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Updated: November 6, 2011 19:21 IST

Her story and other tales

Anjana Rajan
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Lady Swettenham. Photo: Special Arrangement
Lady Swettenham. Photo: Special Arrangement

Malaysian actor-playwright Sabera Shaik tells Anjana Rajan about the relevance of “Lady Swettenham”, which opens in the Capital this week

The cultural calendar is getting crowded with events but this Tuesday brings Delhiites a special treat as Sabera Shaik, one of Malaysia's most celebrated theatre actors, presents a solo performance of “Lady Swettenham”. The play, scripted by Sabera, relates the story of the manic depressive wife of Sir Frank Swettenham, British Resident of Selangor (in then Malaya, part of the British Empire's Straits Settlements) in the late 1800s.

Sabera feels the play is relevant to India not just because of a shared colonial history but because it depicts the “universal plight of women all over the world and through the ages”. Trained in theatre arts in the U.S. (Pennsylvania State University), besides Australia (National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Sydney) and Denmark (Odin), Sabera has been working in Malaysia since the 1980s and founded the Masakini Theatre Company, which has produced several memorable productions, in 2003.

While “Lady Swettenham” continues touring internationally, Sabera says her “present obsession” is shadow theatre. After a workshop on shadow theatre in Germany she directed and produced “Wayang” (Shadowplay) in May this year, which relates the social history of Malaysia using shadows. “Immediately after my return from India,” she says, “I shall be working on another piece of shadow theatre.” But meanwhile, here are shades of history and murky human nature with “Lady Swettenham”.

An interview with Sabera Shaik:

What drew you to create “Lady Swettenham”?

Imagine at the age of almost 80 to find out that you have been divorced by your husband (who is older than you) through the newspapers! Plus the fact that your very existence in Malaya is totally wiped out ...no photographs and very little mention about the work you have done in Malaya. This utterly unseemly and harsh treatment of a woman, a wife of several decades and of a prominent and respected Resident drew me to find out and research her story. I read essays written by Frank Swettenham to gauge his mindset, his idea about marriage, his feelings about his work and his surroundings to be able to also understand his attitude towards his wife. Of course the most comprehensive source was H.S. Barlow's “Swettenham”.

Why did you opt for a solo format for this play?

I have been doing ensemble work in Malaysia for a very long time and some solo works as well. While all the others were about different women, their joys and regrets, “Lady Swettenham” needs to come alive with the portrayal of all the people around her, her reaction to them and theirs to her...so it is a challenge to play multiple roles and the techniques involved in showing these different characters are a joy to play. To me this is storytelling at its most physical and captivating.

It is often felt that not only has theatre lost audiences to commercial films, but also that acting, and the entire craft of theatre, has been affected by film craft. If once upon a time, the movies looked like stage performances filmed, today it seems as if the stage is trying to imitate film. Have you experienced this phenomenon in your work in Malaysia too?

Surely ‘film craft' is born out of ‘theatre craft' — have you noticed that English and Hollywood film actors who have cut their teeth in theatre are powerful and a joy to watch...Vanessa Redgrave, Cate Blanchett, James Gandolfini, Jason Alexander, et al? It is true that theatre has lost to commercial films but acting is still a craft, especially theatre acting. There was for a short while in Malaysia where some film directors directing a stage performance have tried bringing the film format into the theatre but failed. This because they fail to realise that the craft of the theatre in certain aspects cannot be translated on screen. For example, in a movie too much technique will deem a performance insincere and unbelievable but it is the opposite on stage. Similarly an actor from the screen will find it more difficult on stage because he has to sustain his character throughout and this is not so on film. Theatre actors must be precise in their nuances, delivery, phrasing, silences, etc. These can be electronically engineered in a film. I could go on… My take is, the stage has a special character and intimacy and when you have watched a good play you marvel at the actor's ability to manipulate his craft right before your eyes. In movies, like I have just said it can all be engineered, mistakes and all.

What has been your experience performing for Indian audiences?

I enjoy playing in front of an Indian audience, as you express yourselves after a performance and I find that very refreshing. The discussion after a show is also something I look forward to. I have performed in Chennai, Bangalore, Chandigarh and Delhi too. But the last time I was in Delhi was too long ago...2007 I think. I performed “In The Name Of Love”, three solo pieces, written by none other than our own Ramli Ibrahim. I am looking forward to performing in Delhi again. I don't know what the LTG is like. I just hope it is ‘solo-actor-friendly'...not too big but intimate enough. While this play is about an era in the history of Malaya, it has resonance for India too, as we both shared the same “colonial masters”. But more so it is a universal plight of women all over the world and through the ages....misunderstood, bullied and when no longer the trophy, discarded.

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