Disclaimer: The writer has no formal training in the discipline of theatre, but as they say, those who write, write, and those who don’t, well, don’t. While the writer may not hold expertise in the discipline, he is acquainted with it and understands the term ‘discipline.’ However, his strength lies in writing faithfully. It’s important to note that this writing is not motivated by payment or commission; it represents the writer’s genuine opinion. Please be aware that this piece may contain spoilers.
Awang Sulung Merah Muda is a classical Malay lore (hikayat Melayu), about the life and times of (surprise, surprise!!) Awang Sulung Merah Muda. This story originated as an oral tradition. However, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) has had it written down, as narrated by Pawang Ana & Raja Haji Yahya and also from earlier records from the time of British Malaya, and you can get a copy of it from DBP at a mere price of RM13. (DBP Niaga)
Originally concepted as an oral story, reading alone does not do it full justice. It has to be experienced through the lipur lara tradition of story-telling – something I was able to witness during a 2015 Awang Sulung Merah Muda theatre performance. The show was a final year production by Yusmar Yusof, who, at the time, was finishing his degree in theatre at Universiti Malaya (UM).
Yusmar’s work was not purely in the form of a lipur lara, but blended with theatrical elements and other performance techniques. I found it to be a fresh take that honoured the roots of tradition. It was such a cathartic experience for me that I attended a second staging of the show to watch it again.
The 2015 Awang Sulung Merah Muda theatre show is a top favourite of mine and among the best performances I have ever watched in local theatre. Now, after 8 years, I am delighted that this piece will be staging once more at the National Department For Culture And Arts (JKKN) Seremban, Negeri Sembilan on 13 & 14 October 2023.
This time, the Awang Sulung Merah Muda theatre will be produced by Gerakan Anak Seni, directed by Adieyka Zainal and the script arranged by Adieyka Zainal and Yusmar Yusof.
Naturally, I plan to attend the upcoming Awang Sulung Merah Muda show, hoping that revisiting it will rekindle the same sense of wonder and impact I experienced during the 2015 performance. Simultaneously, I’m aware that with live theater or any live performance, there are likely to be new subtleties and variations, even if the original script is performed by the same cast.
Will my affection for the upcoming Awang Sulung Merah Muda show match my love for the 2015 version? Could it offer an even more profound cathartic experience? Only time will tell, as I have no idea how similar or different the latest rendition will be.
My friend Farahin, who is married to Yusmar Yusof and knows my unwavering enthusiasm for the Awang Sulung Merah Muda theater show, asked me a challenging question when we met last September: “What are your expectations for the upcoming Awang Sulung Merah Muda?” This question wasn’t something I could easily answer on the spot. Initially, due to my deep admiration for the show, I believed minimal justification was necessary. However, after taking some time to reflect, I’ve identified three specific aspects that I believe will bring me a profound sense of catharsis.
The reason I was so profoundly impressed by the 2015 Awang Sulung Merah Muda production, which sparked my ongoing fascination with it, is Yusmar’s exceptional ability to make lipur lara intriguing. Before witnessing the performance, I had my doubts, but I was proven wrong beyond doubt.
For me, the 2015 rendition of Awang Sulung Merah Muda serves as evidence that the lipur lara technique can possess its own unique aesthetics and captivation. This achievement is primarily attributed to Yusmar’s remarkable skill, allowing him to effortlessly narrate the story. Each word he utters seems to conjure a vivid stream of imagery, enabling the audience to visualize his narration.
If I could turn back time and witness that performance once more, I would do it in a heartbeat. Sadly, time travel technology and knowledge elude me. Fortunately, there’s good news as they’ve decided to stage it again.
I’m eager to see the element of narration prominently featured once more. Observing the enduring relevance of the oral tradition, provided it is executed well, and its ability to influence one’s emotional connection to a performance is something I eagerly anticipate. Moreover, in a digital age dominated by technology, the preservation of such a tradition is truly refreshing.
Rather than depending solely on narration, the performance could feature a harmonious blend of theatrical acting, complemented by carefully designed sets, moods, and impeccable lighting, creating a truly amazing experience.
Within the hikayat, there exists an array of magical elements, each with its unique qualities and intended functions. Whether it’s a mystical object, a supernatural being, or an enchanting invocation, all offer a rich source of potential that can be harnessed and brought to life in the performance.
A core principle of magic in Awang Sulung Merah Muda is its purpose of elevating the status of specific characters, typically royalty, by highlighting extraordinary and seemingly impossible qualities. For instance, these characters are portrayed as owning objects that appear to possess the remarkable ability to replenish themselves.
“kemenyan mandung putih berat sekati, diambil setahil, tinggal sekati.”
They also have clothing crafted from unimaginable materials with perplexing characteristics.
“Kain cindai neka selasih,
Jikalau dijemur, bertambah basah,
Jikalau direndam, bertambah kering.”
Weapons possessing formidable powers, such as Awang Sulung’s keris, which can fatally injure a merchant by merely piercing the footprints left when he passed through a particular location a month ago.
Nature is also depicted as having distinct magical qualities, like the description of winds, which are categorized into four types, each carrying human-like attributes. These winds can be called upon whenever Awang Sulung Merah Muda requires them for sailing.
“Nyaru-nyarang nyaru tembaga,
Kedua si hampar rebah,
Ketiga lambing bertelinga,
Keempat Israfil sangkakala,
Angin yang bergambar orang,
Yang mencabut cekur di halaman,
Dan mencabut mali-mali di lumpur,
Dan merebah kerbau di padang,
Dan menyapu nyiur nara di halaman balai.”
The capacity to conjure winds in this manner is one of the demonstrations of magical expertise, setting royalty apart from ordinary individuals. Awang Sulung Merah Muda is depicted as capable of achieving seemingly impossible feats through mere invocation.
Bringing these enchanting elements to life on the stage will likely pose a significant challenge for the production team. Given the inherently impossible nature of this magic, it is, of course, unfeasible to recreate it verbatim. Therefore, the responsibility falls upon the creativity and ingenuity of the director and scenographer to craft a comprehensive visual experience that can leave a lasting impact on the audience, evoking amazement while ensuring that its execution remains feasible and does not jeopardize the entire production.
As a result, I eagerly anticipate observing how this production will diverge in its portrayal of magic compared to the 2015 rendition.
The proper execution of Malay poetry, drawn from the hikayat, encompasses not only the well-known pantun but also other, less-practiced Malay poetic forms such as talibun and matra. Throughout the hikayat, traditional Malay poetry is employed for various purposes: to signify a conversational exchange, to paint vivid scenes or objects, and to enhance storytelling.
Incorporating poetry into lipur lara is crucial for maintaining engaging storytelling. It serves not only as a literary flourish but also as a tool to help the audience remember key elements because certain poetic phrases are repeatedly used as markers for specific occasions.
For instance, when a king issues a decree to his court ministers to summon his subjects, a talibun may be employed as his titah (royal command).
“Pukul tabuh larangan,
Titir canang pemanggil,
Palu gong pelaung,
Menyahut tabuh yang banyak,
Selang-seli tabuh berkeliling.”
The use of talibun, including repetitive utilization to mark specific occasions, can be found throughout the hikayat. This method proves beneficial for storytellers, aiding in the memorization of the story and facilitating adjustments when necessary.
In the hikayat, there is a notable 74-line talibun describing the garments worn by Awang Sulung Merah Muda. Successfully narrating such a talibun while accurately recreating the clothing and accessories would be quite an achievement, offering a visually stunning and satisfying experience.
While pantun is a well-known traditional form of poetry, one should not underestimate the impact of a well-executed pantun versus a plain one. This is especially important in a lengthy exchange of pantun, such as in the scene where Awang Sulung Merah Muda and Tuan Puteri Dayang Nuramah converse before his departure. If not executed correctly, it could render the exchange dull and uninteresting, potentially losing the audience’s engagement.
In the hikayat, some pantun exhibit unconventional rhyme schemes, and some of these have been discussed in a blog article. To use such pantun effectively, it’s essential to deliver them in a way that doesn’t sound awkward when heard.
While the simplest approach would be to avoid using these unconventional pantun, where’s the challenge in that? Furthermore, some of these pantun hold significance, and while one could argue that replacements might not necessarily disrupt the story, they do contribute to its unique character.
Another poetic form employed in the hikayat is mantra. The use of mantra in the hikayat is a compelling example of the assimilation of Islamic influences into pre-Islamic Malay practices. Most of the mantras in the hikayat serve to facilitate the actions of royalty and can be viewed as an exclusive prerogative of royalty or those with significant hierarchical roles in the community.
For instance, when Awang Sulung is about to set sail, he often commands the wind at will, and he also employs mantra to instruct his axe and adze (kapak dan beliung) to autonomously fashion a ship (kakap).
“Hai, ya Allah, ya Saidi, ya Maulai, Tuhan yang sebenarnya, jikalau sah beta raja asal berasal berkat malaikat datuk, nenek, moyang, saka berbaka, bekerjalah sendirinya kapak dengan beliung ini membuat kakap, panjang tujuh depa sehasta, sepeliuk, sepelambai.”
These traditional poetic forms (pantun, talibun & mantra) play a significant role in the narrative of the hikayat. Their incorporation and skillful execution are among the aspects I eagerly anticipate witnessing in this production.
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I’ve elaborated extensively to convey the three main aspects I am eagerly anticipating in this production of Awang Sulung Merah Muda.
Setting aside any bias I may have towards the cast and my deep admiration for the 2015 production, I firmly believe that this year’s production will be another must-see theatrical experience. While I can’t predict exactly what will transpire, based on my knowledge of the production teams, the cast, and their prior accomplishments in theatrical performances, I am confident that they will remain faithful to the essence of this story.
Therefore, I’ve set my expectations as high as possible (awasss!). Even with lofty expectations, I still believe they have the potential to exceed them. Just the thought of it makes me eagerly anticipate the upcoming weekend.
For those who happen to be in Seremban or have some free time on October 13th and 14th, 2023, I highly recommend attending the performance. You’re not obligated to embrace and admire this production in the same way I do, but it’s always worth considering.
And for those who have already purchased tickets, I look forward to seeing you there.
All images sourced from Gerakan Anak Seni and Azam Arifin.