Just as one’s ears prick up for a story the moment one hears the magical words ‘once upon a time’, storytellers of Malay folklore begin their tales with an equally powerful opener – ‘alkesah’, or ‘as the story goes’. And celebrating that long history of oral tradition then, is the aptly titled Esplanade commissioned musical Alkesah, opening the Esplanade’s 2018 Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of the Arts this week.

Zulfadli ‘Big’ Rashid

Written by playwright Zulfadli ‘Big’ Rashid and director Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, Alkesah is a loving tribute to the Malay oral tradition and its canon of folklore, gathering familiar characters in a single ‘kampung’ and imagining how they would live amidst each other. Says Zulfadli: “Alkesah was first conceptualised about two years ago. Alin and I are frequent collaborators, and I always knew Alin wanted to do something related to Malay folklore, so when we were given a slot for Pesta Raya 2018, everything just fell into place.”

Alkesah stars an ensemble cast of some of the brightest stars in the Malay arts scene today, playing characters from some of the most popular and frequently told Malay folktales. Alkesah will also see musical theatre veteran Elaine Chan and renowned vocal coach Babes Conde working for the first time on a Malay production. Says Big: “I wanted to focus on writing the most familiar characters, though there will also be some more obscure ones you’ll meet along the way. The thing about Malay folktales is that they’re actually very sophisticated, and are able to deliver social criticism while still weaving in elements of humour, absurdity and fantasy, and I can tell you, it’s going to be a very fun and entertaining production.”

The story of Alkesah takes place in the village of Kampung Alkesah, where dreamer Mat Jenin (Norisham Osman) has reluctantly taken on the role as village chief. But when the evil witch Nenek Kebayan (Siti Maznah) curses the entire kampung, Mat Jenin is forced to take up responsibility and embark on an odyssey to save his people. Other members of the cast include Hatta Said as village idiot Pak Pandir, Siti Khalijah Zainal as village genius Mak Andir, Muhd Haikal Mohd Jani as conspiracy theorist Pak Kaduk, Jeff Catz as the local hoax shaman, Siti Hajar Gani as ultra-sensitive widow Mak Pekan, and Shafiqhah Efandi as clever mousedeer Sang Kancil. 

On the challenge of writing such a piece, Big explains: “Weaving all these disparate characters and stories together is quite a challenge, because we wanted to give everyone a fair amount of time onstage. But we also wanted all their roles to be important, and not simply come onstage as calefare. There’ve been plenty of sleepless nights and days spent on public transport or while riding my motorbike fretting over this!”

As for Big’s own favourite folklore, he cites Sang Kancil the clever mousedeer as his most memorable one growing up. Big explains: “Growing up, there was a Malaysian channel that would always broadcast this Sang Kancil cartoon, and I think you can still find it on YouTube. It’s a series of tales about Sang Kancil, and he’s being presented as this all knowing character. But at the same time, he’s very flawed, and his intelligence becomes both a blessing and a burden. That made me realise that Sang Kancil was a very lonely character as the most intelligent animal around.”

Being a musical so steeped in Malay culture, we wondered if people unfamiliar with these stories would find them accessible still. Big assures us, concluding: “I think that anyone who takes the time to come down will be both entertained and enlightened. The issues we discuss in the musical are universal, and the characters are people we can relate to and are familiar in our daily Singaporean lives. I write in Malay, but it was never meant for just Malay audiences, and in fact, I think that this really is a production for everyone – adults will also enjoy some of the more politically inclined undertones, and above it all, it will be entertaining.”

Photo Credit: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Alkesah plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 12th to 15th July. Tickets available here. Pesta Raya 2018 takes place from 12th to 15th July at the Esplanade. For more information visit their website  here  

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