Homegrown theatre is no stranger to Shakespearean productions. If anything, this year is a bumper year for the Bard’s productions – on the big stage, music halls and experimental venues, too. There should be an official survey on the most common and regularly staged Bard play in this neck of the woods. If you fancy a flutter, the bets would be on Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo And Juliet. But knowing Malaysians, that list could be turned upside down and you might find A Midsummer Night’s Dream suddenly making a late dash as a favourite here.
To get a sampling of Shakespeare’s influence and enduring popularity in local theatre, we spoke to a broad range of theatre regulars to find out how much the Bard means to them.
Datuk Faridah Merican, director, actor, co-founder of The Actor’s Studio
“My favourite Shakespeare play – probably the one I have directed over and over – is Hamlet. It began when I was teaching at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) in KL. The late Krishen Jit gave me the opportunity of doing a class project which was abandoned by a previous teacher. It was my first experience of directing a play in Malay, so I probably learnt as much from the students as they from me. The enjoyment stayed with me so much that I staged it again and again. The third time had Gavin Yap as Hamlet and Christina Orow as the Queen. Patrick Teoh was Polonius. I will be directing it my fourth time soon. I truly love the play’s relationship between mother and son: it’s something that if given the right chemistry between the actors, could be wonderfully shared with mothers and sons sharing a similar predicament.”
Richard Harding Gardner, co-founder of Gardner and Wife Theatre
“As an actor, I only played one Shakespeare role – Laertes in Hamlet, but I played it in two different productions! Probably my real favourite role when I was still acting was Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead – but as it’s mostly not Shakespeare, maybe that doesn’t count! The role I’d like to play now is Julius Caesar – he’s the centre of attention in the play, but dead by Act 3 so you don’t have too many lines to learn, and can go get a beer while the rest of the cast keeps working! As for shows I’ve remembered the most, they’re probably the all-male As You Like It (directed by Clifford Williams) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Much Ado About Nothing, both at London’s National Theatre. Both had a profound impact on me. I was very young and they showed me how powerful, funny and relevant Shakespeare could be if done well!
U-En Ng, actor, playwright and dramaturge
“I can’t really say that I’ve been influenced by Shakespeare very much in a way that has impacted on my writing or acting, as I also can’t say that I’m a theatre practitioner at all. I do the odd play now and then, and not particularly well – but I am certainly fascinated by the period in which Shakespeare lived especially from the perspective of music (rather than theatre) and the works of Anthony Holborne and John Dowland. My role in the forthcoming Shakespeare production (Shakespeare’s Women at KLPac) is that of a musician and not an actor, and I’ll be working with a very talented group of musicians to present some of that music within the context of a series of Shakespeare’s monologues directed by Joe Hasham.”
Patrick Teoh, stage actor, radio celebrity, comedian
“I am not a Shakespeare fan. I have never read any of his plays in entirety. I got a credit for literature in school when we studied Julius Caesar but I can’t remember any of it. But when I saw John Gielgud play Cassius in the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar, I thought he was damn terror, man! I took on this character (in Julius Caesar at KLPac, 2005) and forgot a chunk of lines in a scene with Brutus. Brutus thought he’d forgotten the lines, and I wondered, why isn’t he saying anything? The soundman knew something was wrong and played the next sound cue and things got back on track. I went to the wings and sat forlorn. Most of the actors left me alone, but one walked past and said, “Ya, Patrick, you ****ed up big time.”
Christopher Ling, co-founder, artistic director of theatrethreesixty
“My first exposure to Shakespeare was when I played Voltemand the Danish ambassador in a 1992 boarding school production of Hamlet. I only had one big speech in Act 2, Scene 2, but I loved every minute of it. Hamlet remains my favourite Shakespeare work for its truly honest portrayal of flawed humanness. But my favourite lines are from The Tempest (Act 3, Scene 2) for the beauty of the imagery contained within the words of the speech. Also, the context of the speech: it is spoken by Caliban the native who is looked down upon by the rest of the cast but is still able to describe his home with such an awareness of the beauty that surrounds him.”
Lim Soon Heng, stage actor, radio host
“Presently Shylock’s ‘I am a Jew’ speech (from The Merchant Of Venice) resonates deeply with me, more so when there are elements in our country overtly playing the race card for political reason. I am playing him now in KL Shakespeare Players’ run of its abridged The Merchant Of Venice (showing at KLPac till April 24). A couple of years ago, while running a theatre workshop for students in a racially homogeneous rural school, my co-facilitator and I performed excerpts from The Merchant Of Venice. To set the stage, we provided the background of Antonio needing to borrow money from Shylock, pointing out that the former is a Christian and the latter a Jew. When we asked the students if they know what ‘orang Yahudi’ is, a teenager raised his hand and without malice or trying to be the class clown said, ‘Syaitan (devil).’ When I performed the speech then, I never felt more keenly the responsibility to express our common humanity as Shylock argues it. In that classroom demonstration, I looked the student in the eye and asked, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes.’ Then took the student by the hand to feel mine as I asked, ‘Hath not a Jew hands.’”
Jo Kukathas, stage actor, comedian, director
Jo’s introduction to the Bard was at the tender age of nine, thanks to her father. It was the tragedy of King Lear. “Every time I read it, or see it, or see snatches of it I am moved – by the language, by the characters, by the choices they make. It’s an unbearably sad and deeply human play,” says Kukathas. Interestingly, Kukathas has only acted in two of his plays – Romeo And Juliet and Macbeth. Her favourite role, says the founder of Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT), is Mercutio from Romeo And Juliet. “Mercutio was mercurial, in love with words and life but troubled, headstrong. I died before intermission and spent the second half at a nearby bar before coming back for curtain call,” says Kukathas. ICT was hatched after this production. “Other favourite character role – Ophelia in the Cake (a Singapore theatre company) version of the life of Ophelia from Hamlet. Hugely challenging physically, mentally and emotionally and deeply satisfying,” she adds.
Kukathas’ most memorable Shakespeare show is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream outdoor at Carcosa Seri Negara in KL, when ICT was still the new kid on the block. “We built the bleachers, we built an outdoor set and the play was sold out for two weeks. We had an amazing transgender bomoh who ensured it did not rain and a dream cast including Jit Murad, Zahim Albakri, Saidah Rastam, Charon Mokhzani, Andrew Leci, Sukania Venugopal, Michelle Lee, Terence Swamipillai, and the collaboration of Sutra Dancers and Ramli Ibrahim. “This is to say nothing of the truly dream team of designers with whom I had the privilege of working. It was outdoor, it was balmy, the air was full of music, the trees filled with light, it was magic.”
Sandee Chew, stage actor
Sandee Chew has been somewhat a constant fixture of Shakespeare Demystified (SD). She has played a role in every production of SD which includes Julius Ceaser (2011), The Merchant of Venice (2012), The Merry Wives of Windsor (2013), Hamlet (2014) and Othello (2015). Her favourite Shakespeare character is Emilia from Othello. “She sits particularly close to my heart. Maybe because her humanness and struggles to negotiate between her truth and place resonate so much with where and who we are today. “And she is not so much about black or white nobleness or survival, but being and keeping it real, which is not easy, pretty or clean. It’s confronting,” says Chew.
When asked which production she remembered the most, Chew says it’s SD’s Othello.
“For one, it is my most recent. But I also fell in love with the play, and kept discovering something new. Process wise, it raised a lot of questions and challenges I learned a lot from, on and off stage, especially about human relationships and communication.” Chew says she doesn’t have a favourite Shakespeare genre “since I don’t think of plays in terms genre, but more how I am captivated by the characters, their journeys and interactions.”
Marina Tan, theatre and voiceover actor
Versatile actor Marina Tan had already performed in two adaptations of the Bard’s works as part of KLPac’s Shakespeare 400 celebration. She played Cordelia in U-En Ng’s Marble Hearts and acted and directed Margaret Of Anjou: She-Wolf Of France, Twice Queen Of England, one of the seven plays under Don’t Let Shakespeare Know. “Because of Margaret, I got a chance to look into the history plays, and I found them very rich, funny, poignant, weighty, horrific — absolutely lovely! One thing I like about Shakespeare is that his tragedies have bits of humour and his comedies have moments of pathos and emotional weight.” Tan was also part of the Shakespeare Demystified ensemble from 2011 to 2014 and performed in Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet (performance lecture). Her favourite Shakespeare characters are Hamlet and Margaret. “It wasn’t easy to fit her life into 15 minutes! For Hamlet, the performance lecture format was great, as we all had a turn at him. There are plenty more brilliant Shakespeare characters out there — ask me in five years!”