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Dreaming in Malay: Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Shakespeare’s Tropical Encounters

02 May
Mon, 12am

by Faris Joraimi

In Shakespeare’s England (1564-1616), the Malay Archipelago was a known place. Having encircled the globe by 1580, navigator Francis Drake established England as one of Europe’s major maritime nations. English merchant-mariners were active in the Archipelago, vying with the Dutch and Portuguese to secure trade with the spice kingdoms of the Moluccas, and the rival Malay powers of Johor and Aceh. It would still be two centuries before the East India Company gobbled up land and capital, laying the foundations for Britain’s empire. Before that, the Malay world was part of a thriving Asian and Islamic market that the Europeans had only begun to access, and in which their role was minor. They were still “a few heretical fish in a Muslim sea.”[1] 

It was a time when Malay rulers addressed the king of England as equals, if not as superiors. Shakespeare was 50 when Iskandar Muda, the sultan of Aceh, wrote James I a sumptuous letter sprinkled with gold declaring his wealth and might.[2] Some salty English sea-dogs had requested permission to set up a trading post in Aceh, to which the sultan politely declined. Nevertheless, the Malay world found its way into Shakespeare’s plays. In Twelfth Night, Maria makes fun of Malvolio’s wrinkled smile as having “more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.”[3] This referred to Edward Wright’s map published around 1599 which added a more detailed depiction of the East Indies (i.e., the Malay Archipelago) than previous maps.[4] The worldly wonder of the Shakespearean moment has been noted by scholars. Consider his theatre, named the Globe; and Puck’s boast, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that he can “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes”.[5]

Given the rich cross-cultural encounters of the period, a Malay adaptation of Shakespeare is hardly peculiar. Bangsawan Gemala Malam is Teater Ekamatra’s second adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The first was Impian di Tengah Musim Panas, back in 2002.) Translation is always tricky business. But this choice of Shakespeare play lends itself well to Malay adaptation, with the spatial opposition between city and forest mirroring the relationship between negeri and hutan in Malay literature. The former, representing the ideal of human activity and civilisation, is distinct from the frightening wilderness inhabited by fairies (pari) and phantoms (mambang). The translator-playwright for this iteration, Ridhwan Saidi, omitted ‘midsummer’ from the title altogether, evoking the story’s starry twilight with gemala malam — lustrous jewels of the night.

Ridhwan also left out the rhyming verse that makes Midsummer such a pleasure to hear and read. Yet the text worked, sliding between multiple registers of Malay: from high palace speech to the colloquialisms of modern Malay urbanites peppering their sweet nothings with “I” and “you”. (Those English personal pronouns used between lovers was a mark of elevated class status.) Instead of poetry, there were lyrical references to Malay rock evergreens, which can be considered their own kind of folk oral tradition. Ridhwan localised the work by drawing on the Malay world’s bountiful spiritscape, where Cupid is Arjuna and Puck is Sang Kelembai. The fairies (with Malay floral names) are now Orang Bunian, invisible forest entities that I was warned about growing up. Only the royal characters (human and bunian) have retained their Shakespearean names, with the Players sporting rustic names that are also days of the week: Isnin, Khamis, and so on. As everyman types, they reminded me of the punakawan, or clown-servants, in the Javanese wayang — foolish and funny, but powerful because they alone could counsel the heroes, thereby bridging the realms of gods and humans. Similar subversions happened here, with Rabu/Nick Bottom (Rizman Putra) being romantically pursued by Titania, queen of the fairies, despite his low status.

As Rabu, Rizman is a masterful physical comic, his spasms and poses in beat with audience reactions. He deftly transfigured the loquacious Nick Bottom into a fast-talking Malay proletariat. Hatta Said lent a booming presence to the roles of Theseus and Oberon, finding an even match in an assertive Titania played by Shafiqhah Efandi. The four young aristocrats were effective in the action and melodrama sequences, but the dialogue occasionally suffered from their stilted command of the formal Malay. As a result, some exchanges were not evenly convincing. Awkward pacing – especially at the start – also beset the performance.

(Photo credit: Tuckys Photography) 


This production was billed as a bangsawan adaptation, and I found myself repeatedly trying to see how it reproduced or innovated the genre. Ridhwan’s script, in using Malay royal titles and palace speech in Theseus’ presence, retains a classic feature of bangsawan based on court epics. Also retained was the “extra turn”, filler performances buying time for the crew to execute elaborate set changes between scenes. In the past, the bangsawan also doubled as a kind of variety show, where performers who weren’t part of the main act danced or sang in the “extra turns” while audiences bought refreshments from nearby stalls. In one of these “extra turns”, Aisyah Aziz gave a sultry rendition of Canggung, flaunting her vocal technique. Her signature jazz-ification of traditional Malay genre-songs, of course, is a matter of personal preference. Maintaining the “extra turn” today has been called into question, especially when set changes can be done much faster and when bangsawan pieces aren’t as long as they used to be.

Music was central to the bangsawan experience. In a 1908 bangsawan performance of Hamlet, characters breaking into song each time they appeared on stage “delayed the proceedings considerably”.[6] Lamentations and exultations were sung to the tune of European or American songs popular at the time, crowd-pleasers for Malays who knew them by heart.[7] One infectiously popular bangsawan tune, Terang Bulan, inspired Malaysia’s national anthem Negaraku.[8] These songs would have been played at dance-halls or brought to Malaya by travelling troupes, with early shellac recordings collected by Asians wealthy enough to own a gramophone. Bangsawan Gemala Malam went for a more contemporary version of musical theatre, with some brief numbers woven into the drama. Dance sequences by acclaimed choreographer Eko Supriyanto, citing TikTok trends, earned delighted shrieks from the young crowd in attendance. Music director Safuan Johari’s sound design, referencing various Nusantaran musical forms, immersed audiences in a distinct sense of place and complemented Ridhwan’s text.

Unencumbered by the visual and stylistic trappings of conventional bangsawan, Bangsawan Gemala Malam makes us consider the place of traditional forms today and the implications of staging them for nostalgia or preservation. Much of the social world that sustained bangsawan as a dynamic form has faded away. Bangsawan was a microcosm of the free-wheeling life of the entrepôt, with its eclectic mix of sojourners enjoying itinerant entertainments. We will never again know that cosmopolitan Malay world: when Chinese nyonyas and towkays, Jawi Peranakans, and Tamils could all understand a Malay drama without surtitles, while “studiously chewing the eternal betel-nut in the stifling smoke-laden atmosphere.”[9]

Bangsawan absorbed popular forms like a sponge, from Hindustani fairy-tales to Chinese romances. It was the medium of bangsawan that first introduced Shakespeare en masse to Malayan society. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice were staples of the repertoire, but none were faithful renderings of the Bard’s work. For in the heyday of bangsawan, before the Second World War, it was ‘anything goes’ to make audiences laugh or bawl. An Englishman named Philip Coote described a typical experience of watching Hamlet in Malayan towns in 1923 as “a screamingly funny experience”.[10] Great liberties were taken with the originals — characters considered superfluous were taken out, and more exciting scenes were lengthened. R.O. Winstedt, the pompous scholar of Malay literature, cringed at the “odd performance, bizarre scenery, strangely translated plot”,[11] but Coote considered the acting “often good” and that it was overall harmless fun.[12]

It was only around the middle of the last century that bangsawan became a more codified genre, but also entered its terminal decline with the rise of cinema. More insidiously, it was co-opted by racial nationalists to glorify the bangsa with adaptations of Malay folklore and legends.[13] Proscribed as a traditional Malay form by the 1970s, the Malaysian and Singaporean culture ministries persisted in resuscitating a genre fossilised by a narrower conception of Malay identity. In the 1980s, bangsawan became a regular item on television, and regained some public appeal as a repository of Malay arts, from literature and dance to traditional music. But it never returned to the mass popularity of the pre-war years.

At just over a hundred years old, bangsawan is actually very modern, and encapsulates the making of a modern urban culture in the Malay world. Its shape-shifting history disturbs its status as a ‘traditional’ art, even though the later version that many Malay grown-ups remember from their youth (and perhaps participated in) was firmly entrenched in that category. Officially at least, Singapore’s IMDA lists bangsawan as a “scheduled arts entertainment” along with other folk genres like Chinese opera, and therefore technically exempts it from being classified with a rating. However, Bangsawan Gemala Malam was rated ‘Advisory (Some Mature Content)’. Perhaps the producers wished to err on the side of caution. With a pre-approved script, this also precluded the possibility of spontaneous ad-libbing that was prevalent in the more classic bangsawan.

In trying to find the ‘bangsawan’ in Bangsawan Gemala Malam, I may have been imposing the same restrictive authority that constrained the form in the 1980s. Bangsawan’s evolutionary arc broadly followed that of modern Malay identity, the expansive fluidity of the pre-war years forgotten in the racial politics of the nation-building era. Already we inhabit a different Malay imaginative moment. If the original spirit of bangsawan is to endure, it must find what entertains Malay-speaking audiences through time. In that regard, there’s little to fault in Bangsawan Gemala Malam, though it is a far cry from what fans of classic bangsawan expect. But what further dislocations do we risk, when the costume designer cannot tell the difference between songket and batik? The dialogue called for the former in one scene, where the actor wore batik. These are two distinct textile arts. The conflation almost reflects contemporary Singapore’s alienation from its regional culture.

What’s always been permitted as far as inaccuracies go are the depictions of foreign lands. No regular bangsawan attendee would have nitpicked the portrayal of Athens, where A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set. It didn’t matter whether Athenians were played ‘accurately’, as exotic locales were part of bangsawan’s regular fare. Approximate cultural symbols sufficed. Malay actors wore their idea of European fashion for Shakespeare: our 1908 Hamlet wore “green plush breeches, pumps and a Cavalier hat”, while Horatio wore “a sergeant’s khaki uniform and football boots.”[14] This connects to a deeper Malay narrative tradition, with its sagas (hikayat) and romantic ballads (syair) involving quests to far-flung destinations like Constantinople and China. As place-holder locations, they reflected extensive Malay trading networks, but also an imperfect knowledge of those places. This wasn’t so different from what Shakespeare did. Many of his plays were set in Italian cities like Verona, Padua and Venice: economic and cultural centres of Renaissance Europe, which Shakespeare himself never visited.

In 1682, a group of Javanese envoys from the Sultanate of Banten saw The Tempest in London.[15] They were likely the first people from the Malay world to see a Shakespeare play. I wonder if they had help with translation. It would have been gloriously flawed, but subversion and assimilation are where the dissolution of power begins. It’s satisfying to picture the British observers horrified by Shakespeare’s mutilation in bangsawan, a “perverse example” of his “world-wide popularity”.[16] Scholar Tan Sooi Beng notes how, excluded from Europeans-only entertainment venues in colonial Malaya, forms like bangsawan became a sphere of creative resistance, experimentation and irreverence.[17] The colonies absorbed the high culture of the metropole, inflicting back a joyful distortion. As popular culture, it was perhaps truer in spirit to performances given in the Bard’s day. Translation, after all, is like poetry, which, as Shakespeare reminds us, “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”[18] Bangsawan Gemala Malam is not A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is invariably Shakespeare.



(Photo credit: Tuckys Photography) 

[1] K.G. Tregonning, The Straits Times, 24 November 1958, “Look at our story from the inside, not from outside.”

[2] Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden Letters: Writing Traditions of Indonesia (London and Jakarta: The British Library and Lontar Foundation, 1991), pp. 34-5.

[3] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (Oxford University Press, 2008) 3.2.73-4.

[4] Ibid, p. 166.

[5] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (Oxford University Press, 2008) 2.1.175-6.

[6] Malayan Saturday Post, 18 October 1924, “Eastward bound.”

[7] R.O. Winstedt, Straits Echo, 14 November 1908, “‘Hamlet’ in Malay.”

[8] Saidah Rastam, Rosalie and Other Love Songs (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2017), pp. 15-33.

[9] Philip C. Coote, Peeps at Many Lands: The Malay States (London: A & C Black Limited, 1923) p. 22.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “‘Hamlet’ in Malay.”

[12] Coote, Peeps at Many Lands, pp. 22-3.

[13] Tan Sooi Beng, Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Malay Opera (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993) pp. 51-2.

[14] “‘Hamlet in Malay.”

[15] Willemine Fruin-Mees, A Mission of Two Ambassadors from Bantam to London 1682 (Jakarta: Yayasan Purbakala, 1900), p. 10.

[16] “‘Hamlet in Malay.”

[17] Tan Sooi Beng, Bangsawan, p. 192.

[18] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.16-7.

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