Wednesday, 29 September 2010

(Not Quite) A Tribute to Dr Mahathir

When I first got word about this assignment, I was quite... nervous. At first I thought they were sending Andrew Sia for this one. At the time, I felt I didn't command the vocabulary or the experience to do it justice.

Now that it's out, I'm so relieved, and I don't want to continue with this preamble.

A tribute to Dr Mahathir
Muzikal Tun Mahathir marks the milestones in the former premier's life.

first published in The Star, 29 September 2010

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the only Prime Minister my generation knew when we were growing up. We don't really need reminders of just how important he is. The tributes to him, since he left office in 2003, have been almost ceaseless. So we should have seen this coming.

The staging of Muzikal Tun Mahathir was said to coincide with the Merdeka month and Malaysia Day celebrations. The story starts from Tun's birth and highlights include life during the Japanese Occupation, his medical school days, meeting and marrying Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, running Klinik Maha, writing The Malay Dilemma, his time as Prime Minister, and his "departure" from politics. The production ends with an ageing Tun lamenting the Malays' need for crutches, and his vow to continue the struggle.

The production is, if I read correctly, a tribute to the man; the producers wanted to stage a theatre piece about a national figure who's still alive. Tun's letter is reproduced in the programme as a stamp of approval. "I have no objections to plans for a musical about me," said Tun in the letter. "My only hope is that it's based on fact."

And they just had to have a Mahathir family member in the cast: Tun's youngest son, Mazhar, who plays two minor roles.

Let me clarify: I'm no fan of Tun's, but that's not why I didn't like the musical very much. It looked like Istana Budaya had huge aspirations for the play, judging from the casting, the grand set pieces, and flashy computer graphics projected against a big white backdrop. To the average Joe, it's just another lavish, star-studded piece of populist theatre.

Many of the 27 chapters (says the programme) of the over-two-hour musical representing the milestones in Tun's eventful life were so short, they could have probably done without them. For instance, did they need to have the actor playing Tun Razak giving a speech on why the New Economic Policy was needed back then? All that's probably in our bones.

Then we have scenes like the one that featured megaprojects such as the Sepang F1 Circuit, KLCC and Putrajaya, and Tun's devastated supporters at a nasi kandar restaurant who tuned in to his teary 2002 announcement.

Got a copy of the programme? Just look at the lyrics to some of the songs. Imagine "The Tun is great!" being tattooed onto each little grey cell in one's brain.

The main cast members didn't look like they were being challenged by their stage roles. Erra Fazira played Dr Siti Hasmah quite well, never mind my suspicions she was also a popular choice.

I felt a bit sorry for Datuk Jalaluddin Hassan; the man has a huge presence, but was cast as Tun's father, who didn't get a lot of lines or stage time.

The actors playing Tun from childhood to adulthood seemed quite convincing. Esma Daniel in particular was very much the Dr M I grew up watching on TV – right down to the drawl and mannerisms – during a "live telecast interview" with Misha Omar as a journalist.

The dialogue and jokes, with a mix of rather contemporary English and Bahasa Malaysia, certainly made the production more enjoyable. Tapi, pada tahun 60an dan 70an ada orang pakai ke, "U" and "I" (But in the 70s and 60s, do people say "U" and "I")? Ada Poslaju ke (have Pos Laju) in the late 1960s? Thanks to the strong background music and the speakers' powerful reverbs, it was hard to make out the dialogue, lyrics or punchlines, which was a real shame.

The programme book does highlight the featured parts of Tun's life but does not describe the lesser-known characters. Mohd Qhauhd Abd Rashid, for instance, plays this "Aziz" character, but there is no further mention of who "Aziz" is.

Not all the chapters were properly explained, either. The only clues to what Chapter 26: "Peak Dance Drama" supposedly depicts, with its arm band-tearing and keris-waving, came later from Wikipedia. The on-screen dates seemed to coincide with the terms of Tun's three deputies: Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim.

Nor was the night trouble-free. In a chapter about a covert, late-night anti-Malayan Union poster plastering, a piece of one of the fake columns broke off and fell onto the stage as it was being lowered. Nobody was injured, but I was sure plenty of nervous glances were directed at the ceiling thereafter.

When Misha took the stage to deliver one last song, the amplified vocals spluttered, and died about halfway through. But Misha didn't quit. She rose to the occasion by singing anyway, her unamplified voice barely audible from my seat. The audience applauded.

Misha boleh!

Finally, one of the stagehands gallantly offered her a microphone so she could finish the song.

When the cast took their bow, the applause for Misha was among the loudest.

I guess, in the end, the musical is not really about Tun Mahathir, but about a bunch of artistes and stars, and Istana Budaya giving their all for a good night's entertainment.

There were technical errors and onstage glitches, but everyone did their best to keep the show going until the curtains fell. That spirit, at least, is worthy of support, regardless of how one feels about the man.


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