prohibitive. We envy you folks around there. The P Ramlee and Mahathir are among the ones we would like to attend.

norzah said...

Akhi Pakcik Al-Manar.
Before I would say it would be a waste of time and money to come down to KL just to watch a theatre
performance. But with Puteri Gnung Ledang and Cuci etc., I think the effort and the money spent would be worthwhile. It;s to see our theatre come of age and becomes a leading flagship of our culture as presented through the performing art. It would be a touch of high culture as some people would say, even in the developed countries.