George Town Festival's play 2 Houses drove home the ideals of family and national identity.
It was a fine December night in 1941 Penang.
War may have been the talk of the day but on this particular night, it was seemingly quiet. Danger and doom seemed distant, almost absent. The enemy from the North may very well be en route but it mattered not.
For today was a day of celebration. Festivity was ripe in the air. The guests, all adorned and well, clinked their glasses of sweet wine and chattered about merrily.
The topic on everyone's tongue was the magnificent Heah-Gate Mansion, in whose grounds they were all gathered. The edifice, the Heah's symbol of power and generational wealth, stood majestically like a crown jewel. It was the pride of this family.
The masters of the house were nowhere to be seen but the servants kept the guests entertained with more wine and finger food.
Then some beautiful music began, first the grand piano, then the cello and finally the elegant lady in red.
She took the microphone and started her bewitching song. Like the hands of a lover, her voice caressed all those who were listening.
It's George Town nineteen-forty-one! And away ho the sea winds blow, there's never no telling how low you'll go. But hey ho let the boat go home, there's never no telling how far you'll roam.
Thus began the ambitious production 2 Houses, which was the most talked about play of the George Town Festival 2014. The play opened on Aug 28 and closed this month-long arts festival in Penang on Aug 31.
Written and directed by Singaporean thespian Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua, this specially commissioned play boasted an ensemble of 12 actors, four of whom were non-Malaysians. The cast featured Dawn Cheong, Alfred Loh, Kee Thuan Chye, Grace Ng, Peggie Ng, Bright Ong, Iedil Putra, Lian Sutton, Linden Furnell, Pavan Singh, Seong Hui Xuan and Matt Grey.
The two-hour play 2 Houses follows the tale of the two families, whose forefathers became the closest of friends on a boat to Penang from China in the 1800s. They became blood brothers and over time, prospered and built two houses on Northam Road.
The love and friendship between the two families diminished over time as one family, Heah's family, grew and prospered beyond measure by helping the British colonials. The only connection between them is the betrothal of Heah's son and Im, a humble girl from the other family.
All this occurs over the backdrop of an impending Japanese attack. Pearl Harbour was beleaguered just two days before our story began and unbeknownst to our characters, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sank that very afternoon.
This sets the stage for the unfolding drama but there was no stage per se to begin with. This is the allure of 2 Houses for the story is set in the Soonstead Mansion along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in Penang. The audience got to follow these characters around the grand mansion, from the grand hall to the servant's quarters and even the balcony.
Being a site-specific production, those present were immersed in an actual mansion, hearing the sounds of the street outside or the waves behind the building. The audience was afforded another layer of experience which conventional theatre, more often than not, can't. We got to be voyeurs, prying into the private lives of the different characters and for once, we did not have to feel guilty about it.
If anything, voyeurism was encouraged for such is the nature of an immersive and site-specific play (with an audience of less than 90 people). You had to be in the thick of it all.
"Because you are right in the midst of the situation, it evokes more emotion. I had to hold back my tears on many occasions and I don't think that would have happened if it was on stage," said Anna Yap, an audience member.
Her friend, Susan Chyntana, found the whole experience of moving from one room to another exciting and was thrilled that she was part of the action.
Imagine you walked into your neighbour's home to find them arguing heatedly. You want to leave but the "scene" before you is just too juicy to abandon.
You stand by the wall and just watch it all happen in front of you. That's exactly what 2 Houses allowed the audience to experience.
Of course, the play was more than a peep show. It dealt with the effects of colonialism, the struggle for independence, survival, separation of class, the turbulence of the soul and the inevitable predicaments of life.
Watching it on National Day made the underlying message even more potent. "The story is essentially about growing up, from the colonial powers who had to grow up and realise that their time had come and each of the characters who had to go through a process of growing up," said Alfred Loh, who played Khean, Im's brother.
As a fictional tale, 2 Houses is inspired by true stories that theatre veteran Lim Yu-Beng listened to as a child. In his script, he also added a collection of tales from Penangites. It managed to capture the individual yearnings of the people who lived through the colonial-era and the Malayan Emergency, from the rich to the poor, fictionalised though they may be.
When writing the script, it was important for Lim that the story worked on a human level. He reckoned following the human impulse is very crucial for any story and wanted to avoid his actors playing symbols.
"Sometimes, it's very easy to get wrapped up in the larger picture on a socio-political level and we forget it actually boils down to human beings," said Lim. "The story also seeks to find parallels and when we break these to microcosms of humanity and just look at the scene, sometimes you see things more clearly."
This was nowhere more evident than in the lives of the servants and the underdogs. Some pursued progress and some joined the Malayan Communist Party. In their own way, they did what seemed right for the country and the people's independence. "That's what drew me to the script, the romanticism of finding one's land. Geographical belonging is a very irrational emotion and I just wanted to explore this poetic journey that my character takes," said Bright Ong.
In the final scene, which takes place seven years later, just six months after the state of emergency was declared, Ah Yat (played by Ong), the loyal servant boy who was dismissed by the patriarch of the family and went on to join the communists, sneaks into the mansion and threatens to shoot those who stood in his way.
Singh, an inspector, tries to reason with the troubled young man and uttered these powerful words: "If you are looking for an enemy, you will always find one."
Everyone in the cast embodied their characters wonderfully and stunned the audience with their raw and powerful performance. Being up close with the audience can be daunting for their every move is watched and scrutinised.
The actors, then, are no longer performing but being their character, which means subtlety is a requisite and larger-than-life personalities - unless required by the script - are a big no-no.
There were many things that made 2 Houses a delight to watch and chief among them is the underlying message. It was not overtly driven in and neither was it preached. If anything, the time of the colonisers, whoever they are, is over and as Im aptly put it, "we will find our way."