5 Theatre plays about Malaysian politics that’ll make you #woke

What a fascinating time to be Malaysian. Mahathir’s back as opposition leader, Anwar’s set to be released from prison, #undirosak and left wing groups have gained support, and Najib’s hinting that the next election is coming faster than you can say ‘Pakatan Harapan’. So much drama in our local politics!

Speaking of drama, there’s actually also a lot of politics in our local theater scene! In fact, Malaysia has a very healthy history of politically themed theater productions, ranging from plays decades ago to more recent productions.

1) 1984: Here and Now (Kee Thuan Chye, 1985)

As you can probably tell from the title, Kee Thuan Chye’s 1984: Here and Now is loosely based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. First shown in Malaysia in 1985, it was never shown again… until 2016.

The poster for the 2016 run of 1984: Here and Now. Image from The Star

It tells the tale of Wiran, a journalist angry at the oppressive government, who joins an underground society trying to change things for the better. There, he meets Yone, and begins a relationship despite the government’s strict rules against ‘interracial’ relationships. In the end however, he gets caught and government officials torture him until he submits to their ideals.

You can watch a segment of it below:

If you recognise that plot because you’ve read Orwell’s 1984, congratulations, that makes one of us. Penned by Kee at the beginning of Mahathir’s mid-80s plans to regulate press freedom in Malaysia, it was a way to channel his frustration at being unable to write politically and racially ‘sensitive’ while working as a journalist for New Straits Times. Orwell’s 1984 has the overarching theme of class, whereas Kee uses race to make the plot more relatable to the common Malaysian.

It may be a while more before we see 1984: Here and Now on stage again; the only show in Malaysia after it’s 1985 run was  over two decades later. However, you can also opt to buy the book, if you’re able to find a copy on sale.

2) The Baling Talks (Five Arts Centre, 1997)

Quite literally a bunch of people reading a transcript – dramatically, of course – The Baling Talks also by the Five Arts Centre takes us back in time to 1955, during the height of the Malayan Emergency. It’s pretty much a dramatic reconstruction of the actual 1955 Baling Talks held in Baling, Kedah in 1955.

There isn’t much of a script either; the dialogue is based on transcripts of the actual discussion between Tunku Abdul Rahman, Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall and Chin Peng. It’s a time capsule for audiences to experience being part of a meeting which played a huge role in determining the fate of Malaya, Singapore and the Malayan Communist Party.

The Baling Talks has been shown in various places now, with shows already held in the UK, Germany, Korea and TTDI. One performance of The Baling Talks in Singapore even had Nurul Izzah Anwar playing a role in it.

Those wanting explosions and sex scenes may need to watch something else however, as this is one for the history buffs. It explores how opposite ideologies, dogged politicians and dirty politics come together for probably the most intense war of words in Malaysian history.

3) Atomic Jaya (Huzir Sulaiman, 1998)

What happens when Malaysia decides to manufacture nuclear weapons?

That’s the central question in this political satire by Huzir Sulaiman. Physicist Dr. Mary Yuen gets a ‘dream’ job at Atomic Jaya Sdn Bhd, tasked with building Malaysia’s first atomic bomb. Atomic Jaya isn’t the best of workplaces to say the least and she listens to her gut and sabotages the plan.

Researchers at Atomic Jaya, in full uniform. Image from Checkpoint Theatre

Simple premise, yet a tonne of laughs. There’s literally everything from uranium smugglers to bumbling ministers and even Dr Yuen shooting gamma rays at basmati rice and prawns. Now I don’t know about you but I like my seafood briyani without the nuclear fallout.

As crazy as it sounds tho, Atomic Jaya isn’t entirely one man’s imagination. Huzir was going thru a list of government agencies when he found the Malaysian Institute of Nuclear Technology Research, tasked with preserving rice and prawns of all things. Moreover, in the 1990s, Malaysia had numerous megaprojects such as the Petronas Twin Towers and the Bakun Dam.

If you can’t wait for another run of Atomic Jaya, you can also get a copy of Huzir Sulaiman’s collected plays, which has Atomic Jaya included.

4) Tok Ampoo (Hishamuddin Rais, 1999)

Angrily, the government official asks the citizens, “Why do y’all believe the opposition’s lies and not mine?!” – from Tok Ampoo

A staging of Tok Ampoo. Image from Pohonbintang.wordpress.com 

Tok Ampoo (The Apple Polisher) tells the tale of corrupt government officials who abuse their power for their own benefits. These tok ampoo also protect their own status by pleasing their seniors, with each official shining the shoes of those above the political ladder. Eventually, the working class have enough of it, and overthrow the corrupt government, with the toppling of a literal ladder.

Here’s our editor’s peon with Hishamuddin (left) himself.

It was made by Hishamuddin Rais and Zunar as an allegory of the political situation in 1990s Malaysia, where despite the elections that happen and supposed democracy and liberty citizens have, corruption and cronyism remained rife among the political elite.

With its theme of revolution of the working class over the elite, it’s no surprise to learn then that performances of Tok Ampoo are rare and often banned by the authorities. As such, let’s just say you shouldn’t hold your breath in hope of watching it anytime soon.

5) Kandang (Omar Ali, 2017)

Orwell makes a second appearance here, with Kandang being a Malaysianised version of Animal Farm. 

The cast of Kandang. Image from TimeOut

Our favorite characters from the original such as Napoleon and Snowball are given Malay names instead, Tunggal and Bintaga in this case. There are also references to contemporary Malaysian culture as well to make it more relatable for the audience.

The plot itself is largely the same however, with the animals on a farm leading a revolt against the oppressive farmer in charge. The pigs in charge soon realise the power that they wield tho, and turn corrupt and abusive in the process, becoming what they sought to overthrow in the first place.

If you’re curious, you can watch the trailer for Kandang below:

Kandang Trailer

“Apakah lumrah kehidupan kita?" Tiket Kandang sudah boleh dibeli! #kandang #animalfarm

Posted by The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) on Friday, 7 July 2017

Director Omar Ali also co-wrote and directed Dato’ Seri in 2016, a Malay-language adaptation of Macbeth which also has its fair share of political commentary. But if you aren’t familiar with Macbeth, don’t fret because…

Bonus: You can watch Dato’ Seri in May 2018!

Yep, Dato’ Seri will be restaged in Klpac from May 10 -13 on a very limited run of only 4 shows:

Show 1-3: 10th – 12th May 2018 @ 8.30pm
Show 4: 13th May 2018 @ 3pm

Head over to the event page to get your tickets while you’re still #woke !