THUNDERSTORM was a riveting delivery of a familial drama riven by emotional and societal conflicts, with a good measure of sexual undercurrents thrown in – all of which served to make for memorable theatre.
Kudos to Datuk Faridah Merican and The Actor’s Studio Seni Teater Rakyat for ensembling a cast who brought youthful intensity to Tsao Yu’s (or Cao Yu’s) classic called Leiyu.
Adapted to a Malaysian context, with a script localised by Mark Beau De Silva, the tale of a tycoon with a second wife and two sons was spun even more homely by the cast’s Malaysian accents.
The story is set in the 1930s tin-mining era of Ipoh, Perak. Patrick Teoh and Carmen Soo are in the titular roles of businessman, Chou Pu-Yuan, and the young second wife, Fan-Yi (Carmen Soo), respectively.
They live in a gorgeous mansion — really good set design here — with sons Chou Ping (Brian Chan), and Chou Chung (Tan Li Yang).
The family is served by Lu Kuei (De Silva), and his daughter, Su-Feng (Ho Lee Ching), with four other minor servants.
The contrast of lifestyles was heightened not just by costumes but also the design of their respective homes, aided by movable sets.
As the tale unfolds, we learn that Fan-Yi had an affair with the older son, Ping, and that Chung is her own offspring. The two boys are in love with Su-Feng, but the loveless tai tai will have not of that in her house.
Chou, unaware of all this under his roof since he treats his family like they are strangers, is dealing with a miner’s strike, led by Su-Feng’s firebrand brother Ta-Hai (Alvin Looi).
Later that day, Lu Kuei’s wife, Shih-Ping (Priscilla Wong) turns up and sees Fan-Yi, who warns her to take away her daughter because of Chong’s interest. Shih-Ping accidentally meets Chou, who turns out to be her first lover.
Next thing you know, she finds out that her daughter is pregnant with Ping’s child. Things escalate, as the storm rolls in, and Ta-Hai, despite some fisticuffs with Ping, agrees to let them elope.
As the storm hits outside, all is revealed. Ping discovers he is Shih-Ping’s son, and that Ta-Hai is his younger brother. He very shortly shoots himself while the distraught Su-Feng, unable to handle her incestuous love for her half-brother, runs out into the rain, followed by a still ardent Chong, and they are both electrocuted by some wires left around.
In the end, the mothers and Chou are left standing on stage, presumably left to live with their mistakes.
Although, Chou, in my opinion, should be the only one left alive because it was really all his doing when he was young and in love with a poor gir but abandoned her to please his parents’ wishes for a better match.
The melodrama on stage are lightened by witty asides, puns and even one ghostly moment.
I loved this dramatic theatrical presentation, which reminded me strongly of Saw Teong Hin’s Georgetown Heritage Festival play, You Mean The World To Me, back in 2014. The familial tensions, sibling conflicts, and the dark secret in both these plays make for nerve-wracking tragedies.
I give props to the props – starting with the doors to the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre boasting window films of the doors of a Chinese mansion, to the period furniture of the Chou mansion, to Soo’s cheongsam and Teoh’s tailored suit, right down to the samfoos of the servants.
But mad props to Faridah for her direction in bringing a classic work to contemporary life with a relatively young cast, and to the ensemble for their passionate portrayal of their respective roles.
Teoh brought home with measured tones the tyranny a shallow man can wield when rich, treating his wife and sons with such disdain, that they are driven elsewhere to find some love.
While Soo has been in a few theatrical productions, she emoted well, if a little stridently, the anguish of a lonely wife, and that hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned anger.
Chan brought to light the depth of his talent as he portrayed the trials of being the eldest son of an aloof father, and one caught in an illicit, lustful affair but torn over a simpler love.
While Tan gave wheedling, innocent charm to the youngest son, Wong as the wronged Shih-Ping gave her discovery of her daughter’s love affair that terrible cry of every mother’s anguished pathos, which served to make the moment indelible.
As the youngest in the ensemble, Ho showed admirable form in her role as the servant’s daughter, bewitched and beguiled by the young scions of the Chou house. She has a strong voice but her slightly monotonous delivery of her lines, contrasted against De Silva’s smooth, nuanced dialogue.
De Silva’s portrayal of a gambling, wheedling father was believable and even likeable.
It’s such a pity that Thunderstorm had such a short run, for good theatre like this, to quote faridah, should be seen by everyone.
** cover pic courtesy of KLpac
** This review appeared in New Sunday Times, april 2017.