Watching U-Wei Haji Shaari in action is exhilarating. The maestro that he is, the award-winning film and theatre director is all over the stage – walking, talking, listening and observing.

He’s not telling his actors what to do. Instead, he’s giving them choices – moves, blocking, intonation, mannerisms, even behavioural tics. U-Wei is not a dictator but an actor’s director. He’s more of a mentor and guide.

Stor Teater at Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka (DBP) is a perfect venue for U-Wei’s play rehearsals. It has an intimacy that some venues do not, so his actors can find solace in a space that’s not intimidating.

The story he’s directing is from my play Pokok (The Tree), about four people trapped between a real and an imaginary place around a huge tree, each with their own story to tell, while the tree is both protector and a threat.

Mardiah (Haliza Misbun), an ex-convict married to Darwis (Ebby Saiful) and who is 9 months pregnant, sees only hopelessness and despair. Meanwhile, Darwis, who lost a leg in an accident, must start to believe in himself and craft a future for his family – in his mind, at least.

Then there’s Amud (Buyung Zasdar), a former wayang actor who thrives on his ability to please the rich, and Tuk Kaya (Rahim Jailani), a metaphor of what’s wrong with society – the belief that greed is good and money can buy everything.

Pokok

U-Wei Haji Saari in rehearsal with actors Haliza Misbun and Buyung Zasdar for Pokok.

Old memories came flooding back as I watched the feverish activities at Stor Teater – U-Wei with his actors, stagehands busying themselves with preparations, the producer and his colleagues working on promotions and logistics.

It’s a tight budget production that’s trying to make ends meet. There are no big sponsors other than Perodua, the only corporation supporting them. But they are hoping other companies can help fill up seats.

Producing a theatre show is not easy. The last time I directed a play was 30 years ago, a script called Tuk Selamit, written by my friend, the late Dr Annuar Nor Arai. It was meant for the Asean Theatre Festival in Manila, Aug 1988, but I didn’t see it through to the staging.

That year I was promoted to head DBP’s publication division, which oversaw magazines like Dewan Masyarakat, Dewan Sastera and Dewan Budaya. I was sent to Tokyo for an attachment with a newspaper company, and Zakaria Ariffin took over the helm.

I had been very involved in DBP’s theatre group, and directed Anwar Rithwan’s novel Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman – which received the 1984 National Literary Award for my adaptation – as well as A. Samad Said’s masterpiece Salina and A. Samad Ismail’s short story Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang.

Pokok

U-Wei Haji Saari in rehearsal for Pokok.

So, watching U-Wei direct my play now brings back lots of memories of my days as an actor, director and playwright.

I started early. I was exposed to bangsawan (traditional Malay opera) in primary school, when the legendary Bintang Timur Opera troupe played for months on end at Kampung Sungai Balang in Muar, Johor, right next to my house. I was an errand boy and managed the stage curtains. I knew all the players and I was mesmerised by the grandeur of bangsawan.

In school, I kept my interest in theatre. Later, at University of Malaya. I was involved with Anak Alam, staging the group’s first full-fledged production of my own play Angin Kering in 1977. When I joined DBP that same year, I was also active with its drama group Badan Budaya DBP.

I played Macbeth in a bangsawan version of the Shakespeare’s classic. I was cast as Sultan Mahmud Shah in Othman Hj Zainuddin’s Zaman Gerhana, Patih Karma Wijaya in Titah Tuanku, Omar in A. Samad Said’s Di Mana Bulan Selalu Retak, and I acted under the direction of Zakaria Ariffin.

I starred in one of the toughest roles in modern drama, Dr Stockman in Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People, under the direction of the late Mustafa Nor.

Pokok is my first play in 14 years. My last was Asiah Samiah, which won the 2003 National Literary Award and is now a compulsory text for the Form 6 Bahasa Melayu examination paper. After Pokok was published by Dewan Sastera in Sept 2017, U-Wei was attracted to it and decided to direct.

He’s a New York-trained filmmaker, and one of Malaysia’s best known directors for movies like Perempuan, Isteri Dan…Kaki Bakar, Jogho and Hanyut Hanyut, the last one based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Almayer’s Folly from 1895. Pokok is U-Wei’s second play after 2008’s Wangi Jadi Saksi.

It’s a labour of love for U-Wei to be involved in Pokok, and it’s an honour to have my play directed by him. I’m a great fan of his work and he’s one of the best ideologues in the local arts scene.

For the actors and stagehands, the first stage collaboration between U-Wei and I is reason enough for them to give their time and effort to our production.

“Pokok” runs at Auditorium DBP (Jalan Dewan Bahasa, Bukit Petaling, KL) from Dec 7-16. RM30 and RM50 tickets are available at airasiaredtix.com. Johan Jaaffar’s book, “Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad”, is about his 50-year journey as an actor, playwright, director, and chairman of the country’s largest media company. He was once a journalist and former chairman of Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka (DBP).