The Drama Scene

The Sidney Years


Chitra Raja Besi

It all came together during Major Sidney's tenure as Headmaster. To be sure there were end of term concerts in the B. E. Shaw era which would incorporate a short scene from some play sandwiched, perhaps, between a piano recital and a song by the Infant School. But, finally, here it was, a full length play to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Victorian Institution. It played for one night at the Kuala Lumpur Town Hall on August 14, 1923, graced by the presence of the Sultan of Selangor, no less. Penned in Malay in a record two weeks by VI teacher Mohamed Ameen Akbar, it was entitled Chitra Raja Besi. It was an all-VI production with ten scenes and an all-Malay cast of eighteen principals, save one; the role of a Chinese innkeeper, Pang Wang Foo - an "olang sengkeh latang lali utan" - was played by Choong Wan Chan.

Drawing deeply into Malay folklore, Akbar wrote into his play a sultan, a bomoh, fairies, jins, a fairy princess, with clowns (named Tenggalam Timbol and Tidor Bangun) thrown in for good measure. The gist of the story: an evil jin has put a spell on the Sultan of Batu Beranti and his three sons are summoned to save him. After many adventures, the youngest son, Raja Besi, manages to kill the jin, break the evil spell on his father and marry the jin's daughter as well.

The perfectionistic Akbar wanted his Sultan's throne room scene to be as authentic as possible. So, by prior arrangement, the playwright and Wan Chan were whisked one morning in Major Sidney's own car to the Istana in Klang. Ushered into the lush, carpeted inner sanctum of the Selangor ruler's abode, the pair was shown around by the Raja Muda himself. Another special trip was made to an outlying village to get details for the scene in a Chinese inn.

The newly arrived VI Headmaster, Major Sidney, produced the play. He originally had been given a part (as a jin!) but had dropped it when he discovered that his Malay was not yet good enough. By the same token, producing and directing the play was challenging enough as Sidney could not assess and correct an actor's delivery of his (Malay) lines as well he wanted.

The play was officially the project of the newly created VIMADS - Victoria Institution Musical and Dramatic Society. It had two orchestras, a Malay outfit played "off" while a Chinese one played incidental music during the scene shifting. The VI staff enthusiastically plunged in as scenic artists, prompters, make-up artists, property masters and in the box office. There were a few gaffes here and there for the fledgling enterprise - the backstage noise so great that it could be heard by the audience and the curtain boy, totally absorbed in the play, forgetting a couple of times to lower the curtain.

Nevertheless, a reviewer declared the following day that "the School has made an excellent first step in its dramatic travels." And indeed it had. The play showed a positive balance that could be used as seed money for a School Orchestra to play incidental music for the next big production, a full length Shakespeare play.

Twelfth Night Finale. Sidney, dressed as Feste, is seated at front centre.

No one had ever produced such a play in its entirety in Malaya until VIMADS and Sidney took up the challenge. A production of the Bard's Twelfth Night by polyglot Malayan schoolboys who were still learning English? Take the production on a tour of Malaya? Those were some of the daunting challenges that the VI took on the following year. There were the myriad challenges of casting, costumes, props and publicity. Sidney shopped around in Chinatown and bought 600 yards of cloth to make the stage curtain. Mr Chan Hung Chin designed the costumes while Mr Chin Yoon Thye designed all the scenery which was painted by the boys. Throughout the first term of 1924, the school workshop hummed with activity as the VI boys fashioned staves, lanterns, stools, staircases and so on.

Casting the multi-racial potpourri of VI boys was a challenge. The Duke Orsino was an Indian, Sebastian and Antonio were Malays, while the rest were Chinese. English fluency ranged from good to lines sounding like Maria's " not tink I have veet enough to lie straight in my bed.."

Given an absence of girls in the VI at that time and there being three main female roles to fill, Sidney rose to the challenge. School cricketer and footballer Kwok Kin Keng, for instance, was tapped and transformed into a lovely Olivia with a dress, a wig and a head band. The staff was also pressed into service - Messrs. Chan Hung Chin and Akbar were Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch respectively, while Sidney cast himself as Feste the jester. Sidney would entertain the audience with songs during scene changes. Backstage, VI teachers controlled the lights or served as wardrobe master and property master, while outside the Town Hall VI scouts controlled the crowds.

When, finally, the curtains at the Town Hall parted for the first performance on May 2, 1924, the audience was magically transported from the Malayan tropics to the palace of Duke Orsino in far away Illyria. The production's lush, dazzling sets have never been bested in any later VI production. There were eleven performances in all, five in Kuala Lumpur, four in Singapore and two in Penang. The critics praised the production; for the first time, Malayans saw Shakespeare live and liked it.

The School was now smitten by the Shakespeare bug, for in the last week of June 1924, during the first Converzasione, the Bard was again performed. It was the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer's Night Dream and was played by boys from the Senior and Junior classes in the Headmaster's garden before a large audience of appreciative parents and guests.

Flush with success, VIMADS planned another production for 1925, and came up with the idea of presenting two productions - Henry IV Part I and Twelfth Night again, with the new play alternating with Twelfth Night on different days. Sidney chose Henry IV not because it was an examination text like Twelfth Night but because the VI Headmaster secretly wanted to introduce the character Falstaff to Malayan audiences.

Soon the hammering, banging and sawing resumed in the school workshops and rehearsals stretched into the night. The Henry IV sets had a different theme this time - red, blue and gold, here and there the red rose of Lancaster, golden fleurs-de-lys and a lion rampant. But both plays shared a long staircase that Sidney had purchased for $100 from a drama club, the Selangor Amateur.

Sidney took on the part of Hotspur which he relished tremendously. The staff were again drafted for the main roles - Austin Foenander as Prince Hal and the ever-talented Akbar as Falstaff. The schoolboy playing King Henry just could not learn his lines and on one occasion disappeared just before his turn on stage. Discovered stretched on a prop settee, he complained of a stomach ache. He was cajoled by Sidney to return just in time to make his royal entrance on stage. Falstaff was perfect in all except his memory. There were two prompters, one for each play, to cover contingencies like King Henry and Falstaff.

After their K.L. performances, the boys took a ship to Singapore while the sets and props went by rail. They even put on a few free matinees there. There were two performances in Penang and the boys played to 3,000 people in total. In Ipoh, they had been given free use of a large cinema hall but, to their horror, they discovered that the ceiling was too low and the stage neither wide nor deep enough. Two days of frenzied hammering, nailing and hanging in that reduced space finally allowed the show to go on. By the time the VIMADS team wrapped up their Malaya tour, they had chalked up 24 performances in all. An estimated 7,000 people had watched them. There were rave reviews in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Ipoh. The name of the Victoria Institution had been carried far and wide.

Henry IV Part I -Sidney as Hotspur with Kwok Kin Keng as Kate

Yet at the height of its fame, with the promise of more to come, the School learned that Mr. Sidney was leaving. A scant three years had spanned the time when he arrived to the time he left in February 1926. On the eve of Mr Sidney's departure from Malaya, VIMADS presented Shakespeare's As You Like It in the school hall under the direction of Mr A. R. England. This was the Society's last production. Instead of making money towards a Hongkong Scholarship Fund (which was its object), the Society was in debt, but the school trustees were kind enough to make up the deficit. There would be no more such drama productions for the rest of the twenties, throughout the thirties and, indeed, not until the early fifties.

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Created: April 6, 2016.
Last update: May 17, 2016
Contributed by : Chung Chee Min