Wednesday, January 26, 2005

(T) May 10, 2004 - Lady Swettenham

TO argue with a fool makes one the bigger fool. And so, to make the other happy, one party should back out or a compromise should be reached. The folly of pursuing a continuous duel that could last till you’re 78 years old would lead to a wretched existence and a tragic conclusion – just like the life of Lady Swettenham.

Lady Swettenham is Masakini Theatre Company’s maiden production. It was presented from April 23 to May 1 at Panggung Bandaraya, Kuala Lumpur. The play opened for a charity premiere on April 23 with proceeds going to the National Children Welfare Foundation.

Lady Swettenham turns out to be a study of character, behaviour and relationships with historical references thrown in rather than a narrative of history. No doubt the latter could make the play richer and stronger; however, the playwright chooses to focus on the former.

The play, written by Sabera Shaik and directed by Chris Jacobs, depicts the story about an intelligent, opinionated young woman and the chronicles of her acrimonious marriage to Sir Frank Swettenham. It takes us on Lady Swettenham’s roller-coaster emotions from “dying to marry” to “dying of marriage”, with settings in Malaya, Singapore and London.

The young Lady Connie Swettenham (Sasha Bashir) gets ready for her wedding in Lady Swettenham.

Sasha Bashir, a relative newcomer to the theatre scene, played the young Lady Swettenham, or Connie. She sets foot in Singapore, full of expectations for romance and adventure. But she is vastly disappointed as life is not what she expects it to be. She goes into despair, experiences complete loss of confidence and constantly runs into trouble. In the end, she arrives at lunacy after many years of being manic-depressive from the years of unhappiness.

Not quite the trophy wife that Frank wanted, Connie tires of her husband’s neglect and egoistic control and slowly begins to lose her mind. But each time she exits the rest homes that she’s been placed in, she becomes more determined than ever “to get back into the social scene”.

But there are certain expectations of a woman, especially of “first ladies” or those aspiring to be one. Even today, it is not easy for women married to leaders of society to just quit marriage. There are many implications to consider even if it is legal to seek divorce.

In any circumstance, the turning point in a woman’s life is when she uses her ability to take control of her own life, exercise the power to make a change for the better, and to stand up for what she believes in.

For example, not only was Lady Swettenham the architect of the Taiping Botanical Garden, she was also a very keen horticulturist and had won several competitions for the best ferns and orchids. She also became an active member of the theatre clubs in Selangor and Perak. Tired of complaining and moaning, she simply did “whatever pleased her”.

For a pilot performance, Sasha did considerably well. Sasha was able to handle her lines with good diction and vocal variety.

Those who also acted their roles well were Sandy Philips, who played the old “bird” Lady Swettenham, Stuart Payne, as the dominant, egoistic Sir Frank Swettenham and Zahamin Baki, Sir Frank’s houseboy.

Not all the cast shared the same calibre. It could be a casting issue, or that of a young actor being assigned too many roles to handle. I could not differentiate between the roles of Cecil (Connie’s brother) and Walter McNight Young (Frank’s illegitimate child). Moreover, he was wearing the same costume throughout. Throwing on a scarf did not help.

It was much easier to differentiate Juliana’s roles of Siti, Eliza, and Nurse because the costumes were different.

Ditto for Silvester Loo’s role of Papa and the Sultan of Perak. But to be fair, even mature actors can stumble when handling multiple roles.

The director deployed the time-freezing photographic technique in several scenes and it worked very well especially in the scene where Connie joins Frank in a social gathering for the first time. The party forms a haughty circle where they completely ignore Connie by freezing each time she tries to break into it.

The period costumes juxtaposed against the contemporary set came off nicely without being overly stuffy.

The ascending and descending planes on stage literally illustrated Connie’s state of mental health. The tempo of the play was well balanced but it may have been even better if some scenes were sped up.

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