Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Aduhai, Bangsawan!

This posting about bangsawan is not meant to hurt anyone. It contains my honest observations and feedback. I plead the Fair Comment clause.

10 friends and I watched the Malay Opera, Raden Mas Bangsawan last night. Some were surprised that I supported the opera managed by the same people who cut down my mango tree and wanted to change the name of my childhood home after the non-existent Bendahara of Singapore. Since I support local artists and the Arts, I decided to watch the opera that was touted by its director and producers to be “as good as Puteri Gunung Ledang musical, if not better” and one that they wanted to stage at Sydney Opera House. Naturally, I had high expectations for Raden Mas. Here are my observations (your opinions may differ but hey, in order to showcase on the world stage, one needs to accept criticisms with grace, n’est pas?):

1. For a first time perfomance, it was overall not bad. I enjoyed it. Good effort everyone!

2. I see huge talents in some of the performers, especially the young leads. The Storyteller was classy. Shahirah (Raden Mas) had an enchanting voice. Hafiz Yusof, glad to see you mature since MOE audio recording days! The boy who played Tengku Chik showed potential. Marina Yusoff was, as always, wonderful.

3. Music was well done, though at certain points, the percussions were a tad loud that I couldn’t hear the singing. Kudos to Dzul the music director and his team. However, I'm wondering, why sell the CD way before the opening night? It was not a good marketing strategy as it diluted the mystery of the bangsawan.

4. Is it a bangsawan or a musical?

5. The actors in Temasek (Singapore) spoke in Riau Malay and sometimes in Baku. It’d be better to be consistent.

6. Set design was amateurish and looked like a high school set design. What’s with the roman pillars in a 16th century Javanese royal’s residence? The stones looked like paper marché blocks, the trees looked like they had been struck by lightning. And does the Esplanade allow burning on stage (I smelled kemenyan/incense during the pawang scene)? 

7. Some of the costume seem as though they came straight from a bridal shop. 

8. Choreography – Javanese dancers in the royal court are refined and the dances are definitely not the jaipong sort (that emphasizes hip movements and fast steps) that I saw last night.

9. Storyline could have been tighter and less draggy. Some scenes could be removed or shortened. Why did the Kediri warriors appear so suddenly on two occasions (the beach and at the palace)? 

10. I understand the need for creative licensing but the story is based on historical events, hence the story needs to be as accurate as possible. What’s with the ‘royal priest’ (pendita who was marrying Tengku Bagus and Raden Mas)? The story is believed to take place in 16th century Southeast Asia. I’m not sure about this but I don’t believe people then were such staunch Muslims that the scene where the pendita insisted on Raden Mas’ wali to be present was reasonable. Was that scene especially made for the playwright to be featured and have his airtime?

11. What’s with Maleficent? The depiction of the ‘evil thoughts’ as a horned Maleficent-like-creature is not original. There are a lot of Asian evil mystical characters that can replace the two Western Maleficents in their red and black gowns.

News of cast and crew being dropped (or resigned or fired?) before the show even commenced was not good publicity for the bangsawan. It was also unfortunate that less than half of Esplanade Theatre was filled during its three day run. Pegging the ticket price at such an exorbitant price was a bad move. Slashing the price for all seats to a low $50 on the third day was unfair to those who have bought tickets in advance. It was also unwise not to have the Esplanade as a venue sponsor. If the Esplanade were a venue sponsor, Sri Mamanda Bangsawan wouldn’t have to pay the very high rental fee. I am not sure if the company even made any profits judging from the attendance. Then how can PPIS, the beneficiary charity, get any money?

I also heard (hearsay, not confirmed) that remuneration for the performers is based on ticket sales. I really hope this is not true as that would be an unfair deal to the performers who worked hard throughout last year. If the hearsay is true, then I’m afraid there might be legal suits. Hais… 

I don’t think that Raden Mas Bangsawan is ready to be showcased in Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, what more in Sydney Opera House or Royal Albert Hall in London. It doesn't even come close to Puteri Gunung Ledang (PGL). PGL is in a league of its own. Next time, don't brag before your first performance because it backfires now. The team must come together and iron out some issues, before bringing it overseas. After all, we want the bangsawan to be really good and well received by international audience.

I applaud the intention of bringing back this dying (dead) form of Malay performing arts. I especially enjoyed watching bangsawan when they were broadcast on TV. I was fascinated by the stories told by the late Hamid Ahmad, the father of the bangsawan (he was my dad’s good friend). I even wrote about bangsawan in my Malay Culture book. It is my sincerest hope that Raden Mas Bangsawan could go global. But before that, the company needs to recalibrate and consider all comments as constructive and not deem them otherwise and be on the defensive.

Finally, I disagree with the Producer of Raden Mas who said, “The theatre must be carried on as a business or it will fail as an art.” Dude, perhaps you should just concentrate on your restaurant business since you know nuts about the performing arts. Bangsawan theatre is first and foremost, an Art. Even culinary cuisine is an Art. They are never business first.

*photo of bangsawan in early 1900s

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