Shakespeare’s classic comedy lends itself perfectly to the bangsawan form.
In Malay culture, the bangsawan is a traditional opera form performed by theatre troupes, regaling its audiences with epic tales, its scenes both melodramatic and comedic, punctuated by song and dance. While no longer as common in modern day Singapore, the form has found new life during the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), as local company Teater Ekamatra adapts Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a bangsawan.
Directed by Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit and adapted by Ridhwan Saidi, considering its Western nature, Shakespeare may not seem like the immediate choice for a bangsawan. Yet both the Bard’s text and the bangsawan form share multiple similarities. For one, the bangsawan primarily revolves around the lives of nobles, which A Midsummer Night’s Dream fulfils, with its central storyline of four aristocrat youths caught in a complex entanglement of love. Shakespeare’s rich language also lends itself to adaptation, corresponding to bangsawan’s focus on rhythmic verse and evocative metaphors that enliven the performance.
In reimagining the bangsawan form for this production, the team have opted to pay tribute to the play’s original setting in Athens, Greece, by having a three-tiered white, amphitheatre-like set of steps that occupies the majority of the Victoria Theatre stage. This allows the cast to play with levels and separating human from fairy world. In fact, the entire play begins with the fairies, or in this case, the orang bunian, dancing at the very top of the steps as if performing a ritual, casting a spell over the theatre as they commence. When the play moves to the forest, batik banners and wooden structures descend from the ceiling, while projections by Eric Lee are also effectively used to activate our imagination – a white cloth draped over the steps turn it into a screen that showcases a burst of florals when the fairy queen Titania descends the steps, for example.
Of note are Max Tan’s costumes – combining Western haute couture, Malay silhouettes and batik prints, the royals carry an air of grandeur and class each time they step onto the stage, in overcoats and gowns. Conversely, the mechanicals are dressed in scraps of denim and browns stitched together, and give the impression of streetwear, to represent their earthy, more blue-collar nature. And as for the fairies, their costumes are the most ethereal of all, using reflective material as ‘armour’ or glimmering headpieces, wearing bodysuits bearing tribal ‘tattoos’, and even shimmering belts that feel like a more theatrical version of iban attire. In all, these costumes represent the merger of East and West sensibilities, much like how the performance itself mashes Shakespeare and bangsawan.
Bangsawan Gemala Malam‘s strongest suit however, is in its pitch perfect ensemble, led by Aidli Mosbit as director. In many ways, Aidli Mosbit is the ideal person to helm this performance; no stranger to the original text, she has performed in multiple versions of it over her career, developing a relationship with the play and sensitivity to the language and characters. In addition, Aidli has also worked with most, if not all of these cast members before, able to rally them and create chemistry, while also dispensing that same love for the text and bangsawan form to them. All of this is evident from the way her actors handle the script – no words go to waste, every line is savoured and spoken with intent and emotion, and they never miss a beat, every moment of drama felt and each joke landing.
There is nothing easy about performing a Shakespearean text, and to top it off, almost the entire ensemble plays multiple roles each, completely shifting their personality, physicality and acting style for each character. Aisyah Aziz and Munah Bagharib excel as the female leads, the former capturing Helena’s neuroses, while the latter encapsulates Hermia’s girlish innocence and optimism. A highlight to watch is the two going from best of friends to mortal enemies in a flash, with their fight scene near the play’s climax a standout, while the men hold them back from clawing each other’s faces off. Opposite them, Fir Rahman and Irsyad Dawood are respectable as love interests Lisander and Demetrius, both of them exuding a different facet of masculinity that sets the two apart.
But where Fir Rahman and Irsyad Dawood really shine is as Khamis and Sabtu of the mechanicals (who have been renamed according to the days of the week). It is refreshing to see both actors in laugh-out-loud comedic roles, and the polar opposite to Lisander and Demetrius, as they play the mechanicals as more effeminate, from falsetto voices to liberal use of sexual innuendos. Even without many lines, Hafeez Hassan excels as the dopey Ahad, but amidst the mechanicals, it is Rizman Putra as Rabu (Bottom) who milks his role for all its worth. As a diva who will stop at nothing to steal the limelight and get the last word in, he is so absorbed that he is oblivious to his own ego. Even when he has a donkey’s head, Rizman manages to use his voice to showcase lust and enamour, while intentionally bad acting during the play-within-a-play begets even more laughs.
The magical fairies/bunian in Bangsawan Gemala Malam go beyond mere mischief and seem to possess an almost sinister streak to them, acknowledging how in Asian folklore, messing with the supernatural often leads to some form of harm. Leading the fairies is Hatta Said as the temperamental Oberon, glorious in a magnificent gold feathered, winged headpiece, who commands attention when he steps onstage, and stops at nothing to execute punishment when enraged. On the other hand, Shafiqhah Effandi, as queen Titania, carries sass in every step, and encapsulates the very image of a strong, independent woman when standing up to Oberon. Both Hatta and Shafiqhah also double as more ordinary human rulers Teseus and Hipolita, and by virtue of contrast, their roles as the parallel fairy king and queen feel that much more exuberant and outlandish. Finally, Azizul Mahathir (aka drag queen Vanda Miss Joaquim), is a force of nature as Kelembai (Puck), rolling out evil cackles and bordering-on-violent spellcasting, as he flits about the stage, and revels in chaos.
As a form of musical theatre, just about every cast member can also carry a tune, and throughout the performance, audience members are treated to a variety of music genres and matching choreography (with music director Safuan Johari and choreographer Eko Supriyanto). Just to list a few: trendy TikTok dances by the mechanicals; lullabies by the fairies; a soulful ballad by Aisyah Aziz; a romantic duet by Fir Rahman and Munah Bagharib; a disco number by Rizman Putra and Shafiqhah Efandi; silat fight scenes, and even utilising traditional drums from Bloco Singapura, and Bangsawan Gemala Malam is replete with a rich, diverse showcase of Malay musical and choreographic forms.
Even if it is Shakespearean in origin, with its use of language, costumes, stage elements and references, this world of Bangsawan Gemala Malam feels like it belongs firmly in the Malay canon and an original work. In the final scenes, as the set pulls away and the stage lights are revealed, the cast with their costumes off and dressed in black jackets for their curtain call, it feels as if we’ve awoken from a very long dream, the spell has been lifted, and the audience in the theatre has experienced something truly magical together. Along with her cast of some of the best Malay talents in Singapore, Aidli Mosbit has successfully made the bangsawan form feel exciting, relevant and even necessary in 2022, one that would likely make the Bard himself incredibly proud.
Photos Courtesy of Arts House Limited.
Bangsawan Gemala Malam runs from 2nd to 4th June 2022 at Victoria Theatre as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.
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