If you’ve stopped by at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) in Sentul recently, you’ve probably noticed something different about the place. And no, we’re not talking about the roadworks outside Sentul Park’s guardhouse.
The glass doors at KLPac entrance have gone through a makeover. And while most architectural renovations make a place look more modern, these go the other way. The doors now resemble an ancient passageway to an old Chinese temple or palace, with intricate blue designs reminiscent of fine porcelain pottery.
Why these re-designs? A thunderstorm is coming. But no, don’t get your umbrella yet. These are KLPac’s preparations for its adaptation of Thunderstorm, Tsao Yu’s classic 1934 play about a wealthy yet highly dysfunctional household. You might call them the original Crazy Rich Asians.
“It’s definitely worth spending our time staging a classic. There’s nothing like telling a good story, and I think this story is very good. It has lust and incest, and love and revenge, and drama and conflict … it has everything and the kitchen sink! This kind of story never goes away, and people always enjoy it,” says Datuk Faridah Merican, the play director.
“I did this play many years ago, and I have never forgotten it. I think it covers a wide spectrum of experiences. It’s a real classic, and classics like this don’t come by very often.”
Thunderstorm is presented by The Actor’s Studio Seni Teater Rakyat, with Freddy Tan as assistant director. The production features Carmen Soo, Patrick Teoh, Brian Chan, Tan Li Yang, Mark Beau de Silva, Priscilla Wong, Alvin Looi, Ho Lee Ching and others.
The play is one of the most famous works by Tsao Yu, who is widely considered as one of China’s most important playwrights of the 20th century. It is the tale of Chou Pu-Yuan (Teoh), who is the head of a seemingly wealthy and happy household. But dark clouds are in the air: beneath their facade of respectability lurks a dark family secret that could destroy everything.
The story has been adapted into several stage plays and films, which include a 1957 Hong Kong film version starring Bruce Lee, and Zhang Yimou’s 2006 film Curse Of The Golden Flower, a very loose adaptation set in ancient China.
KLPac’s version of the play will be performed in English, through a translation by Wang Tso-liang and A.C. Barnes, and localisation of the script by de Silva. The play’s setting will also be transposed from China to Ipoh.
Faridah is well-familiar with Tsao Yu’s epic play. She has acted in two versions of Ribut, a Malay language translation of the play, in 1983 and 2001. Going from actor to director on a play she knows so well, she mentions, is a highly interesting experience.
Her version will take a slightly lightened approach, with the audience given time to breathe in between the very heavy, tragic moments.
“I didn’t want to make it as dark a tragedy as written and shown in earlier presentations. Those presented then really focused on the tragedy of the story. I wanted to have moments where the Malaysian audience can relax and smile, and chuckle for a little bit. That kind of thing will help the audience feel the play is written for them to appreciate,” says Faridah, 77.
The events of Thunderstorm deal with a web of intrigue between the members of the Chou household, most notably a secret involving Pu-yuan’s wife Fan-Yi (Soo) and her step-son Zhou Ping (Chan), whose actions come back to haunt them.
Describing her role, Soo says Fan-Yi is the “darkest character she had ever played”, whose actions were forced by her circumstances.
“A lot of the other characters I’ve played before, they always had a time for redemption. But this particular character, there isn’t any. And the whole play happens in just one day, so there isn’t any place to find sunlight, it’s just thunderstorms all the way. Her real suffering is not shown, but is definitely felt,” says Soo, 40.
“I feel sorry for Fan-Yi. I wish she doesn’t have to do what she had to do, but if I’m her, I’d probably do the same thing, too. It feels like I’m drowning, and I want to go up and gasp for air, but it’s almost like I don’t deserve it.”
Chan, 22, on the other hand, says he found it easier to relate to his character Zhou Ping, who has to bear the burden of responsibility because of his position as the eldest son of the household.
“He’s always feared his father, but as the eldest, there are many expectations he has to meet. Being the eldest grandchild in both sides of my family, I found myself in Zhou Ping.
“Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, I had a lot of honour to uphold, for the family name. And that helped me a lot with the character I had to play,” says the actor.
Indeed, the most striking thing about Thunderstorm, the director and cast agree, is that despite being written decades ago, many points in it are still relevant today.
“As much as the play shows how things were, it also shows very much how things have not changed, although at different levels. I think it’s something very easy for people to connect to. It’s very universal,” says Soo as she sums up this group interview.
Tsao Yu’s Thunderstorm will be playing at Pentas 1, KLPac, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in Kuala Lumpur from April 20 to 23. For tickets, call 03- 40479000 or visit www.klpac.org.