We speak to Shafeeq Shajahan, the founder of Liver & Lung Productions, about their newest play 'Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales)', which features characters from local myths – Mahsuri, Pontianak, Bawang Putih Bawang Merah and Puteri Lindungan Bulan. The musical production, staged in a café, tells their stories through the eyes of an autistic boy.
Why did you choose an unconventional setting like a café to stage the show?
As a director, I've always liked immersing audiences in experiences that they aren’t accustomed to. The average Malaysian is quite familiar with the four tales we have to tell. Hence, experiencing an everyday environment like a café transforming into the backdrop for these childhood stories can be truly wonderful and heart-warming. It's immersive, you really feel like you're part of the narrative, and it’s a one-of-a-kind theatrical opportunity that you rarely come by in the Malaysian theatre scene.
Previously you performed at Melt On, and this weekend you'll be in Meteora – both in Subang. Is there a reason why you chose Subang cafés?
The unfortunate thing about performing in small spaces like cafés is that we only perform to small audiences at a time. ‘Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales)’ has great potential and we definitely can see it touring KL and other states as time progresses. We've just decided to start in Subang because we know that a lot of people who watched our show at Melt On wanted to watch it again!
Why are all the tales chosen female-centric?
I made it a point to choose legends that had the potential to be emancipating and innovative. In the play, you see age-old folklore, which are sometimes deeply problematic and sexist, performed in a way that liberates the subjugated characters or criticises their unfair treatment. I’m a strong supporter of the new liberal movement, so it's important to me that I create work that adheres to constructs like equality and feminism. Of course, the musical is performed in a fun and exciting manner... but it's important to make people think as well.
Which local fairy tale character do you think is underrated?
I particularly enjoyed coming up with the story for ‘Pontianak’, the final of our four tales. Everyone thinks of the Pontianak as a nasty vampire, but I strongly believe she is Malaysia's subconscious manifestation of supernatural feminism! In order for a woman to turn into a pontianak, she needs to be pregnant and subsequently killed by a man. In other words, all her femininity is stripped from her and she resurrects as a powerful beast, avenging herself against the men who scorned her. It's bad-ass, it's emancipating, and it stands as a symbol for mistreated women! I've also set the story in colonial Malaya so there are a lot of subtle attacks on post-colonial ideology, which I happen to love.
The main character of the show is an autistic person. Why is this important?
There’s a beauty in seeing things from new perspectives. As teenagers and adults, we’re conditioned to process thoughts in a specific way. Individuals on the autistic spectrum, however, don't adhere to this. Instead, they look at things with a less nuanced and more matter-of-fact manner. Having our main character as an autistic boy on the brink of maturity gave us the opportunity to shed new light on traditional Malaysian conversation topics like marriage, love, family and death. As you watch the show, you really see how our character uses the four legends to develop, grow and see things with a more open mind.
You have a London theatre background, having worked there for some time. What do you think our local theatre scene needs more of?
I don't really like the idea of comparing the theatre scenes in London and KL. Both are very different and I think it's very easy for practitioners who have been exposed to Western theatre to impose their ideas on Malaysian theatre. I've tried my best to respect Malaysian customs and culture when creating this show. That being said, what's really refreshing about ‘Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales)’ is that it's independent, highly innovative and it features young, vibrant talents.
Mahsuri (And Other Peculiar Tales) plays July 30 and 31 at Meteora. For more information visit mahsuri.peatix.com.