SUMMARY: The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat‘s 2023 theater production, Jebat, offers a timely artistic reflection on the current state of Malaysia, where political leadership faces a divergence in direction.
Playwright U-En Ng explores the conflict between Jebat’s interpretation of loyalty and service to the King as a symbolic representation of the people’s will and the more literal view embodied by the classic Malay hero, Hang Tuah. Tuah’s ideals represent a historical choice, and in a modern reinterpretation, the play prompts us to ponder whether Malaysia would still align with Tuah’s political philosophy over Jebat’s.
Jebat serves as a compelling mirror to Malaysia’s contemporary political turmoil, but as we dive deeper into this dystopian future, we uncover both its remarkable insights and its occasional missteps.
India has Karna from the epic Mahabharata while China has Sun Wu Kong from The Journey to the West. Malaysia too has her version of an antihero in the form of Hang Jebat.
While the characters of Karna and Sun Wu Kong were written to find redemption, Jebat – a character that was progressive for his time – was unfortunately reduced to the label of “traitor” for rebelling against Malacca’s Sultan Mansur Shah.
Jebat’s character is often exemplified as the height of “derhaka” (treachery) over the past five centuries, based on the 17th-century manuscript, Hikayat Hang Tuah authored by an unknown writer. The highly divisive character of Jebat has however benefitted from more nuanced perspectives in contemporary times, as in Hussein Haniff’s 1961 film, Hang Jebat.
More recently, the legendary Malay warrior from the 15th-century Malaccan Sultanate empire received The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat’s treatment through a Pentas 1 production from 16 – 24 September 2023 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.
U-En Ng’s Jebat reimagines the titular antihero in a dystopian future. In this futuristic setting, Malaysia is under the despotic rule of Sultan Mahmud Shah, following the devastation caused by a nuclear war. It should be noted that in Hikayat Hang Tuah, it is Sultan Mansur Shah who is named as the unjust monarch. This is the most glaring departure from the original narrative.
The main character, Jebat, commands the spotlight, thanks to the remarkable portrayal by Zul Zamir, a Shakespearean actor, who brings a depth to his performance that is often associated with the works of the bard.
Directed by Joe Hasham, the focal point of “Jebat” is undoubtedly the political conflict it presents. Did Jebat’s descent into madness stem from the infamous curse linked to wielding the Taming Sari keris? Or did it result from the dissonance he faced from his comrades, who seemed unable to recognise the moral complexity of Sultan Mahmud’s authoritarian commands, ultimately leading to the tragic death sentence against their esteemed general, Hang Tuah?
The scenes leading up to this conflict were heightened by the skillful set design and dramatic lighting by Yusman Mokhtar, complemented by Paul Hasham’s meticulous attention to detail in set building. Bringing these scenes to life and vividly portraying Jebat’s inner turmoil was Nicholas Chin’s haunting multimedia design.
The main character, Jebat, is well-developed, and the initial scenes provide a deeper insight into his identity as a husband and soon-to-be father. However, his motivations do not seem to follow a consistent thread throughout the production. The additional layers of his character appear to become somewhat lost and lack continuity in later scenes.
In contrast, the character of Hang Tuah, played by the talented Yusuf Amin, comes across as one-dimensional, primarily because there is a lack of context provided for his unwavering loyalty to the sultanate. As an audience member, one couldn’t help but wonder why a character like Hang Tuah would persist in a post-apocalyptic future, where nuclear fallout likely occurred due to poor governance. This absence of a coherent storyline to elucidate the dystopian setting and the rationale behind Hang Tuah’s steadfast commitment to monarchy felt like a missed opportunity.
Keris-making, a fading art in contemporary times, continues to serve as the weapon of preference in Jebat, even though the possibility of more advanced weaponry exists. However, the rationale behind this choice is not adequately clarified in the narrative. It’s worth mentioning that crafting a keris involves a combination of iron, nickel, alloys, and fragments of meteorites—resources that might be challenging to procure, especially in a dystopian future. Moreover, the process demands a substantial number of skilled craftsmen.
A more in-depth exploration of the backstory that solidified the bond between Tuah and Jebat is another aspect that was overlooked.
Interestingly, despite the futuristic setting, the characters of Jebat and Tuah seem confined by narratives that feel more suited to the 15th-century Malaccan Sultanate empire.
What truly redeems Jebat, however, is the authentic and mesmerising score composed by Siu Yee and Eugene Chong. The silat and martial arts sequences, executed by Silat Master Danial Nawawi and martial arts expert Keith Toh, added a convincing layer to the action. These elements were further enhanced by the dance choreography of Zhafir Muzani and striking costumes designed by Wendy Kwek.
The staging of Jebat offers a timely artistic reflection on the current state of Malaysia, where political leadership faces a divergence in direction.
Despite some shortcomings, the play effectively conveys the central lesson of the Jebat and Tuah legend: Blind anger and unwavering loyalty fueled by dogma ultimately lead to destruction.
Cover image supplied by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat.