“SOMETHING is rotten in the state of Denmark.” “To be or not to be, that is the question.” “The lady protests to much, methinks.” These some examples of lines in Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet which we still use in our conversations or written missives.
To be staged in Bahasa Malaysia and directed for the fourth time by Datuk Faridah Merican, the Actors Studio Teater Rakyat production is based on the adaptation by stage and screen actor and educator Ahmad Yatim. Last seen on screen in Perempuan Melayu Terakhir (1999), he rose in the 1970s in tandem with Faridah along Rahim Razali, and was involved in many local theatre productions, including Uda Dan Dara. His Hamlet in Malay was recently staged by ASwara students early this year.
The Bard’s works, 400 years after his death to date, is still relevant, as all good theatre should be. For Faridah: “He is the world’s best storyteller.”
Hamlet in Malay
Faridah is better know for English theatre, “although some of the plays I did in the 60s and 70s have been in Malay”.
She candidly says: “I am considered as a girl from Penang who does not speak Malay very well. There’s truth in that. But since coming to Kuala Lumpur in December 59 and mixing with the who’s who in theatre then, their semangat rubbed off on me too.
“Syed Alwi, Usman Awang and Krishen Jit are three such names. And so I began my journey doing theatre in Malay such Lela Mayang, Alang Rentak Seribu, Tok Perak , Pintu Tertutup and of course Usman’s beloved Uda Dan Dara in the early 70s.
“I have often been asked the question why I do not do theatre in Malay and my answer has always been that there are many other very competent Malay theatre practitioners, so let me focus on what I do better. I also throw in the fact there’s Joe (Hasham) in my life and his background and learning is theatre in English.
“Why Hamlet in Malay is because it was presented to me on a platter by Krishen Jit when I was a teacher at ASK (now Aswara). That was my first one this journey that has encouraged me to continually stage Hamlet again and again in Malay. Every version provided me with challenges that keep me going. Similarly with this one. Even bigger challenges.”
The play’s tale
Hamlet is about this young, rich princeling of Denmark who returns home from “studies” abroad on learning his dad, the king, is dead. His mum, Gertrude, has married his uncle Claudius, who becomes the new king.
So Hamlet finds the world he once knew so alien to him. Then the ghost of his father appears and describes his murder at the hands of Claudius, demanding revenge.
When a councillor, Polonius, learns from his daughter, Ophelia, that Hamlet has visited her in a disturbed state, Polonius attributes the prince’s condition to lovesickness, and he sets a trap for Hamlet.
To confirm Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet arranges for a play that mimics the murder; Claudius’ reaction is that of a guilty man. But Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius, and is sent away.
Ophelia goes mad and drowns. Hamlet returns to confront Claudius and agrees to a fencing match with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who has secretly poisoned his rapier. At the match, Claudius prepares poisoned wine for Hamlet, which Gertrude unknowingly drinks. She accuses Claudius, whom Hamlet kills. Then first Laertes and then Hamlet die, both victims of Laertes’s rapier.
Quite a tale. Among the many themes including misogyny and incest in Hamlet is making us look at our own mortality in an ambiguous world. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” asks Hamlet, either seen as terribly indecisive or overly emotional, as he obsesses about death and what truth it will finally reveal.
The play can also be about checking our facts first, or going with our gut. The rottenness in Denmark is about the moral corruption of the new king and queen and the decay of the nation. At the end, an upstanding character gives hope to the country.
Young Ali as lead
Faridah has cast 23-year-old AliAlasri as the lead character with Tria Aziz as Gertrude. The others in the cast include Farah Rani, Cleo Bachelor 2016 candidate Aiman Asmawar, Hana Nadira, and Charles Robert.
“Casting the play has been for me a joy. I have cast Zul Huzaimy, a student at ASK – twice, and Gavin Yap once.
“I met Ali when I was teaching a semester at Sunway. He had just come back from a year in Australia. No, it was not love at first sight, but I saw in him the young, restless and quite insane Hamlet.
“But above all he was trained in theatre. So, I asked, he came for an audition and he accepted. I like the challenges he gives to his character and he is so much at ease with all the others in the production, from Tria, Hana, Omar, Adry, Arief, Charles, Shukri, Aiman, Farah and all the other interns. Totally no regrets.”
For Ali, a Sunway University College graduate, his stage debut as a lead character may prove A “to be or not to be” event.
He hopes to do justice for everyone in this production. “On one level, I may break my legs and sit out the whole production, God willing, that doesn’t happen.
“On another level is to lose focus and commitment while performing and disappoint your team who has invested their time working on this project. That would be an unfortunate lesson to learn.”
He finds getting that Hamlet madness seems to be the challenging part of his role. “To maintain your energy and momentum at the same moment assuring that it may compliment your ensemble’s momentum is definitely a challenge.
“It’s also the consciousness to realise that it will never be the same show every night we perform, and to be aware of this shifts in dynamics throughout the whole performance process. As far as ephemeral goes.”
Ali has been backstage more than centrestage in theatre. Some may have seen him in Five Arts Centre’s Something I Wrote, but this is his first stage outing since returning from studies at Melbourne’s Deakin University last year.
From backstage to centre stage, it’s fun, the Kuala Lumpur native says.
“The amount of dimensions that are allowed by the space gives an ample amount of room to play and devise different performative strategy. It’s also considering how the spaces are activated by the collaborative group of practitioners/
“The ensembles’ synergy from both front and backtage plays an important part in activating spaces, without it, (so) ‘fun’ wouldn’t be the right word.”
Admittedly more into comics, cartoons, and films than theatre, Ali says he was introduced to Shakespeare in high school. “Hamlet is clever, interesting and hectic, but I’d lean on more to Hang Tuah, Si Tanggang, Raja Bersiong when it comes to classic royal tragedies.”
Comics, graphic novel-loving Ali is a Star Wars fan, revealing that he is determined “to become a Jedi Master to achieve environmental stability”.
“It’s the notion to be the master of your craft whatever form it may manifest, and contribute to the changing times. We are currently undergoing dark times in Malaysia and around the globe, (so) it’s always good to lend a helping hand.”
A good story
Getting a modern, non-Shakespeare audience keen on Hamlet is for Faridah a non issue. “For me, Hamlet is a beautifully crafted story, filled with love, hatred, jealousy including love for mother and father, and intrigue in the ghosts that Shakespeare has so cleverly woven in.
“We’ve had several ghosts in all the other Hamlets, but this time I think, by casting Omar (Ali) as both Claudius and the Ghost, it brings out another layer. And oh yes, I have always included music in Hamlet. This time, too. Three very talented musicians – Boy, Joey and Endee, and sound scoring by Mike Thomas.
“There are other pieces of excitement, but I should leave some for the audience in the theatre, kan?
“So, they don’t have to know Shakespeare. They can just enjoy a good story.”
** Hamlet was staged at KLpac Aug 4-7, 2016.