Malaysia’s first lady of theatre Faridah Merican speaks on directing her first Hokkien and Cantonese play

Melanie Chalil
‘Thunderstorm’, one of China’s most popular modern plays, was written in the 1930s and will be presented here in a localised setting. — Picture courtesy of klpac/Dev Lee

PETALING JAYA, July 16 — Theatre stalwart Datuk Faridah Merican has acted in Chinese playwright Tsao Yu’s masterpiece, Thunderstorm twice in 1983 and 2001 before directing it in English in 2017.

At the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) next week, Faridah revisits the cherished play once more, this time wading into uncharted waters by directing it in Hokkien and Cantonese.

To say she is captivated by the 1933 classic, seems almost like an understatement.

“Tsao Yu has been able to write something that is very close to the hearts of the Asian world because it is a story very easily relatable to Asians,” she told Malay Mail in an interview.

Dubbed one of China’s most popular modern plays, written before it was invaded by Japan, Thunderstorm tells the story of the wealthy Chou family led by its powerful patriarch Chou Pu-Yuan.

But behind the Chous’ seemingly happy household lies a dark family secret that threatens to tear down their perfect reputation.

In the upcoming staging, the play is set in Ipoh and features new cast members, save for klpac resident director-writer Mark Beau de Silva and OlaBola The Musical star Brian Chan who acted in the sold-out 2017 English version.

Describing the play as a wonderful love story, Faridah said Thunderstorm is a story that can be told repeatedly.

Datuk Faridah Merican said Tsao Yu’s ‘Thunderstorm’ is a story that Asian families can relate to. — Picture by Choo Choy May

While she confessed to being a fan of romance and tragedy and dislikes “fluff in theatre”, Faridah said she wanted to focus on meaningful stories that help younger people recognise the things that took place during their grandparents’ time and learn from those lessons.

“It is full of depth and full of moments in people’s relationships that remind us that it is a fragile society we live where anything can happen.

“There must be a reason why tragedies happen and the reason is human foible, mistakes that we do in life.

“What happened to the young people in the play is so unfortunate. You don’t want to wish that on your family,” she hinted without giving away any spoilers.

Coming after a successful run two years ago, Faridah felt she needed to do the play in Chinese and was determined to not let her language limitations stop her.

It was also important for the play to be geographically relevant — Thunderstorm is set in Ipoh during the tin-mining boom.

“I want to do it myself because I feel that I know the play very well but I want it to be set in Malaysia, therefore it’s in Cantonese and Hokkien and not Mandarin.

“I want it to be set in our country where the audience can recognise these people as being part of our Chinese community,” she said.

Growing up Penang, Faridah was accustomed to Hokkien, even performing in the Chinese dialect recently for the klpac play Stories for Amah.

“I think I did okay, Amelia Tan said my Hokkien was fine so I trust her judgement but it was eight lines.

“Because I grew up speaking Hokkien and my friends were all Chinese, I can still understand a lot of Hokkien but I cannot speak as much,” she said.

Thunderstorm actors began going through the script as early as last year while intensive rehearsals began two months ago.

“The language for me is not as important as understanding the story and knowing the nuances of the story, but also knowing the actors understand the story and the nuances,” she said.

Faridah added that she depended a lot on the actors to ensure the languages they are speaking reflect what will be presented on stage.

“It’s a challenge only because I don’t want to let them down or myself or the play down,” she said.

Supported by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Malaysia and Creador Foundation, Thunderstorm will be staged at Pentas 1, klpac from July 25 until July 28. Tickets are priced at RM40, RM60, RM80 and RM100, call 03-4047 9000 or click here to purchase online.

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