It has been a long time since I watched a big-stage drama. Nothing quite like the emotions stirred when a full orchestra starts its Overture, when the ensemble comes on, the lights, the sounds, the spectacle, the epic of “Ratu Kuning Langkasuka” held recently at Istana Budaya (National Theatre).
“I started to cry,” said Silviana Ana, a Rumanian expatriate working in Malaysia, “because I remembered how powerful live theatre is. How exciting, intimate, immediate, and how much I missed it.”
Shanthini Venugopal, veteran arts practitioner extolled: “The music, orchestra, costumes, staging, production value, lighting, dances, and acting were SUPERB!”
Ratu Kuning is essentially a love story between the “Yellow Princess” of the Patani Kingdom and the Prince of Johore (Yang Dipertuan Muda Johor).
Set against the backdrop of Patani and Johore, it depicts a love challenged by dark, evil forces of black magic and sorcery. The execution of this dance drama is based on a storyline written by the director, Sabera Shaik, and showcases the theatrical skill, experience, and talent of a veteran theatre doyen.
Take the ingenuity of transforming a beautiful seductress into an ugly witch on stage. Shaik accomplished this by depicting two different women in a dance sequence. In a dramatic scene, when the witch is exposed and her ugliness revealed as if by true magic, gasps of surprise could be heard from the audience.
The use of a screen projection to accentuate the stage scenes was especially powerful and brought forth the magical aura of the performance. Audiences were kept enthralled by the brilliant and evocatively choreographed solo dance of Ratu Kuning by Tristen ZiJuin.
The ingenious scenes in Ratu Kuning were enhanced further, by the accompanying music of the Orkestra Tradisional Malaysia (Malaysian Traditional Orchestra) and Orkestra Simfoni Kebangsaan (National Symphony Orchestra).
The experience was, however, marred by the unsuitable sound levels. The melody transition between scenes was not seamless and it felt as if more rehearsal time could have helped to improve this aspect.
Seeing that the quality of the music was brilliant and of professional standard, I believe the dance drama could have been described as world-class, if not for several factors that struck me as requiring improvement.
One of them is that the stage set appeared to be under-utilised, especially in a venue such as Istana Budaya, where one would expect to be better equipped in terms of high-tech facilities – projection mapping, massive moving stages, and all those extra dimensions, optical illusions, etc.
My biggest disappointment was to see the array of empty seats – in a space that could seat more than 1,400 members of an audience.
With such a large marketing department, where was the social media – the TikTok, Instagram, Facebook promos, and Whatsapp flyers to forward, as well as Youtube videos and mainstream media articles?
Why was there not even one small paragraph of synopsis in the English language for the benefit of expatriates and tourists residing in Malaysia, who may not be versed in the national language but have the interest to partake in supporting the local arts and culture?
“Luckily I found out about “Ratu Kuning” from a friend,” says Brazilian expatriate, Roberta who had only just arrived and was looking for an immersion into Malaysian arts and culture.
“If I had known I would have gone,” said 25-year-old Justin Errol who is down on holiday from studies abroad. “And told all my friends to go.”
“You know it would have helped to have just one small paragraph of synopsis in the English language, in the elaborate program brochure that was produced.” says expatriate, Rita Dutta, who said she loved the dance drama in spite of that.
“The ensemble was good. But what really connected was the solo performance, which had the poignancy, heartbreak, and pain (of the story) come across. Yes, that was really good,” she said.
To me, Ratu Kuning, as a premiere dance drama produced by Malaysia’s National Theatre, did not quite live up to the expectations, mainly due to the limitations of the “National Theatre.”
And so I spoke to the director, Sabera Shaik, on what learnings we can glean from this. After all, she was the one who had written the story for “Ratu Kuning” and worked hard to make the dance drama reach the hearts of the audience.
“We need ‘thinking’ dancers. The audience does not want to see what they have always been seeing, the same old moves. Look at global dance today – how innovative, edgy, and most of all surprising! That’s what I tried to harness during the rehearsals. To explain that dance must come from inside of yourself, from your soul and improvisation is the most important tool a dancer can use,” said Sabera.
She added that time played an important aspect too, and this helps dance drama actors to develop emotions that reach out to the audience. Sabera revealed that while international theatre companies usually took years to hone their performance shows, Sabera began directing Ratu Kuning in June 2022.
“We need (more) time. In a dance drama, we need emotions. And there was not enough time to work on emotions; to work on connecting the dance with the music; all those necessary fine-tuning required if one wanted an international standard,” she said.
Sabera felt that working from an audience’s point of view and going as far as recording a video of the performance from the audience’s perspective could have helped to vastly improve the overall production.
She added that it is also important to discard the “institution mentality”, which emphasised hierarchical dominance over creativity.
“When I direct I explain at every level …the whys and hows. But if you have a closed mindset and purposeful disregard the artistic process, you can miss out on nuances and learnings,” she said.
Ultimately, Sabera considered that theatre management in Malaysia still had much room to improve in terms of showcasing arts and culture for both local and international audiences.
Based on this, I concluded that it would be a tragedy for Istana Budaya, Malaysia’s “palace of culture”, to become an anachronistic emblem of commercial musical concerts, left behind in a world that is forging ahead with powerful theatre, arts, and culture.
Malaysia is such a glorious potpourri of cultures and represents a diversity that the world is craving to discover – our cultural institutions need to do better to highlight this treasure or risk being forgotten.
Cover image supplied by Sabera Shaik.