Turning History into A Performance

COMMUNISM and the Indian state of Kerala go together like a sari and its choli (blouse). So, when Malaysia’s documentary theatre on the “1955 Baling Talks” — which ended the guerrilla war between the Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) — was staged there in early January, the audience was generally, well, incredulous. 

According to director Mark Teh, the fact that “the communist party was banned, and the idea of communism could not exist for nation building, amazed the festival-goers” in the south Indian state which saw the world’s first reformist, Communist-led government in 1957. 

“They went like ‘really?’, to the fact that the leader of the MCP, Chin Peng, was not allowed to return to Malaysia, and that an idea like communism couldn’t exist,” said the 35-yearold Teh. 

According to him, it was that very concept which made the International Theatre Festival of Kerala invite the Five Arts Centre to this largest theatre festival in India. 

“We also had the whole communist experience in common. Yes, it was very different, it was a conflict over how a country was born. For the Kerala festival director, the “1955 Baling Talks” offers an entirely different perspective on communism and nation building.” 

Kerala was the third performing arts venue outside Malaysia to host “1955 Baling Talks” since its debut performance about 10 years ago. The first outing was in Singapore for its 2011 festival. 

Basically, “1955 Baling Talks” deals with one of the most important moments in 20th century South-East Asian history and politics. 

On Dec 28, 1955, a small schoolroom in northern Malaya became a historic site for the “Baling Talks”, where various visions on building a nation were imagined, discussed and discarded. 

The documentary theatre was recently staged in Gwangju, South Korea

As Teh states in the production notes, it was a unique attempt to bring peace to the Malayan peninsula devastated by a revolutionary war now known as the Malayan Emergency, which had been going on for seven years. 

Teh (left) and Tan at the Five arts Centre in TTdIThe Five Arts Centre’s performance reconstructed this event based on publicly available transcripts. It was an opportunity to relive the heated debates and shrewd political manoeuvrings of the chief minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall and Chin Peng of the MCP. The talks ran for eight hours as a lead-up to Abdul Rahman’s and Marshall’s respective trips to London to negotiate for independence from Britain. 

It looked at questions on nation formation with performer-researchers who shared similar and contrasting political views with the participants of the “Baling Talks”. 

In the process, the concepts of nation, loyalty, terrorism, reconciliation, sacrifice, surrender and independence were bluntly expressed by leaders at the highest political level, unhampered by censors. 

“It has evolved with each staging,” said Teh, who has drawn together an eclectic group of designers, visual artists, and performers for the production these past few years. 

“The first version was held at a Petaling Jaya food stall centre, with chair throwing, but the 

next time was at the Emergency Festival in 2008 where we had the late film-maker Yasmin Ahmad, among others, reading the entire transcript of the “1955 Baling Talks” between Abdul Rahman, Marshall and Chin Peng. 

“In 2011, the context was Singapore, so it made sense to read it out, and we invited activists and lawyers. It wasn’t any Tom and Harry we invited to read the transcripts.” 

For that two-hour performance, Singaporean actress Neo Swee Lin and Malaysian MP Nurul Izzah Anwar took on Abdul Rahman, Malaysian film-maker Amir Muhammad and playwright 

Kee Thuan Chye “became” Chin Peng and The Substation’s Noor Effendy Ibrahim role-played Marshall, among others. There was also a realtime Twitter feed. 

Three years later, Five Arts Centre’s seminal theatre show was invited to mark the debut of the new Asia Cultural Centre Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea, in September last year. 

'The 1955 baling Talks’ staged at the 2011 Singapore arts Festival

“Every time we do it, we select different parts. Every time, we are editing, adding new angles, and whoever is the cast bring their own perspectives to the performances,” explained Teh, a Five Arts Centre member who is also a lecturer in performance and media. 

“Maybe it is a nice idea, to keep on evolving. You know, when you wrote a book 10 years ago, why can’t you edit the book 10 years on?” 

Producer June Tan said to stage the show abroad was exciting with each venue offering a production crew. 

But Tan and Teh both agreed that this documentary theatre is not for everyone. “The subject is heavy, and text-based,” said Tan. 

“Of course, some people found it very serious, where’s the drama? Well, we are not doing Baling the pop musical,” added Teh. 

He felt it was more of a “performance installation”. “The audience can move around. There is a “polyspective”, with a projection screen on one side, and coffee if the audience is bored with us. They just need to listen and the stage, basically, is everywhere.” 

Tan explained that the visual artist, Wong Tay Sy, had suggested this mode of presentation. 

Teh added: “Our understanding of our history is fragmented, so rather than having the audience sit on one side, and watch the stage, why not embrace the fragmented history? 

“Of course, cues are given to the audience on what is next, and subtitles go on, the projection goes on over there. 

“It is a serious subject matter, with good performers. We have Anne James, Fahmi Fadzil, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, and Imri Nasution giving their own perspectives of this part of our history. I saw this, I experienced this. I mean, everyone’s family had the experiences of those years. 

“Listening to these debates, by clever men on different sides, it offers a perspective on how certain histories have given us certain hysterias.” 

Tan added: “But, there are similarities in the histories of countries.” 

For Teh, being able to take this documentary theatre out of the country was enriching, in not just staging it but seeing how people reacted to his work. 

“It helps us grow as well. Malaysians have, over these few years, become inward looking. For example, the largest website in our country has no international section. So, this opportunity to travel for theatre is like — to me — oxygen. It’s also good to see that we are not the only ones suffering today.” 

For Tan, she felt festival goers were “quite taken in by this kind of theatre, which had turned history into a performance”. “Some of the audience members said, they too had certain cases where the same presentation can be applied.” 

The “1955 Baling Talks” documentary theatre show will be staged in Yokohama, on Feb 9-10, then at the Five Arts Centre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) in March, before touring Britain and Germany, among other venues. 

For more details, call Five Arts Centre at +603 7725 4858 or email fiveartscentre@gmail.com.