The Drama Scene

A New Beginning

The postwar drama revival was slow, but the first signs appeared in 1948. Each Friday, after the Malay boys had left the school early to go to the mosque, the rest of the school would assemble in the hall for forty minutes of entertainment. The different Standards would present sketches in turn – “strong men” doing physical training, screen melodies by the Standard Eight Orchestra, the assassination scene from Julius Caesar, to name a few – which gradually rekindled the love of stage entertainment that the prewar generation had known.

When Mr. F. Daniel retired in early 1949, the farewell concert for him included several musical items as well as a parody of Sir Walter Scott’s Young Lochinvar by the talented S. Nadeswaran. The latter’s effort was entitled Young Nadesa and its finale brought the house down with the hero’s elopement with his “bride” (actually a winsome George Lee) on a bicycle instead of a horse. Nadeswaran also lent his talents to the sole drama item on the programme. It was the famous “quality of mercy” trial scene from The Merchant of Venice. He played Shylock while Ronald McCoy the School Captain took on the part of the Duke of Venice. Colin Abraham played Portia. The cast were coached for several afternoons by the English Literature teacher Mr. G. F. Jackson. Except for Nadeswaran who was dressed as a chettiar, the rest of the cast wore Malay costume, giving a striking effect. For many of the younger Victorians it was their first exposure to drama and a very positive one it was. More was coming.

At the end of the first term in 1951, an Inter-class play acting competition was held. A series of historical sketches was presented by various classes. The PSC Arts class under the direction of Mrs Agnes Pinnick staged a short play on Francis Light and the founding of Penang. It was written by Ong Cheng Sim and Susheila Vethavanam, respectively, the future Mrs Yiap Khin YIn and Mrs Ronnie McCoy. Another was a send-up of Adolf Hitler entitled The Fuehrer, produced by Satish Chand Bhandari, who took on the title role. These efforts proved to be an eye opener to the untapped acting talent in the School. So it was decided in the second term to form the VI Dramatics Society. The Chairman was Mahadev Shankar, the Honorary Secretary Zain Azraai and the Treasurer Vijayan Lukshumeyah. The new Society’s activities, under the guidance of the master-in-charge, Mr. Baharuddin bin Marji, were play reading, situation acting and the staging on November 9, 1951, of two one-act plays, The Poetasters of Ispahan and Shivering Shocks, the entire proceeds of which were donated to the VI Scouts Fund.

This success set the stage, so to speak, the following year, for a full-blown Shakespearean play twenty-seven years after the last such production by the School. The play chosen was the ever popular examination text, The Merchant of Venice. The society also organized a play-writing competition; two were selected for performance at the end of the term and the other two for the future. However, the Shakespeare play fully occupied the attention of members during the first term of 1952, when auditions were held and rehearsals commenced.

Most of the stagecraft experience of the twenties had to be relearned. Fortunately, many members of the British community in Kuala Lumpur threw in their support including Mr. J. R. Davidson of the British Council, who agreed to take charge of the production. Other expats helped with the lights and backstage. Local personalities like Michael Smee and David Lyttle of Radio Malaya helped direct the effort. Both also belonged to the KL Arts Theatre Group A slew of Old Boys helped manage the business side, including Harry Lau, Tan Keat Chye, Austin Foenander (last seen on stage in the Sidney era as Prince Hal).

When School reopened for the Second Term, the rehearsals increased in frequency, during week days in the evenings at the British Council Hall and during weekends in the afternoons in the School Refectory. The dedication of the cast and crew was unstinting. One stage hand, a Malay boy, who went home at 3 a.m. after rehearsals was refused entry by his father. He went in tears the next day to get a letter from Miss Khong Swee Tin, the advisory teacher. Miss Khong, then single, had her own tribulations as well, for her frequent absences from home till 3 or 4 a.m. aroused her own father’s dark suspicions. Only when he personally sneaked in one night to check on the rehearsals was he reassured of his daughter’s noble intentions.

The actors’ sacrifices were equally epic. Mahadev Shankar playing Antonio and Saran Singh cast as Shylock travelled all the way to Ipoh to a similar production by Anderson School to observe Teerath Ram as Antonio and N. T. Rajah as Bassanio. Working late and often without regular meals took its toll. During a rehearsal one evening, Khoo Teng Bin, playing Bassanio, was so weak with hunger that he suddenly lost consciousness and pitched forwards.

With Mr. Davidson’s departure for Kuala Kangsar in early July, Mr. Smee took over. Work, however, had to be halted for about two weeks because of the Annual Athletic Sports and the fast-approaching mid-year examinations and it was scarcely ten days before opening day when rehearsals resumed.

At this juncture the outlook was dark indeed: no stage or lighting plots had been drawn up, the tights ordered from England had still to arrive while other costumes were being feverishly executed under the direction of Miss Khong and Mrs. B. Blagden. In the face of such tremendous odds, postponement of the play to a later date was seriously contemplated. However, Mr. Smee, with the assurance of assistance from Messrs. David Lyttle and John Gale, agreed to devote every moment of his spare time towards the production while Messrs. Sandy Robertson and Ray Wigg agreed to help arrange the stage and lights. Learning avidly from these seasoned old hands was Satish Chand Bhandari, the schoolboy appointed stage director. He had had a role as a drunkard in the previous year’s play, Shivering Shocks.

In the final hectic days, rehearsals were of two kinds, cast and stage crew, and stage crew alone. There were even rehearsals by the latter for just the lighting and music. The play’s theme music incidentally was Greensleeves. Through it all, Miss Khong mothered the cast and crew, plying them with food and drink whenever they worked late. She made sure the boys grabbed cat naps, sleeping anywhere on the stage; she would only leave for home after the last boy had left.

The opening night was on August 5, 1952, graced by the presence of the Sultan of Selangor and the High Commissioner. When the curtain opened for the Act One Scene One, - a street in Venice - the audience gasped at the lighting effects. Their astonished oohs and aahs could be heard backstage. The applause at the end of each scene was ear splitting. The final curtain call had the audience clapping on and on and on. The cast were summoned to give encore after encore. The VI had pulled it off.

Scenes from The Merchant of Venice

The principal actors were in a class of their own. Saran Singh as Shylock was just outstanding. In the court scene, he played as if he was really Shylock, his earlier brash confidence sinking ultimately into shame. He won the hearts and sympathy of the audience. The Malay Mail in its rave review, commented among other things that Saran Singh’s natural beard gave him the personality of a good stage Shylock.

Equally impressive was K. J Ratnam in the role of Portia; he had taken over the role from another boy who could not learn the lines. Ratnam’s “quality of mercy” speech held the audience spellbound. Mahadev Shankar as Antonio had complete control over his emotions and switched from one mood to another so naturally that he really seemed to live the role of Antonio. Khoo Teng Bin playing Bassanio the lover had the audience rocking with laughter in some scenes with Portia.

On each of the five consecutive nights, silently orchestrating the whole show backstage was Satish Bhandari. All looked to this eighteen-year-old for the cues for curtain, music, lights, entrance of actors, changing sets and so on. All communication was by whispers, hand signals or by flashlight. The stage crew improved with each performance, becoming more and more efficient in the preparation and the setting of the stage for each scene. Over time, the times between the curtain closing and reopening for a new scene grew shorter and shorter. At the last day’s curtain call, when Messrs. Smee and Lyttle went onto the stage, they called Satish out as well to take a bow with all the cast. So great was the demand that there were extra matinee shows for schools.

The entire proceeds of the production were a little short of $4,000, which, after deducting expenses, gave a nett profit of $2,150 of which $1,500 was donated to the VI Sir Henry Gurney Memorial Fund, giving the society a total benefit of $650. The invaluable experience gained by the Society and the incalculable stimulus for drama outweighed the somewhat meagre pecuniary profits which were invested in costumes and stage props.

Yet before September was over, before the glow of success had worn off, Miss Khong had left the staff for a B.A. course at the University of Malaya. She was succeeded by Mrs. J. Devadason. Mahadev Shankar for England to read law. In his place the Society of Drama elected Satish Chand Bhandari as President.

The Society of Drama, September 1952
Seated l. to r.: Dhanwant Singh, Khoo Teng Bin, Lee Pheng Tatt , Lim Yew Chong, Mr J N Davis (HM), Miss Khong Swee Tin,
Mrs J. Devadason, Satish Chand Bhandari, Zain Azraai, Mohd. Dahlan, Ronald Stork, Saran Singh.

1952 was the beginning of an almost two-decade long tradition of staging public drama productions, something no other school in the country could lay claim to. The success of The Merchant of Venice encouraged the Society to plan another play in the following year, 1953. In late February, the Society staged two one-act plays in the School Hall, Sophro the Wise and The Stratford Lad. Mrs. J. Devadason, a B.A. Honours graduate from London and a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music and Drama, produced the first and Mr. J. M. McCumiskey, the second.

Hungry for exposure and experience, Society members participated in March of that year in Tobias and the Angel – a Malayan Arts Theatre Group production. The mixture of expatriate and locals in the cast included Old Boy Yong Pung How and the Society’s Assistant Secretary, Khoo Teng Bin. Behind the stage lurked Victorians, Present and Old: the stage assistants included Ananda Krishnan, Choo Min Wang, Oh Kong Yew, Isher Singh Sekhon, Wong Phui Lun. The house manager, Old Boy Tan Keat Chye, was assisted by VI teachers Austin Foenander and H. M. de Souza. Publicity was by Old Boy S. Robert, who would be VIOBA President four years later. The bars were manned by teachers, T. Navaratnam and Harry Lau.

A tradition by now, the Society put up a concert on April 17th, 1953, the last day of the First Term, consisting of five short excerpts of plays. Produced by the boys themselves, they afforded valuable stage and directing experience for Society members.

Now they were ready for the big project in the Second Term - Twelfth Night – to be produced by Mrs. J. Devadason. Auditions were held but work really started with the Second Term.

Three years after the first girl joined the VI, a real girl could finally be found for a female role: Miss Quan Siew Chin was cast as Olivia. Still, boys like Ramon Navaratnam had to don a dress, remove his facial hairs and swathe his head heavily to pass as Maria, Olivia’s woman. Khoo Teng Bin was luckier with his part of Viola, twin sister of Sebastian. As Twelfth Night pivoted around mistaken gender identities, Teng Bin’s make-up and tights in his female role tended to be more unisex.

Twelfth Night: Maria (Ramon Navaratnam); Lady Olivia (Quan Siew Chin); Malvolio (Woo Ti Yu);
Viola (Khoo Teng Bin); Sebastian (Siew Yow Cheong ); Feste (Chan Koon Yau); Sir Toby (T. Ananda Krishnan)

Learning from the previous year’s experience, Twelfth Night was carefully planned from the very beginning. Rehearsals were held in the School Hall under the all-seeing and critical eyes of Mrs. Devadason. Mrs. Hamilton designed the costumes, Oh Kong Yew the scenery and Satish Bhandari, the previous year’s stage director, supervised the building of sets. The latter would leave shortly for the Malayan Teachers College in Kirkby, England and would be heard from again in VI drama in a few years’ time. A week before the scheduled date — August 3rd, 1953, everything was ready — a drilled cast, lovely costumes and breath-taking sets.

The play was a hit. The page boys (the Leembruggen twins), the graceful Duke Orsino (Zain Azraai), the half-tragic Malvolio (Woo Ti Yu), the poignant Feste (Chan Koon Yau) and the rollicky comedians – Sir Toby Belch (Ananda Krishnan), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ronald McCrum), and Fabian (Robert Abraham) - carried the audience with them, from the Duke's opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on” to Feste’s last couplet, “...And we’ll strive to please you every day.” During its run of six days nothing but praise — both for the actors and the efficient stage hands — was received. The Society closed its phenomenal year with a tea party on November 6th.

In the School’s Diamond Jubilee Year of 1954, the Society had a new team in place, led by Khoo Teng Bin as President and Ananda Krishnan as Vice-President. Teng Bin had already brought further laurels to the school with his recent admirable portrayal of Malcolm in the Kuala Lumpur production of Macbeth by the Malayan Arts Theatre Group.The year’s programme started off in February with two short plays directed by Mrs. J. Devadason and Society members filling both casts. The first was Magic in a Mirror by Ronald Hadlington. The other was Aurularia (The Pot of Gold), translated and adapted by G. A. S. Sawtell from the original Latin version by the famous Roman playwright, Plautus). Presented in the School Hall on February 25th, 26th and 27th, they were a hit with the audience who roared with laughter for two hours of comedy, especially when the fattest among the audience was called upon by School Captain Chan Koon Yau's character, Euclio, to tell where he thought the miser's pot of gold was hidden. Not surprisingly, the talented Teng Bin was in both plays, as the Chorus Man in the first and as Megadorus in Aurularia. Ananda Krishnan, was also cast in the latter as Pythodicus, the lover of Staphyla, a slave of Euclio.

Programme for Magic in the Mirror and Aurularia

Mrs. Devadason left the School on transfer to Johore at the end of the First Term and was succeeded by Mr. George de P. Bambridge, who taught English language and literature, and was the author of some language textbooks. He chose the first historical Shakespearean play produced by the School 29 years earlier — Henry IV, Part I to be the Society’s annual production.

All three major female parts were filled by VI girls this time, including Quan Siew Chin’s sister, Siew Khin, as Lady Percy, wife of Hotspur (Sir Harry Percy). Hotspur, played by Tang Khai Yuen, had his part drastically trimmed by Mr. Bambridge to become a minor character. Incidentally, Khai Yuen and Siew Khin later became real life husband and wife.

Again the KL expatriates pitched in enthusiastically, including the perennially available Messrs. Michael Smee and David Lyttle. In Act III Scene I, there were lines that had to be spoken in Welsh by Lady Mortimer and Owen Glendower. To lend authenticity, the Society sought the help of Lt. Col. Thomas and his wife from the Welsh community in HQ Malaya to coach the two players.

The play had five scenes - the King’s palace, the Boar’s Head Tavern, Gadshill, the Archdeacon’s house, the battlefield of Shrewsbury. There were 34 actors and extras in all, including Ananda Krishnan in the role of Falstaff and Khoo Teng Bin as Prince Hal. The latter’s attention to detail is attested to by his younger brother, Gerry, who recalls his brother practising his stage movements in front of a mirror at home.

An entire army toiled behind the scenes to make the whole venture possible - one stage manager with seven assistants, one dressmaker, five costumers, Shamsir bin Omar and six others in set construction, two make-up artists including David Lyttle, one in programme design and production, Hashim Mohd. Ali in lighting with three assistants, two in properties, one prompter, one business manager, one house manager and Mr. Harry Lau (as usual) at the bar. Wong Phui Nam was in charge of background music, playing gramophone records loaned by the British Council. Another person played the guitar, while yet another played the bugle flourishes for the battles. The Theatre Club and the Malayan Arts Theatre Group generously loaned costumes, props and scenery, the Junior Technical (Trade) School sound equipment, and the Malayan Film Unit their spot lights. The Selangor Pewter Co. loaned pewter tankards for the tavern scene.

Colour Programme for Henry IV Pt I

Henry IV Pt I: Falstaff; Lord Mortimer, Sir Harry Percy and their wives;
Prince Hal, Prince John, Sir Walter Blunt and King Henry at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Messrs. Storch Brothers in Batu Road sold the tickets for the show; Robinson and Co, the Odeon, Pavilion, Rex, and Coliseum theatres assisted with publicity. After ten weeks of rehearsals, Henry IV, Part I opened at the KL Town Hall on August 3rd for five nights, with the Sultan of Selangor as the distinguished patron. The Press reviewed the play very favourably while the audiences reacted vociferously with applause. Henry IV was the Drama Society’s hat trick. Its future seemed secure – the seeds of future productions had been sown; the future giants of the VI stage were among those currently reading minor parts. Their turn would come.

Following the pattern of previous years, the Society staged two one-act plays during the First Term of 1955: A Night at an Inn and The Dyspeptic Ogre. It played to a packed School Hall.

During the Second term, the friends of the School, David Lyttle and Michael Smee again stepped forward to offer their services. The former gave a talk on acting, including gestures and diction, which was attended by more than a hundred pupils, including those from other schools. Mr. Smee gave Society members three lessons on stage make-up.

The Society sponsored a Festival of Drama to conclude its programme for the term. Intended to be an annual affair, the Forms were divided into two sections, the Junior Section and the Senior Section, the former composed of Forms One to Four, while Form Five and the Sixth Forms made up the Senior Section. The Senior Award was donated by the Hon. Secretary of the V.I.O.B.A. while the Junior Award was jointly donated by three teachers, Messrs. Harry Lau, Toh Boon Huah and Chong Yuen Shak. Mr. Geoffrey Weeks of Radio Malaya judged the Senior Section, naming Lower Six Arts the winner for their item, A Doctor for Lucinda. The Form Three boys under the direction of Austin Foenander staged the famous scene from A Midsummer's Night Dream in which Titania, the fairy queen, falls in love with Nick Bottom. However, Form Two were judged as the best performers in the Junior Section for their item Sultan Alladin Ra’ayat Shah by the Headmaster, Mrs. Entwisle and Mr. Bambridge.

For undisclosed reasons, the Society decided to stage, instead of a single major production, three one-act plays in September. Each was produced by a different member of the staff. They were:

  1. Refund — a modern comedy, produced by Mr. Razak Khan.
  2. Thread O’ Scarlet — a thriller, produced by Mr. M. Peter.
  3. The Dumb Wife of Cheapside — an Elizabethan comedy, produced by Mr. J. Doraisamy.

The Dumb Wife of Cheapside; and Thread O’Scarlet

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Created: April 13, 2016.
Last update: March 2, 2017.
Contributed by : Chung Chee Min.