By Anandhi Gopinath
In the arts, there have been partnerships that result in some of the most beautiful work ever made. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) is my favourite in music; the world would be hard-pressed to say director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t create shape-shifting cinematic magic; while composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein changed American theatre. In Malaysia, The Actors Studio co-founder Joe Hasham and playwright U-En Ng are a true tour de force – their work in 2008’s Ismail The Last Days was a unique entry in the ensemble’s portfolio, and their upcoming show Jebat is sure to create the same impact, but this time on a wholly new audience.
Hang Jebat is the lesser known of the notable warrior duo in Melaka’s history, but unlike Hang Tuah, is remembered more for his alleged betrayal to the crown. Regarded as one of the greatest silat exponents in history, Jebat is also regarded as an early anarchist, proving that the ability to question, rather than blind faith, is very much rooted in Malay culture. In the hands of Ng and Hasham, the story changes tack a little as it unfolds the plight of Tuah’s loyalty to his king as opposed to Jebat’s desire for freedom, love and respect.
Earmarked as The Actors Studio’s biggest production for 2023 and boasting nearly 40 performers, this modern reimagining of a Malaysian classic surrounding the life and tragic death of Jebat is set in a post-apocalyptic Malaysia, where constant war and strife abound. The story begins on the eve of battle when Jebat bids his beloved Dayang farewell, knowing he must return, or her life and that of their unborn child will be forfeit. The army succeeds in vanquishing the last of its enemies, but news comes of the death sentence pronounced upon Tuah. Jebat wrestles with the twin desire to avenge Tuah but also to ensure Dayang’s safety. Are the bonds of loyalty unbreakable or is justice the higher calling?
Performed in English, Jebat will see martial arts sequences choreographed by silat master Daniel Nawawi and music that weaves both Western and Eastern influences. Characters are brought to life by an endearingly diverse cast, which is especially appropriate seeing as the show opens on Malaysia Day. The erudite and urbane Ng – a trained lawyer, classical musician and former journalist – weighs in on the show he wrote and the important message Jebat’s character represents in our collective understanding of being Malaysian.
The Peak: Tuah is very famous, somehow, and Jebat is not.
U-En Ng: That is correct, but also, not quite because there seems to be more literature on Jebat than Tuah! Kassim Ahmad wrote a series of articles on Jebat, and the late Usman Awang wrote a play, Matinya Seorang Pahlawan, in which the argument was that Tuah represented the Umno view of things – feudal ideals of loyalty, unquestioning faith and devotion to your leaders. But Jebat, from very early on in Hikayat Hang Tuah, already starts questioning things. When Umno puts out the narrative that these are the qualities of the Malay people, that’s being contested in Hikayat Hang Tuah, which was written two centuries ago. It is very complex and super sensitive. One of the issues of this play was how to write it in a way that is faithful to the original, but nuanced and reflective enough to be relevant in today’s society, given all we’ve gone through.
The dominant political narrative puts forth Tuah as the hero, a paragon of Malay virtue – he is everywhere in Melaka. But in the Malay consciousness, you do see Jebat a lot as well, and there are more plays written about the latter rather than the former.
Where did you get your source material from?
Hikayat Hang Tuah and Sejarah Melayu. Hikayat Hang Tuah is repetitive and quite simplified – the motivation behind why people do things are not very clear as this wasn’t what the author was concerned with. It was written 200 years ago, and the focus was telling an action story. To be honest, there isn’t enough scholarship that is being done on Malay literature from the past, as opposed to, say, Indonesia. What I had to work with was a fragmentary text in Sejarah Melayu and whatever I could find in Hikayat Hang Tuah, where the main Jebat narrative comes from.
How do we take all that an make it relevant to modern day? The whole question of what loyalty is, and who it should be applied to, the different levels of devotion to a cause – that has been a topic of conversation since Merdeka. But no one really questions it, no one interrogates what these things mean. What does it mean to be a good citizen? This question is now dominated by religion, but 15 years ago, it was race. The primary identification markers are shifting, so who are we as a people? Questioning things like Jebat did doesn’t make you disloyal; it means that you’re making a conscious choice of who to believe in.
Oh, that’s interesting!
Indeed. Why is it taboo to talk about disloyalty? The moment someone has an opinion ‘yang bercanggah’ everyone loses their minds! This is not where we started as a nation, and it is definitely not where the Malay people were 200 years ago. In Sejarah Melayu, there is a story about Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang, who was killed because the people thought he was incapable, and it states in the book that this was the right thing to do.
How did you translate all this into a play?
The process of turning it into a whole production is more craft than art (laughs). With Jebat, the kingdom it is set in is never named, a time never specified, so it can be set anywhere and at any point in history, although Joe has chosen the context of a militarised society. I was actually very interested in the two female roles involved in the whole story – the Queen and Dayang, Jebat’s wife. They have a marginal presence but are crucial lynchpins. For example, the queen advised the king during the time Tuah was being banished, for example, and this female-driven narrative was interesting for me to explore and reframe.
You don’t have good drama without conflict, and there’s naturally a lot of that – the Sultan wants to banish Tuah, Jebat’s rebellion and, of course, why all this happens at all. The role of the other characters kicks in at this point as well, so while the story stays true to the original, there have been some creative liberties taken as well. It’s not a retelling but based on the original.
A bit like The Crown, isn’t it? It is based on what happened, but if the viewer wants to know more it’s on them to research it.
Yes, and this was my intention. If this leads anyone who watches Jebat to read the original source material, mission accomplished! Frankly Hikayat Hang Tuah is a huge body of literature that we don’t know enough about. Puteri Gunung Ledang was a wonderful thing – which, by the way, is in the last part of Hikayat Hang Tuah – because it sparked such an interest in Malay literature. But what do we make of this, where do we go from here? People do such brilliant work in the arts but there isn’t enough follow through.
Is now the right time for a play like Jebat and the issues it raises?
Who can tell, really? Jebat and Tuah’s story really gets into the core of the Malay identity, but I don’t know if you need to be Malay in order to learn something from it. I think the bigger question is what it is to be Malaysian, and the timing to ponder that is always good.
Jebat opens today and will run until 24 September at Pentas 1, klpac, Sentul Park, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets are MYR60 and MYR80 each, and are available here.