Roundtable Discussion: 1984 Here And Now

On the 15 April 2017, the Fine Arts Centre organised a roundtable discussion around Kee Thuan Chye’s 1984 Here and Now, in conjunction with the approaching General Election. This play is adapted from George Orwell’s 1984 and ‘Malaysianised’ (localised) to describe the Malaysian political issues that could not simply be addressed in the media during that period. This discussion aimed to discuss the production and why it was made.

Kee Thuan Chye is an acclaimed playwright, actor, journalist and a part-time lecturer in the University of Nottingham Malaysia. He was voted as the 34th Most Trusted Malaysian in Reader Digest’s poll and also the recipient of The Annexe Heroes Freedom of Expression Awards. In his 1984 play, he acted as Yone’s father. Kee, Fatimah Abu Bakar (as Yone), and Mano Maniam (as the Big Brother) were invited to the play discussion. It was moderated by Kathy Rowland and Fasyali Fadzly.

Before getting into the discussion, Kathy gave a brief introduction of the play:

“What the play does is it transposes Orwell’s dystopian world into an unnamed country, where the society is divided into party members and proles. It is a division that based almost exclusively on race. There are two main protagonists – Wiran, who is a journalist…comes from the same ratio ethnic group as the party members…the majority who is politically dominant, who falls in love with Yone, a young activist who comes from a minority group… (Both of them) are captured and tortured.”

When asked about the inspiration of adapting George Orwell’s 1984 novel, Kee replied:

“At the beginning of the eighties, there is a buzz about the novel … and I saw that it was very relevant to the Malaysian context because at that time, authoritarian was really taking root in Malaysia and I saw there is an opportunity to write the play […] but what really got me going was the fact that you couldn’t discuss the issues of those days in the mainstream newspaper. We didn’t have an alternative media and it was really frustrating […] The only way to do is to write a play. And I saw the parallel in 1984, the novel was a crash between the elites, the party members and the proles […] I decided to adapt that to make it into a conflict of race because at that time was the new implementation of the New Economic Policy […] Of course, the idea Of Big Brother, the Prime Minister, Mahathir.”

This play production did not have open auditions as the director approached the actors who he thought were suitable for the characters. However, after several rehearsals, some of them had withdrawn from the play as they felt uneasy with the content. Therefore, during the discussion, Fatimah and Mano were questioned about their fear when they received the scripts and were notified to take up the particular roles. Fatimah mentioned that she was actually excited, instead of being frightened. She expressed her enthusiasm towards this challenging play. Also, Mano had no hesitation when he received the script. He replied:

Why would you even want to raise that question? What is that being fearful in a four-letter word, called PLAY.

Regarding this play, Kee thought that they would not get a permit to stage 1984 Here and Now. He praised the producer, Sabrina for doing a wonderful job in the interview to achieve the permit. According to Kee: “When the permit was given, word got around (like) ‘if you want to see the play, better go on the opening night, because there might not be a second night.”  Unexpectedly, they got full house for every show when the play was staged in 1985. What was interesting at the end of the play – people stood up and shouted ‘Yes! Yes!’ when Wiran was questioning about the party members, proles and Big Brother, just before he got arrested.

Moving on, Kee discussed the “suitable elements” in the national culture policy, which was based on Malay and Nusantara culture. Kee said: “You mean other cultures, they have elements that are non-suitable?” Indeed, a permit was needed to perform the Lion Dance in the eighties as the dance might be considered a non-suitable element from immigrant culture. Therefore, he wrote “tiger dance” as a part of the allegories in the play.

Some of the issues that had been raised in the play are still the same in the current situation, specifically Malaysia. Therefore, Kathy ended the discussion with the following two questions: (1) “Would you write the same play today?” and (2) “Are you proud of the play today?”. Kee agreed that he will do the same thing as there is still no change in this country. In his speech, there was a mention of his best friend, Zaharom who said that this play should be restaged as it is relevant to the fake news and the current political situation.

However, Kee pointed out: “Maybe the impact would not be as great as it was in those days […] and also the politicians who theatricalised reality every day. The politicians and leaders are the best actors and their advisors are the best stage managers. The launching of the BN (Barisan National) manifesto, that’s theatre. They have a wider reach and they can produce theatre on a bigger scale that no theatre group can ever (produce).” Mano added: “No budget somemore!”

With that, the discussion wrapped up with Fatimah and Mano voices.

“Who is playing those mind games, we can also play. If there is somebody up there wants to control minds and creates a certain kind of environment, we can play our own mind game and break them.” – Fatimah

“Theatre has been around for long long time […] The power of the pen is mightier than the sword. The power of the words has always been more dominant. WE NEED MORE KEE THUAN CHYE.” – Mano

The writer with the panelists after the roundtable.

by Joann Chua Rou En

My quest for knowledge is a never-ending exciting journey.

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