Witty, incisive, and rambunctious, Kee Thuan Chye’s Swordfish + Concubine is an often farcical retelling of two stories from Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) that nevertheless, upon deeper reflection, reveals subtle insights about the current Malaysian society
The play opens with Sri Tri Buana (Qahar Aqilah) and Demang Lebar Daun (Na’a Murad) making a pact. Known to future generations as The Covenant, it ensures a stable, never-to-be-questioned relationship between the rulers and subjects- err, people of Singapura. The actors skilful imitation of wayang kulit movements, besides providing an amusing vision, also serves to remind audiences that this is in fact a retelling of a myth, set in the distant past.
Sure enough, the next scene reveals this to be a story told to by Pak Samad (Alfred Loh) to his son Hang Nadim (Joel Timothy Low). However, the metatheatricality doesn’t stop there – we also have the delightfully candid duo Ris Kaw (Iefiz Alaudin) and Logod (Bella Rahim), dressed in caps, shiny vests, and chains, commenting on the primary narrative. They serve up unapologetic commentary, describe in detail ‘death by impalement’, and predict the death of characters, acting not just as comic relief but also as Brechtian presences, disrupting even the most grievous moments.
Other notable roles are Hana Nadira’s strong-willed, sweet-faced Nurhalisa (the eponymous concubine), Sandra Sodhy’s blunt, no-nonsense Paduka Sri Maharaja, and Qahar Aqilah’s compliant Bomoh. This is not to say that the other performances weren’t standout; the cast is wildly and diversely talented, taking on and adapting to multiple roles so well that it seemed like a cast of fifty rather than twelve.
The script itself is also lean and well-paced, containing thinly veiled allusions to Malaysian politics (although the previous three stagings of the show may differ, having been revised after each staging). Running tropes such as ‘Singapura Can!’, royal authorities fielding questions from journalists, and the legality of permit-less gatherings seem to indicate that although the two-tales-blended-into-one may be set in Singapura, it is very much written for a Malaysian audience.
Furthermore, the drama between characters show how the personal is linked to the political, and the insidious influence of power. Even when Nurhalisa was advising the Sultan on matters of the state, one can’t help but still perceive a sense of manipulation, albeit actually being in the interest of the people this time. All relationships are linked to one another, past decisions snowball into future consequences, and the prophecy, it seems, is inevitably fulfilled.
Yet on closer look, it is human emotions and desires that lie at the core of the play. The dynamic between characters are fluid and complex, the effective dialogue brought to life by the excellent acting. Qahar Aqilah and Amanda Ang, as the concubine’s parents who were later turned to stone, gave particularly powerful performances as they struggle between personal desire and social duty. In contrast, characters like Tun Perpatih Segalar (Arief Hamizan) and Sultan Iskandar Syah (Gregory Sze) may come across as one-dimensional at times, although their portrayals are no less effective or enjoyable for that.
The sets and props are minimalistic, allowing efficient shifting between timelines and places. This also ensures a space wide enough to accommodate the choreography, which is an exciting, funny affair that is an absolute pleasure to witness. The lighting and music (played live by the gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze) further establish various moods and atmospheres. Moreover, these technical aspects make possible those seamless transitions between scenes. Raps, chants, a joget song and a particularly haunting syair round up the musical repertoire offered by the play; while sometimes certain lines are lost in the music or loud dialogue, it isn’t an issue as it doesn’t detract from the audience’s understanding of the storyline.
Swordfish + Concubine is a physical, musical, comical masterpiece, buoyed by compelling performances, effective designs, and a solid script. It never drops the ball, not even for a moment, combining metatheatre, commentary, and historical fables without a single false note. Which is why when a character finally says ‘Something is rotten in the state of Singapura’, it’s easy to understand; it hits close to home, and holds up a reflection to uncomfortable truths in our personal and political lives. The play leaves us with more than the tension of unresolved issues – it also tells the audience, quite simply, that it’s time for the people to rock, yo.
Images by Pam Lim, taken from Facebook
Written by Yee Heng Yeh