In Kandang, Orwell's Animal Farm reeks of Malaysian politics

Thor Kah Hoong Asila Jalil

Omar Ali is the playwright and director of 'Kandang’. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, August 8, 2017.

THAT George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is political satire is the accepted view. That it has been translated to a Bahasa Melayu play called “Kandang” is relevant to current times.

And also rather explosive.

The play opens at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre tomorrow and runs till Sunday. It is adapted by the son-and-father team of Omar Ali and Muhammad Ali Hashim.

Like the book, “Kandang” explores the use of power by both humans and animals but there are light and local touches, including a new character, Jalak, a flamboyant rooster who also acts as the narrator.

Omar is an established hand in local theatre while Muhammad Ali is the polished government man who headed the successful state-owned Johor Corporation for 28  years before leaving several years ago.

Omar, the playwright and director, put it succinctly about the collaboration with his father.

“My father (Muhammad Ali Hashim) wanted to explore the themes of amanah, responsibility. Most of the time when we talk of leadership, we talk of power, the trappings of power. But we never talk of accountability, responsibility,” he told The Malaysian Insight recently.

That was the theme of “Datuk Seri” last year, the first collaboration of father and son, when they based it on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

In that play and without much prompting, many felt a resonance and local context in the tale of weakling Macbeth egged on by his power-obsessed wife to seize power?

And it is evident again in their second effort, “Kandang” (cage/animal pen) based on Orwell’s “Animal Farm”?

Before one even gets to the theme of how the Seven Commandments of Animalism in the novella with its first principle: All animals are equal, get shredded as Napoleon and his cronies purge their rivals and smear their reputations, ending in the commandment: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, there is the in-your-face presence of the lead characters, who are Pigs, Babi!

Omar’s response to the potentially provocative use of bovine lead characters: “We did have concerns. For whatever reasons, this word, this animal is such a loaded thing. We can understand the sensitivities, though we may not agree with them.

“Why are they such terrible animals? Is it impolite to say ‘babi’?

Haram (forbidden) to the max. And the script (in Bahasa Melayu) uses the explosive “babi” instead of the politically correct wimpy sibilance of “khinzir”.

Farah Rani plays Snowball, the idealistic pig.  – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, August 8, 2017.

Farah Rani, the actress playing Snowball, the idealistic pig, said the script addresses this issue in the very first scene.

To think Omar, in his words, “stumbled into theatre.” He used to be chauffeur to his ex-wife when she was stage-managing or acting in plays. “One day while hanging around I was asked if I would be a zombie extra. I was in-between jobs.” 

Omar was a graphic designer/copywriter in advertising. Now he is director-in-resident in KLPAC.

His father’s career – 28 years CEO of Johor Corporation, now president of the Malaysian Islamic Chamber of Commerce – does not normally suggest a creative spark.

Yet both the scripts sprung from literature studied by schoolboy Muhammad more than half a century ago.

Did anybody make the link to the local context in Datuk Seri?

“Who didn’t?” ssked Farah.

“The authorities couldn’t find anything wrong with “Datuk Seri” because we didn’t bash anyone in particular. Insinuations, implications, that’s up to the audience. We didn’t say this or that or make pointed references. The lovely thing was we didn’t have to push anything,” he said

How did “Kandang” become the father-son’s second collaboration?

“We looked at several other works. Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”, for instance, but we chose not to because we would have been doing a translation of a translation.

“We looked at “1984.” As we got into it, we realized how easy it was to adapt it to current events, but adapting it from a novella was difficult. “Macbeth” was a play.

Then we came to another of my father’s childhood books, Animal Farm,” he said.

Leaving aside the baggage of working with dad, what was the process like?

“We sat down, discussed our road-map – though we veered off many times – and then he would take parts of the road-map and work on them, and likewise me. We’d argue, roll our eyes.

“With my experience in theatre I would shape his words so that they will work better on stage.

“We had lots of arguments. Not just over words, but also the socio-political stance. Dad is more conservative, no need to bash la, while I am a bit more hot-headed. No Omar, we don’t want to alienate people. It drives me nuts sometimes,” he added.

He ended the interview by saying, “The one thing I have learned to agree with him is if you want to share something, and you bash the opinions of others, they will stop listening, that’s the end of the conversation.”

Kandang is showing at Pentas 2 of KLPAC in Sentul West. – August 8, 2017.


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