Dolly Thakore's 'Life in the Theatre'

A Performance in Malaysia

It is not food and shopping that excite me no matter which exotic country I visit….but theatre, art, and people.

Within half an hour of my arriving at Sutra (the Dance school run by Ramli who teaches Bharat Natyam and Odissi to Malaysian, Chinese, Indian residents of Kuala Lampur), I was taken to their National Gallery – a very impressive space and building. But there was not much on display at the time.

In Sutra I saw three batches rehearsing a very refreshing, vibrant energetic Odissi. And I knew I was in the right place.

The next evening their popular actor Sabera Shaik asked if I would like to accompany her to a musical at their National Theatre Istana Budaya. She warned me it would be commercial theatre. But wow, just entering its precincts made me come alive.

I asked for a brochure immediately as the play was in Malay. And like many an amateur group the brochure was not ready even on the second day for its 10-day run. But the over 1000-seater theatre was jam packed…with every sixth person with their head scarf revealing only face -- undeniably expressing their Muslim modesty.

The play was “LAT” – a musical based on the real life story of Kuala Lampur’s contemporary popular cartoonist Dato Mohamad Nor Khalid affectionately called Lat. He was present in the audience sitting behind me and I had the opportunity of talking to him before and after the play. He knew our own Mario Miranda well and portrayed life through his sketches. People queued up to get him to sign his book of sketches which were on sale at the venue.

Written by Harith Iskandar and directed by Hans Isaac and Harith Iskandar, LAT traces the story of the little boy Lat being shouted at by his mother for always scribbling on walls while his father encouraged him by buying him paper and pens; his life at school, his popularity; his courtship, the tensions in their marriage, the neglect of his children as he was always preoccupied with his sketching. And finally the recognition and reconciliation. It was a very linear story sung with great gusto by Kuala Lampur’s talented singers.

There was a cast of over 56 on stage that I counted during one scene. Actor Awie as the grown up Lat, Sandra Sodhy as the teacher Mrs Hew, Atilia as his love interest/wife, local comedian Douglas Lim as his old schoolmate are some of the popular names of the Kuala Lampur stage.. But there was no Shaimak Davar finesse in the body rhythms. Yet Choreographer Pat Ibrahim made people of all ages and size skip, twist, turn, split and stretch.

They had a very accurate subtitle system. Each line of dialogue and song was running simultaneously albeit too high up parallel to the footlights, that I spent all evening reading subtitles and missed the action and acting prowess if any.

But what impressed me the most was the change of sets….from field, to compound, to home, to school, to office, to restaurant. The transition was very swift and every almost 30 seconds. It was smooth and in full view as stage hands shifted scenes and backdrops. But it was seamlessly done.

The auditorium does have a revolving and split level stage. But that is rarely used. The stairs, the foyer, the high ceiling is worthy of a National Theatre.

Sabera modestly confessed: “We do not have groups of performers as you do...we are a disparate bunch of freelancers who work with any theatre company at any time.”

But there is a crying need among the audience for good theatre. And many of our Indian groups have been received with great enthusiasm and affection. When I mentioned Vagina Monologues, there was silence…and no enthusiasm to invite
us there!!