When actor/playwright Kee Thuan Chye’s 1984 Here And Now was first staged here – in 1985 by Five Arts Centre – many described it as a “a rare event” in Malaysian theatre. After all, Kee’s political play, loosely based on George Orwell’s seminal novel 1984, was unapologetically critical of the then administration.
After it got its staging permit, word went round that people had all better go and see it fast because the authorities were bound to pull the plug on the show, Kee recalls with a chuckle.
That luckily didn’t happen; instead, the play directed by the late Krishen Jit sold out every night.
Sadly though, the “rare event” tag proved prophetic as that was the (known) last time 1984 Here And Now was staged in public in Malaysia.
Kee believes the time now is more than ripe for a revival of his play on the public stage, “People now are as politicised as before, maybe even more, but political plays are not staged anymore.
“And more than 30 years on, the issues in the country are still the same.” So when director Loh Kok Man – known for his socio-political, experimental productions – asked if he could stage 1984 with his students at New Era College, Kee immediately gave his blessings.
“I feel blessed that young people are interested in my work. Kok Man has a good reputation (in local theatre) and I trust him.”
And this time around, there will not be as much “drama” offstage, he jokes, as the play will be staged at the college’s Black Box Theatre and performed in Mandarin.
Like most of Kee’s works (The Big Purge, We Could **** You, Mr. Birch) 1984 Here And Now explores the issue of power. Unlike the later works, Kee’s 1984 was written as an agitprop piece.
“I learned to be more subtle and less polemical in my later plays, but I suppose I was very angry at that time,” he says.
According to the former newspaperman, his adaptation of Orwell’s novel was born out of his frustration from not being able to write about issues deemed politically or racially “sensitive”. In Kee’s version, however, instead of class struggle, the people face racial discrimination.
His Winston Smith is Wiran, a “Party member” and journalist, who is unhappy with the oppressive power of the Big Brother. His colleague Jumon introduces him to a clandestine group, The Movement For A New Brotherhood, which is fighting for a fairer society, where privilege and status are not dictated along racial lines.
At The Movement, Wiran meets a “Prole woman” called Yone and they fall in love, even though “interracial” love is forbidden under Big Brother’s rule.
Together, with The Movement, Wiran and Yone attempt to break Big Brother’s dictatorship.
Loh, who is no stranger to Orwellian themes – he directed Animal Farm in 2008 – says he was attracted to Kee’s 1984 not only for its political overtones but also for its Malaysian undertones.
“Although I am intrigued by the politics, especially how the issues it discusses are still relevant today, I am more interested in its cultural context. To me more important is how I can use theatre language to talk about the issues rather than state the issues,” says the artistic director of Pentas Project who has directed Uda Dan Dara and Ang Tau Mui (written in Hokkien), among others, in Mandarin.
His interest to stage Malaysian works written in the different languages in Chinese theatre is driven by his attempt to understand “his “society and country more,” he explains. “I come from a Chinese education background, and my experience is that unless you read English or Malay, you will not be exposed to the art and literature of the other communities in Malaysia. You will not get the complete picture of Malaysia. That’s why I’m trying to tell these other Malaysian stories that Chinese theatregoers may not know about.”
Loh sees the exchange as a two-way sharing.
“We should not just translate works from other language into Malay, we should also translate more Malay works into English, (and other Malaysian mother tongues like) Mandarin and Tamil. I really believe that we can foster better communication between the different communities if we expose them to the literature and artworks of the other cultures,” he opines, adding that he hopes to compile all the translated scripts that he has worked on and publish them in a book.
While there are some cultural and linguistic nuances that are challenging to adapt into Chinese, Loh says he thrives on those challenges, “I’m interested in finding a new theatre language to tell or share Malaysian stories.”
With his keen interest in lighting and multimedia, Loh’s directions are also known for their visual spectacles, and 1984 promises to be no different.
Collaborating with multimedia artist Fairuz Sulaiman, Loh’s 1984 plays with shadow projection to evoke its dystopian feel.
Kee, meanwhile, is already eyeing the possible staging of his other works, beginning with The Swordfish, Then The Concubine, which Loh has agreed to direct at the end of this year.
“No play is complete until you test it on the stage.
“The Swordfish has been staged twice in Singapore, but never in Malaysia. I think it needs to be done in Malaysia because it is a play about Malaysia, based on two stories from Sejarah Melayu.
“I used the stories to comment on the current times. It is a play about Malaysians today.”
Yes, the playwright may have mellowed somewhat, but he is as passionately political as ever.
1984 Here And Now plays at New Era College in Kajang, Selangor, July 28-31. Bookings: call Yew (016-236 3918) and Chai (016-205 8309). Visit: pentasproject.org.