When it was announced that GE14 was to take place on the now-historic date of May 9th 2018, the cast and crew of Dato Seri were unsure what to feel or expect with the knowledge that our show runs on the same week.
As if the fear of forgetting our Bahasa Istana-laden lines was not enough, we were now cautioned on possible riots in addition to ensuring our safety at all times too.
May 9th 2018 (Dress Rehearsal night)- also voting day!
Most of us in the cast and crew had just returned from our polling areas. I myself had just traveled back from Kajang after waiting in my millenial Saluran for almost four hours. Admittedly, I almost gave up during my third hour, but thankfully I persevered and made a decision to miss our pre-show dinner and requested an extended calltime to ensure I could cast my first ever vote in before making the drive back to KLPAC, Sentul.
One can say that the staging of Dato Seri was apt and very coincidental with GE14, but with it came its own set of challenges. While we were busy creating this chaotic yet beautiful landscape of Pertiwi (the fictional setting of Dato Seri), our minds were still elsewhere. After each scene we would rush back to our dressing rooms and ask those backstage about which state was won by which party.
“Who is leading?”
“Pakatan Harapan? Are you sure?”
“Okay jap, I have to go for my next scene”
May 10th, 2018 (Opening night)
Unsurprisingly, our director had pointed out the lack of focus in our dress rehearsal and urged us to not let the events happening IRL influence the ‘high stakes’ nature of the play – It was our opening night for Dato Seri and we must not let our guard down.
Well, that was the plan.
Meanwhile, Malaysia was still in limbo, patiently waiting to find out whether the Agong will ever meet Tun Mahathir in Istana Negara.
And then, something magical happened that night.
To those who have attended any KLPAC shows in recent years, you would be aware of the pre-show announcement that requests the audience to stand up to sing “Negaraku’ beforehand. Usually, this request is met with baffled murmurs and, to some extent, cynical amusement as well. But that night, the moment Joe’s voice finished saying “- please stand up for the national anthem”, it was met with audible excitement.
Though we were hidden behind the thick black curtains backstage, the cast and crew could sense the electric energy that permeated Pentas 2. I have never heard an audience sing Negaraku with so much passion and, truthfully, I had to stop myself from tearing up because it was such a powerful moment – I could not see it, but I could hear it and feel it: the Rakyat were so proud to sing Negaraku. T
There was renewed meaning to the lyrics that included the line “Rakyat hidup, Bersatu dan Maju” and upon completion, the audience clapped and cheered at this new sense of pride in light of the political revolution that was taking place not too far from our little theatre space. The sentiment game was so strong that night.
The pre-show Negaraku became my favourite moment every night, with each audience being more and more excited to sing Negaraku (on our second show night, some audience could even be heard saying “Yes!” when the announcement was made).
And then it happened.
It was 9.30 PM, almost the end of intermission when suddenly, random cheering was heard. First, it was just one person, then another, then the entirety of Pentas 2. It didn’t take us long to realise it had happened: Tun Mahathir had been officially sworn in as the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia, ending the 60 year rule of the coalition party, or as it is called now, the Opposition Party.
It was terribly surreal and all we could do was cheer and shout from backstage, that is of course, until our stage manager, Benedict had to intervene to remind us that we are going on stage in 2 minutes. Oh yes, we had forgotten we still had a show to put on. Our characters were supposed to be in the middle of Darurat (the Emergency period) but we were all still reacting to the announcement of Malaysia’s new government.
Playwright and director of Dato Seri, Omar Ali shared his thoughts on that particular moment:
“That was a really crazy night. It was supposed to be a very intense moment in the show, with the great dictator or tyrant now being in power. However, it was the complete opposite with the energy that was caused by Tun M being sworn in just minutes before. There was so much relief and ease and I thought it impossible for the actors to ride over because the audience was in the mood to laugh and celebrate.”
Art imitating life, or…
As each day passed and stories about the previous administration started to unfold, the audience reception to Dato Seri also became more nuanced. Sometimes, the cast would come backstage and wonder why certain lines had received any/more reaction when it had not the days before.
For example, during a tense moment when it was announced that Raja Jayaputera had been murdered, the two Princes, Tengku Mahkota and Tengku Muda would share a moment of grief followed by a discussion of their next steps.
On our third show however, this scene caused a bout of laughter in the audience. A comedy fan myself, I could not identify why the audience found this particular moment so amusing (was it the rule of thirds, on the third night?!). It would later dawn on us that the reason why is because Tengku Muda would suggest that the brothers flee to Seberang & Kalimantan (in Indonesia), and it just so happens that news had broke earlier that day that our ex Prime Minister and First Lady were attempting similar travel plans.
Lead actress, Nadia Aqilah who played Datin Seri shared this on the unpredictable nature of the audience reception,
“I have learnt a lot from this play, and it has been interesting to see how I had to handle the random energy each night. But, I am lucky as well because there was a focus on Datin Seri’s character too, perhaps because she reminds them of someone.”
As a member of the cast, it has been such a curious experience for me to be part of a play like Dato Seri with the backdrop of GE14. Each night, I caught myself catching more parallels between what was happening in the play with what was coming into light in the real world *cough Tiga Nasib cough Bomoh cough*
“In terms of parallels, there is plenty. It makes the play tick, makes it so true to life and so relevant” said Dato Dr. Faridah Merican, who reprised her role as Bomoh and Doktor yet again alongside Ho Lee Ching and Mark Beau. “Dato Seri was current two years ago when we first staged it, due to the fear of what was happening to the country. And it is still so current now”.
Lead actor Redza Minhat, who played the titular character of Dato Seri, had this to say on what he resonated most with in this experience,
“I resonated most with the ending of the play, whereby it is the repetition of a cycle. Dato Seri would enter the play saying ‘Tak pernah ku lihat hari macam ‘ni; Terang gelap, baik buruk, datang sekali’ and this is repeated by the newly crowned King, Tengku Mahkota at the end of the play.
To me, with the current political climate, it is great that we have this new dawn for our country but we have to be careful to note that everything is a cycle”.
Wow, so emo.
Anyways, that’s that! Personally I am excited for what this means for the future of the performing arts, and I look forward to more exciting and bold productions in the coming months and year
(PS. I am free for casting should anyone be inclined).
Hidup Teater Malaysia!