The Drama Scene

The Golden Years

A Comedy of Errors

By 1956, the Society of Drama had become a respected name among the School societies and clubs, its reputation enhanced after each major production. A sure sign of its prestige must surely be the numbers of pupils signing up as members so much so that its new committee, headed by the President, Isher Singh, decided to alter one on the rules in its constitution and raise the number of limited memberships to 180.

Its repository of skills in acting and stagecraft increased yearly with regular invitations to outside experts to teach its members on stage work or play production. Lessons on stage lighting were given by its own member, Chan Bah Thye, a science student and future electrical engineer. Members also learned the art of stage make-up under Kok Wee Kiat. Excerpts from various plays were acted and critiqued by members. That way talent could be identified and honed.

For further experience, some members ventured beyond the School, in particular, to the Malayan Arts and Theatre Group. In May 1956, the Group presented Richard II, an exam text, at the Town Hall. Expatriate Michael Smee took the title role of the fallen king; in the cast was the Society’s Vice-President, Arunasalam. Behind the scenes, Bah Thye conjured up his superb lighting effects. Offstage, the House Manager and his assistant were Victorians, Jagdish Chand and Amarjit Singh, while Stage Manager Isher Singh and his assistants, by now old hands at the game, did the quick changes of scenes. The VI Prefects and VI girls helped as ushers. Five Old Victorians also helped in the production.

In May, Mr. George de P. Bambridge returned to England and was succeeded by Mr. A. A. P. Milne. Under its new Advisory Teacher, the Society now devoted its energies to the annual major production, Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. Rehearsals were frequent and often tiresome, but one and all gallantly stuck to their lot. Set in Ephesus, the play revolves around the separation and final reunion of a merchant, his wife, their two twin sons and their servants, also twins. In between there are hilarious mix-ups and misunderstandings.

Isher Singh and Chin Peng Sung were the heavies, the former as Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse, and the latter in the role of the Duke of Ephesus. All females roles were filled by VI girls including Inderjit Kaur (Adriana) and Maureen Siebel (Luciana) as two charming young ladies, and Punithavathy and Chan May Chen in lighter parts. Leong Siew Mun played the Abbess, Aemilia. Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio, his servant, were played by Yap Chong Yee and K. Viji, respectively. The other Antipholus-Dromio pair, of Syracuse, was played by Khoo Choong Keow and Choo Min Hsiung respectively.

The costumes were designed and made by the new English Literature teacher, Miss Y. Stanley, assisted by Maisie Long and May Chen.

A Comedy of Errors was presented, as was de rigueur in those days, at the KL Town Hall. School performances were at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, August 7 to 9, and the public shows on Friday and Saturday, August 10th and 11th, 1956. It triumphantly played to packed halls nightly for all five nights and was enjoyed by all who saw it.

Of course, shoring up the nightly triumphs was the backstage army of canvas shod stage hands padding silently among the scenery. One night the scenes were accidentally set up out of sequence. Thanks to the stage manager, a little shuffling and no one in the audience was any wiser!

1957 was a watershed year in the Society’s tradition. Miss Yvonne Stanley was approached by her Lower Sixth pupils to produce a play for them. One of them was a shy Punjabi boy with a dreadful stammer. His name: Krishen Jit. The scion of a family of textile merchants, he used to hang out at the Coliseum Theatre watching Hindustani movies and at Bangsawan performances at the BB Park. At the age of 13 in 1952 he had scrounged around for change to buy a ticket to see the Society’s The Merchant of Venice in the Town Hall and had been smitten by the theatre thereon. Now he wanted to act. Would Miss Stanley take him?

The play chosen was James Bridie’s Tobias and the Angel, a break from the annual Shakespearean fare. Isher Singh was the Archangel Raphael and the new Society President, Arunasalam, took on the role of Tobias. Tan Jit Chor, Krishenjit's classmate and the future Uncle Kong in the 1990s sitcom Kopitiam, was cast as Tobit, father of Tobias.

The cast chosen had less than one month in which to reach the required standard, so rehearsals had to be frequent and often lasted well into the night. Miss Stanley gave Krishen Jit the part of Raguel, uncle of Tobias. She rode roughshod over him, coming down hard on his stammer. “She was spectacularly beautiful,” recollected Krishen Jit much later, “I could barely concentrate. She forced me to act." The stutter vanished. A confident young actor emerged and the future producer, critic and doyen of the Malaysian theatre scene was born.

Material for the costumes came conveniently from Krishen Jit’s shop Dyalchand in Batu Road. Miss Stanley’s mother sewed the dresses, while Yvonne herself helped paint the sets in between directing. Tobias had a dog in the play and Miss Stanley’s own dog, Tinker, was recruited, the first animal ever used in a VI play. Tinker was cooperative and was trained to follow Arunasalam when on stage. But just in case, Miss Stanley and her sister stood behind the curtains, one on each side of the stage, calling out commands to the canine actor.

The VI drama critic wrote this of the opening night in mid-April: “The clock of the Secretariat chimed sonorously. It was six o’clock but the curtains were still not parted. It was a little annoying. (After all, this was the famed VI Society of Drama, which enjoyed amongst other attributes, the reputation for efficiency.)…”

If the critic could have looked behind the curtains an hour before the opening, he would have noted the near panic that had gripped the cast. Reason: after the final dress rehearsal the previous night, Isher Singh had absentmindedly left his angel costume behind in the Town Hall and it was stolen! It was an elaborate costume and, worse still, the Isher was in just about every scene in the play. The Headmaster, Dr Lewis, who was present, immediately took off his white shirt and passed it to Miss Stanley. Someone raced the 300 metres from the Town Hall to Dyalchand’s, Krishenjit’s clothing store, to grab pieces of cloth and raced back. Mrs. Stanley then frantically improvised a replacement costume, sewing embellishments and accoutrements to Lewis foundation. When the curtains finally parted - very late, as noted by the critic - no one in the audience, apart from the shirtless VI Headmaster, was aware of the other unscripted drama that had unfolded behind the scenes.

The play played for five nights and was a success, with the now usual rave reviews in the local press. Shortly after Miss Stanley left the VI on transfer to the Malay Girls College.

The rest of the year saw biweekly classes in the art of stage make-up in the Drama Room behind the stage. The highlight of the Second Term was three One-Act-Plays, directed by three members giving them a chance to learn the intricacies of play producing and acting. Presented with free admission in the School Hall for three nights, they were —

(i) The Scheming Lieutenant by R. B. Sheridan, produced by Chua Lai Hock;
(ii) The Boy Comes Home by A. A. Milne, produced by Isher Singh Sekhon;
(iii) The Ghost of Jerry Bundler by W. W. Jacob and C. Rock, produced by Khoo Teng Peng.

The last play, produced by the younger brother of thespian Khoo Teng Bin, was supposed to be a thriller but turned out to be a comedy because of mishaps on stage. One night Gopal Krishnan (younger brother of T. Anandakrishnan) forgot his lines and jumped ahead three pages of the script that got the rest of the cast into a complete muddle. Kenny Siebel, the prompter, was unable to help because he was confused as well. The result was a much shorter play than had intended to be. Still, it was great fun and nobody seemed to have noticed!

The following year, 1958, saw new directions taken by an increasingly self-reliant and confident Society. Make-up classes conducted by Kok Wee Kiat throughout the first term equipped members, for the first time, with the skills to do their own make-up in a major production without any external help. Wee Kiat’s classmate, Thillainathan, conducted a parallel series of lighting classes for members so that the Society could manage its own lighting as well.

The choice of that year’s annual play evolved in an unusual way. Re-enter Satish Chand Bhandari, the 1952 President of the VI Dramatics Society. He had been equally active in drama in the Malayan Teachers College at Kirkby, England where, as secretary of the College Dramatic Society, he had stage managed the Society’s 1954 production of S. I. Hsiung’s Lady Precious Stream and had helped build the sets of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala for the Society’s other production.

Satish had returned to Malaya in September 1956 and had been posted to the Kajang High School whose Headmaster, J. R. Davidson, had directed the VI Society of Drama’s Merchant of Venice. At KHS, Satish introduced the Vocational Subjects Programme made-up of Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing at the secondary school level. Ideal skills for making stage sets, too. He frequently went up to KL to work in plays produced by the Malayan Arts and Theatre Group.

It was at one of the plays at the KL Town Hall that he met again with VI Old Boy Tan Keat Chye who was the front house manager. Keat Chye was the Secretary of the V.I.O.B.A. and had been the School’s first Librarian prewar. He had never acted but had worked backstage in the many one-act plays produced during his VI days. He was also an active supporter of the postwar dramatic productions, working in the programme and publicity departments and had gotten to know Satish. The two were joined by VI teacher and V.I.O.B.A Committee member, Harry Lau, who usually helped at the bar. After much discussion it was agreed that Satish should produce a play, any play. Expats produced most of the plays in KL then, pre-Merdeka and even post-Merdeka for some time after; so it was timely that Malayans like Satish showed that they were just as capable.

In late 1957 or early 1958 came the VI’s blessings for Satish to do a play for the Old School. He settled for one of two plays he knew inside out – Lady Precious Stream. Tan Keat Chye agreed to do the costumes plus props and Harry Lau was to look after the business part and the front house. Low Chi Tho, another VI Old Boy, agreed to build the sets for Lady Precious Stream.

This was new territory for a VI production – a costume drama but written in English and set in old China about Lady Precious Stream, the youngest daughter of the Prime Minister, Wang Yun, who is unprepared to conform to an arranged marriage and, instead, chooses a gardener-soldier, Hsieh Ping-Kuei, as her husband. He leaves for war soon afterwards and it is eighteen years before he returns to his faithful wife who has by then fallen upon hard times. From the production aspect, Lady Precious Stream was full of historical, sartorial and cultural demands and nuances never attempted by an English-speaking cast.

Both Tan Keat Chye and Satish trudged to the BB Park and spent several nights watching the Chinese opera and taking notes. They studied the stage settings, the costumes, the props and the music - the whole gambit of Chinese drama. They also went back stage to study the set up and management of the stage. The Chinese opera people were most cooperative and helpful.

There remained the unfilled position of a stage manager - they simply could not find any one. Satish was working and living in Kajang and already had a full teaching load, not to mention the expected toll of daily driving between Kajang and KL when rehearsals began. So he could

not be producer and stage manager simultaneously. Deep down in their hearts, he and Keat Chye both knew that each one needed the other. Satish then suggested that they became co-producers, splitting responsibilities. Both would direct the play while Tan Keat Chye would have the costumes, props, and music on his plate, and Satish would take care of all aspects of stage work and preparation. Low Chi Tho would be responsible for constructing and painting the sets.

The auditioning and casting began in mid-January with a mixture of Lower and Upper Sixth pupils who turned up. The co-directors had eyed a certain Lower Sixth Chinese girl as Lady Precious Stream but she was not interested. When two Malay girls turned up, Keat Chye had a brainwave. Using the two Malay girls as the heroines would certainly generate a lot more publicity, and so the title role was given to Fuziah binti Dato Ahmad. Upper Sixer Zahariah binti Mohd. Hashim took the role of the Warrior Princess of the Western Regions.

Keat Chye and Satish returned to the B.B. Park again this time taking along Martin Lee (who was cast as Hsieh Ping-Kuei) and Fuziah so they could observe the body movements and to learn the way the actors in Chinese opera spoke. Martin also observed the technique of mounting, riding and dismounting from a “horse” on stage and the correct art of holding a wine cup and drinking from it. Fuziah learned, too, to be a humble and submissive stage wife; she learned how to kneel in the Chinese traditional manner when Hsieh Ping-Kuei returned at the play’s end as the King of the Western Regions.

Keat Chye knew he could not stint on the wardrobe. His niece, Judy Teh - an aspiring tailor - took on the near impossible task of making the elaborate Chinese costumes for the huge cast, assisted by two of Keat Chye’s sisters. Teacher Miss Chiew Pek Lin took charge of the large wardrobe. Her task included feverishly ironing every article of costume before each performance.

Rehearsals began soon after, frequently finishing late into the night. Over time, the burden of costumes and props took so much time of Keat Chye’s time that Satish ended up directing much of the play and supervising the stage preparation as well as managing the stage. He appointed some capable VI boys as his assistant stage managers.

Most of the time the two co-directors worked independently but always after consulting each other. They worked equally hard and as the play began to take shape with some rehearsals in a few costumes and some actual sets, they realized that the decision to be co-producers was a wise decision.

Hsieh Ping-Kuei (left) catches the embroidered ball; Wang Yun and Precious Stream

During dress rehearsals, Keat Chye acted more as Satish’s assistant in directing the actors. Often Satish had to hop up on to the stage to do the stage managing or coaching or climb up the lighting platform to help out with the lights. During these moments when he was on stage, Keat Chye would be in the auditorium directing the work. Even during the actual live performances, Satish remained backstage while Keat Chye remained in front house.

They worked in unison, like a hand in glove - no arguments, no quarrels. Minor disagreements, yes, such as the colour of a particular costume but these were easily resolved. When Satish made a decision, Keat Chye would not contradict him and when the the latter made a decision, the former backed him. Each one was a producer in his own right and neither deserved the whole credit for the play. They shared it when they received the nightly accolades from the audience as the final curtain rang down.

Lady Precious Stream was a great success and played to packed houses at the Town Hall on each of the five nights from the 7th to 12th of April. Fuziah and Zahariah were given honourable mention in The Straits Times. S. H. Tan, the popular columnist in The Malay Mail, declared it one of the most enjoyable evenings of his life.

Praise was lavished on all the principals. The VI Senior Girl, Shirley Loo, performed competently and was dazzling in the borrowed fully sequinned dance costume of a Court Dancer. Her mother was a great Cantonese opera fan and had got Leong Yue Foong, a professional actress and dance, to train Shirley for her elaborate dance.

The hero of the piece, Hsieh Ping-Kuei, played by Martin Lee, was just a little imprudently haughty in the beginning of the play, but seemed to move into more suitable ground when he later became King of the Western Regions. Alladin bin Hashim fitted the role of the old General Mu as though it were tailored for him. Lim Meng Seng and Quan Siew Jhin (the third of the talented Quan sisters) shared the honours for portraying a truly naughty couple: the scornful and treacherous Wei, the Tiger General, and the garrulous, coquettish Silver Stream, his wife.

Kok Wee Kiat, as the Honourable Reader, delivered his lines with the skill associated with first-rate oratory. Krishen Jit, in his second acting role, played the frustrated Prime Minister Wang Yun very competently. When, in the final scene, all his energized blustering had petered out and he was reduced to humble resignation and constrained to agree “willingly” with Madam Wang’s matter-of-fact statement that “the best families are ruled by the wife,” Krishenjit’s character had earned the sympathy of a large part of the audience. For Kirshenjit his apprenticeship period was over. The University and the world beyond awaited his blossoming talent in acting, directing and critiquing.

The following year, 1959, brought a pleasant surprise. Mrs. Devadason was transferred back to the VI from the ACS Ipoh where she had been teaching. Yet, for unexplained reasons, the Dramatic Society broke the tradition of producing a major play that year and was content to put up two one-act plays in the School Hall on March 5, 6 and 7. The sets were beautifully designed by Liu Tai Fung and Art Teacher Mr. Patrick Ng and Liu Tai Fung and looked authentic.

The first of them - Tutankhamon, Son of Ra - whisked the audience to ancient Egypt. The play opened with a bearded Egyptologist (played by Michael Foenander whose father had played Prince Hal in 1925) showing two lady tourists a frieze of Tutankhamon, his wife, Ankhsenamon, and their court. Cleverly silhouetted against the tranquil orange light, the scene was by courtesy of the lighting skills of Thillainathan.

Then, magically, the figures came alive to re-enact a tale of power struggles and betrayal in Tutankhamon’s palace. Mrs. Devadason had cast her son, Indran, as Lord Ay. The cringing and toadying Indran stole the show with his plotting with the evil High Priest of Amon (Leong Yoke Hong).

Bobby Lee portrayed the helpless weakling on the throne and his stage wife, Sheila Sodhy, had the dignified air of a queen. Ahmad Zaidee bin Laidin, making his stage debut in the minor role of the Court Herald, would be seen and heard from again in the coming years.

Egyptologist (Michael Foenander) and tourist; Lord Ay (Indran D.) and High Priest (Leong Yoke Hong)

After a recess, the School Hall was darkened and the curtains parted for Aurularia. It had been presented five years earlier for the school's Diamond Jubilee. Now a new cast stood ready to play to a new audience. Shuffling onto the stage was the tall, bent and trembling form of Euclio, portrayed by Kanesalingam, the entire play centred around him and his pot of gold. On him depended the happiness of his daughter, Eunomia and her lover, Lyconides (whose uncle, Megadoras, was also in love with Eunomia), and that of Staphylla, Euclio’s slave, and her lover, Pythodicus.

Aurularia: Pythodicus (centre); Euclio

Fuziah, fresh from her Lady Precious Stream title role, was a natural, while Pythodicus’ (Choo Min Hsiung) nimble movements and infectious gaiety made him a favourite with the audience. Other Lady Precious Stream veterans, Alladin bin Hashim, and Lim Meng Seng (paired with Miss Anna Lee as two young people desperately in love) were equally good. Like all comedies, 'twas all’s well that ends well.

The following year saw the return to the Shakespearean staple of earlier years. The choice was The Tempest, a comedy, and work got under way as early as February when auditions were held on the first and second of that month. It was a difficult play involving a shipwreck and scenes on an enchanted island with singing and dancing spirits thrown in.

Though the majority of the cast consisted of people who were making their acting debuts, Mrs. Devadason was able to maintain the traditional high standard of previous years. Deputy Head Girl Liew Nyok Kheng, with elegant poise and mellow voice, gave an excellent portrayal of Ariel—the dutiful and airy spirit. The Bard’s lines and lyrics were beautifully interpreted through her sprightly acting and singing. School Captain Choo Min Hsiung, who had been passed over for the part of Hsieh Ping-Kuei in 1958’s Lady Precious Stream, landed the lead role of the Duke of Milan, the magically powerful Prospero. The challenging role of Caliban, the dim-witted anomaly was commendably played by Tan Kee Keong. He must have scared many a child in the audience. Chan Huen Yin as Trinculo the jester paired with David Foenander as Stephano the drunkard to provide comedy relief.

Ahmad Zaidee and Rosemary Ross made a fine pair as Ferdinand and Miranda, the young lovers, injecting some glamour in the somewhat serious atmosphere. Like all plays, there was always the unexpected to expect. One scene opened with Min Hsiung standing on an imaginary rocky shoreline directing a great storm to sink Zaidee’s ship and Rosemary was to rush in to tell him to stop. During one actual performance, as she ran in, Rosemary tripped and winded herself and had to improvise a bit of wailing (real) until she got her breath back to speak!

Zaidee had his share of mishaps too. The Qualifying Rounds had coincided with the rehearsals and someone wearing running spikes accidentally stepped on his toes. He needed six stitches at the hospital. This threw the production into a tizzy. Although Zaidee had an understudy, it was too close to Opening Night for him to be replaced. And so, on that first night, on the same shoreline where Miranda would later trip, Ferdinand literally limped dazedly ashore from his sunken ship. Zaidee’s classmates later complimented him on how very real his acting was. Little did they know!

Ho Kah Poong’s fine diction and eloquence as Gonzalo drew praise from the audiences, thanks to the speech training that teachers Mrs. Creedy, Messrs John Doraisamy and Alan Bennet gave the members of the cast before rehearsals began. The expat community pitched in - Mrs. Anne More trained the chorus and singing parts, Mrs. Nora Williams coached the dancers, and Mr. Charles Potter took charge of the make-up.

As he did for Lady Precious Stream, Liu Tai Fung led his crew to paint the very elaborate and life-like sets that had been designed by Mr. Patrick Ng and constructed under the supervision of the two faithful Old Boys, Messrs. Low Chi Tho and Satish Chand Bhandari, who had last given their all in Lady Precious Stream. Thillainathan, now an Old Boy, returned to take charge of the lighting and met the challenge of creating the lighting effects for the masque scene.

Teacher Mr. C. Ayadurai took charge of the business aspect of the enterprise. The costumes were designed by teacher Miss Wong Yook Ling and the props were made by Mr. Vincent Voo. The back-stage crew, under G. Jeyanathan, were a vital part of the whole undertaking. Dressed in dark blue Treacher House jerseys and armed with flashlights, they toiled silently in the semi-darkness delivering, in addition, wind effects (with a wind machine), and realistic thunder (by shaking a sheet of galvanised iron with handles attached to opposite edges).

Gonzalo, Antonio, Sebastian at sea; Ferdinand, Prospero, Miranda, Ariel; Alonso, Adrian watching Prospero and dancing spirits

Thanks to Mrs. Devadason’s dynamic personality that welded the enormous number of people into a single team, the VI Society of Drama chalked up yet another success. The Tempest drew crowds at every performance at the Town Hall on each of the six nights from the 23rd to 28th of May, 1960.

When 1961 rolled in, it was expected that Mrs. Devadason would lead the Society onto greater glories. But it was not to be as she fell ill. The Society managed to persuade Old Boy Krishen Jit to direct its annual play. Getting him was a bit of a coup as Krishen Jit, in his second year arts course at the University of Malaya, was also in great demand at the time.

Krishen Jit picked another James Bridie play, Jonah and the Whale, an English Literature text. The storyline was quite well known. Jonah, a prophet of God, is directed to go to Niniveh to warn the people of impending destruction as they are indulging in sinful behaviours. Jonah, however, has doubts and runs away on a ship. Caught in a storm, he jumps from the ship and is swallowed by the Great Big Whale. After lengthy exchanges with the Whale, Jonah is finally disgorged and proceeds to warn the Ninevites about their impending doom.

It was very educational for the cast to have as inventive and stimulating a director as him. Carrying the play were two of the previous year’s actors – Ahmad Zaidee as Jonah and Pritam Singh, as Bilshan a commercial traveler. The latter was the younger brother of Isher Singh, President of the Society in 1956.

Armed with a staff, a false beard and a swag, Zaidee played Jonah with immense confidence. On some days his beard would be curly, and on others, straight. Rosemary Ross returned to the stage as Shiprah the courtesan, wickedly smoking a cigarette on stage and looking every inch a wanton harlot! Except she didn’t then smoke, so the pretend cigarette puffing was difficult and nearly choked her. The rest of the cast were making their debuts, including Renuka Sodhy, Chuah Guat Eng and Baljit Kaur. Renuka had been in The Tempest the previous year as a prompter, a role that required her to be totally invisible to and unheard by the audience. Now she took the very visible role of Eshtemoa, a leading citizeness of Nineveh, and played it remarkably well. Euodias, in the play, was a naive village girl who believed in Jonah. Baljit Kaur portrayed her in her truest simplicity, with grace and brilliance.

The costumes of the players, designed by future fashion designer Derrick Row, were very impressive and added much colour to the play. The sets, as usual, were very well done and worthy of comment. Clever lighting and sound effects – swishing of water, rumbling and wheezing – gave the impression that Jonah was in the Whale’s belly. The creature was brilliantly voiced by school debater G. K. Madhu speaking over the P. A. system. It was sheer magical realism, so much so some young children in the audience got scared.

Kenny Siebel was stage manager and once there was a hilarious moment when he had to run with the curtain to get it closed. He literally took off and was suspended in the air for several seconds. Old Boys like Low Chi Tho, G. Jeyanathan as business manager, and R. Balendra the previous year’s Vice-Chairman came down every night from Rawang, all contributed selflessly to the effort.

Rehearsals began in the middle of March, during the First Term holidays, with members of the cast committing a few hours every day. The greatest obstacle encountered, Krishen Jit recalled, was to get actors to move correctly on the stage. “Only a few members of the cast had any previous experience in acting,” he added. Rehearsals and performances were always followed by mee supper in the Lake Gardens or near the Old Market. Krishen Jit always paid.

For the two nights of full dress rehearsal the cast as well as the production staff worked from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., with some scenes repeated until the director was satisfied. The production played on 8th May and from 10th to 13th May. 1750 people in total saw the play which played to full houses except on the final night. Financially it was also a success, bringing a tidy profit to the Society’s coffers.

Jonah and Bilshan; Eshtemoa, Bilshan, Shiprah and others

The traditional cross-pollination between the Society of Drama and other drama groups across town continued for the rest of the year with Baljit Kaur and Parameswaran taking part in a production by the Malayan Arts and Theatre Group celebrating the Rabindranath Tagore Centenary. The Society’s stage crew regularly assisted in other productions across town, including the Singapore Ballet performances at the Pavilion Theatre.

What would have then been a triumphant year was marred by the sad news of Mrs. Devadason’s death on August 31st in London. She had gone there for treatment of ovarian cancer. When her body was flown back to Kuala Lumpur, the VI boys formed a guard of honor at the Sungei Besi Airport.

Two months before Mrs. Devadason’s passing, a British teacher, Mrs J. Swallow, had joined the VI staff. Now, in early 1962, Mrs Swallow took over the mantle as Advisory Teacher of the Society of Drama. She immediately took the Society in a bold new direction by selecting La Machine Infernale as the annual play. It was the English translation of a French play by Jean Cocteau. It dealt with the Greek myth of Oedipus and the means – the Infernal Machine - employed by the Gods to manipulate and determine the life of the human individual. It was dark, it was unusual, it was arresting.

Rehearsals started at the beginning of the school year and, on occasion, went up to one o’clock in the morning. All the veterans of the previous year had left school, except for Chuah Guat Eng. Oedipus was played by Kamarul Bahrin. Although he lacked the majesty of the Prince of Thebes he was portayed, he showed flashes of exceptional ability. Guat Eng played Queen Jocasta and J. Jegathesan, Chairman of the Society, took the role of the High Priest. The Sphinx was conveyed through green silhouetted lighting and articulated with Ku Arpah’s voice.

New stage techniques were employed to depict a ghost and goddess to put across an atmosphere of horror and tension. The stage sets, lighting and tone were necessarily sombre and foreboding. More significantly, the play touched on two taboos, the patricide and incest as prophesized by the Oracle at Thebes. These themes, the Society of Drama – unwisely, it turned out – chose to trumpet in its ads: “He will kill his father! He will marry his mother!”

Jocasta (Chuah Guat Eng) & Oedipus (Kamarul Bahrin) in bed scene

Instead of generating interest, it had the opposite effect. Horrified schools (the Convent, particularly) forbade their students from attend the play. A national newspaper levelled very harsh criticism at the play while a prominent figure in the local drama scene, Anthony Price, came out in its defence. Many people asserted that the play was too highbrow and heavy going for school audiences. There was certainly some truth in that. Malayan audiences liked action and did not like lengthy dialogues, delivered too quickly by an inexperienced cast at that.

Squeamish Kuala Lumpur playgoers stayed away in doves when La Machine Infernale played in the capacious auditorium of the brand new Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka from May 23rd to 26th, 1962. VI boys, including those in the lower forms, were dragooned to buy tickets fill the seats. Every night the production played to partially empty halls, leading, for the first time, to an unprecedented financial loss. Mrs Swallow left the School on July 14th.

The next several years might well be labelled the Dorall era, after the new Advisory Teacher who took over in 1963. Edward Noel Dorall was educated in Malaya, India (during the War), Britain and, finally, Ireland. He taught English in French schools and French in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. After his father, a former teacher at Batu Road School died, he returned to Malaysia and joined the VI staff.

Avoiding any possible controversy, Dorall decided to produce a comedy instead, The Importance of Being Earnest by the Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde. His choice was not surprising, given that he had graduated from Dublin University. Before long, teasers like

Did you begin Life in a handbag?
Earnest did. How? Why?
Find out at the Town Hall
When The VI Society of Drama
Presents The Importance of Being Earnest

were posted around the school or taped on the screens of VI teachers’ cars. Although Wilde’s madcap farce about mistaken identities, secret engagements, and lovers’ entanglements was not an examination text, it was felt that the audiences would still come.

Dorall had no problems staging the play except for one challenge in casting. The role of Lady Bracknell was that of a domineering, no-nonsense battle-axe and there was no girl in the School who fitted the bill. (VI girls were, after all, sweet and demure types.) The solution was simple – cast a boy instead! That part went to the only English boy in the VI at that time, Peter Fryer, who did it with great aplomb. The Wardrobe Mistress had great fun dressing him up with falsies and all. Peter wore a pair of short pants under his billowing skirt. During rehearsals, whenever his skirt became too warm, Peter would lift it up in a very unladylike fashion to air his legs, causing the real girls to scream and run helter-skelter.

In the run-up to the opening day, officials of the Society descended upon the classrooms with piles of tickets and unloaded them on the pupils. The tickets sold, the Society assured itself of a full house on each night of the performance. When the audience presented themselves at the Town Hall on June 19th, 20th, 21st, or 22nd, another attack was made on their wallets by a pack of Sixth Form girls selling programmes.

Still it was worth it. The players had the audience hooked minutes after the curtain opened. They had not delivered more than the fourth line of the play when the audience burst into laughter, the first of an almost uninterrupted series of laughs throughout the two and a half hours of the play.

There was the imposing Lady Bracknell (otherwise known as Peter Fryer) sailing regally in, towing in her wake the charming Gwendolyn Fairfax, played by Caroline Cheah. Lady Bracknell made a striking impression

The Rev Cannon Chasuble (Liu Cheng Choong), John Worthing (Sundareson), Miss Prism (Baljit Kaur)

from the first and maintained it throughout the scenes he/she appeared in. The commanding voice and shocked jerk of the head that set the feather in her hat dancing, completely fitted the part of a woman used to being obeyed without question. Shahidah Majid, as Cecily Cardew, lived her part of the innocent, childish girl with highly entertaining but ridiculous ideas on the affairs of love and courtship. N. Sundareson played John Worthing, guardian of Cecily, Liu Cheng Choong the Reverend Cannon Chasuble and Baljit Kaur the governess, Miss Prism. Algernon Moncrieff, the cousin of Gwendolyn, was played by Mizanur Rahman, whose father S. M. Ghani had been involved the the VI drama productions of the 1920s.

All's well that ends well: Gwendolyn Fairfax (Caroline Cheah), John Worthing (Sundareson),
Algernon Moncrieff (Mizanur Rahman), Cecily Cardew (Shahidah Majid), Rev Cannon Chasuble (Liu Cheng Choong),
Miss Prism (Baljit Kaur)

All the players did extremely well and the end of this comedy of manners was reached with regret. It was, indeed, an entertaining, light-hearted evening, quite a change from the previous year’s offering.

The following year was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and it was only appropriate for the VI Society of Drama to stage, as its major production of the year, one of the plays written by the Bard himself. In late 1963 Dorall picked what is described as the funniest and the maddest of all Shakespeare’s plays - The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play centered on the class prejudices of middle-class England with themes of love and marriage, jealousy and revenge, social class and wealth.

Leaving as little as possible to the last minute, Dorall scheduled rehearsals towards the end of the Third Term, 1963, and throughout the end of year break. Merry Wives had singing and music. Perhaps this was why it was selected, for Dorall was musically gifted; he not only played the piano but he composed music as well and Merry Wives had many lyrics crying for music to go with them. He auditioned Pamela Sodhy for the part of Anne Page by getting her to sing a song in the VI field. She and other actors would gather at his apartment to rehearse Dorall’s own compositions at his piano.

The songs and music of the play were a hit with the audience. Another favourite was the scene in which the dancing of faery Hugh Evans the parson, played by Lee Kam Chuen, was an unending source of delight. To look faery-like, the male faeries had to submit meekly to the unfamiliar and, to them, painful process of having hairpins and flowers stuck into them.

For the wardrobe ladies it was a nightly ordeal of aching arms and breathlessness to lace Narayanan into his numerous cushions and sew him into his boots. Still, the lacing was too loose and the cushions were in every danger of slipping.

Most of the humour was centered on one character — the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, brilliantly played by K. S. Narayanan, a veteran from The Importance of Being Earnest. Laughter followed his every appearance. Narayanan’s clear commanding voice and clumsy gait (which was more natural than artificial) infused the entire play with liveliness.

To appear like a true Shakespearean Falstaff, he had to spend most of his time in both the make-up and wardrobe rooms. Fortunately, the Society had the invaluable help of Major Holder, an Englishman, married and settled in Malaysia. He solved a vital make-up problem by procuring for Narayanan a skin-coloured skull cap onto the sides of which was fixed some silver-grey false hair. With this on, plus a beard and false eyebrows, the otherwise youthful Falstaff did appear his age.

Major Holder passed on his stage character make-up skills to Mizanur Rahman (Algernon from Earnest) and his brother Sirajoon. The twosome in turn trained make-up teams annually ensuring that the Society of Drama had in-house expertise for many years to come.

Another Earnest veteran, Peter Fryer traded his haughty matriarchal tones for a heavy foreign accent as the French physician, Doctor Caius. Vengadesan played Master Ford to Puvanendran’s Justice Shallow. Standing out were Venu Sarma as Master Slender in love with Mistress Anne Page, and Michael Thorne as Simple, his servant. The threesome drew laughter from the audience time and again with their clowning and well-timed movements.

The Merry Wives of Windsor also made a tremendous impact through its music and songs, rendered by the players themselves. Lovelorn Master Slender sang to his own guitar accompaniment, “O Mistress Anne....” and the lady of his attention (Pamela Sodhy) drew gasps of admiration from the audience through her delightful singing: “Master Fenton, I've listened to your pleadings, Master Slender, ….” Leow Lee Fah (Mistress Ford) and Gan May Lin (Mistress Page) were also impressive.

Unbeknownst to the audience, minor dramas played out backstage too. These included the mystery of Oh Chin Chye (Master Page)’s missing pot of honey, indispensable to his ailing throat, while another involved a vanishing ration of biscuits intended for somebody’s dinner. The same fate befell some chocolates designated as props. Mistress Ford, opening the chocolate box during one of her scenes was faced with the predicament of picking up and nibbling invisible chocolates. Since most of the crew and cast worked hard on half-empty stomachs, any food - props or otherwise - carelessly left lying around was the finder’s.

On Friday, the penultimate day of their run, the tired crew and cast faced a matinee and evening show. While the stage crew could slip out between shows for food, the cast, still wearing their make-up, could not. Still, a few brave and hungry ones - public opinion be damned - did actually venture forth in their paints. The play surely gained an iota of added publicity for that.

The production played to a packed Town Hall every night from March 17th to 21st, once again reinforcing the Society’s reputation for enjoyable theatrical productions. It was graced by the presence of the Sultan of Selangor on the final night. Although no one knew it then, Merry Wives would be the last ever Shakespearean play to be staged.

Playboy of the Western World: Drama in an Irish pub

1965 was the year of Dorall’s Irish roots. When he first proposed J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World as the Society’s next play, the committee was skeptical. A play with a title that evoked visions of glamorous well-coiffed patrons of night clubs by an almost unheard of Irish playwright? Edward Dorall assured them that Playboy actually dealt with the lives of country people in the rather sombre surroundings around Mayo on the west coast of Ireland.

After their auditions in February, the cast began their rehearsals in mid-March which extended into their First Term holidays. Old Boys again rallied to lend their assistance with set building, advice and publicity. Playboy was staged in the Town Hall from 12th to 15th May, 1965, and was well received by the VI pupils and the public. Mr. Dennis McClelland, a VSO member of the VI staff from Northern Ireland gave an appropriate introduction in his Irish lilt before the curtains parted to reveal the scene of a small country public house (which proved to be the only scene of the play!) The first act passes on an evening in autumn, with the other two acts on the following day.

The plot centres around Christopher Mahon’s supposed killing of his father and his retreat to a village of dull, ignorant people who, instead of condemning him, regarded him as a hero. The role was very expertly interpreted by Michael Thorne, who outshone most of his seniors with his brilliant and superior acting.

There was a touch of romance between the playboy and two women, Pegeen Mike and Widow Quin. Jeanne Foenander filled the difficult part of the Widow Quin magnificently, her encounters with Mumtaz Shaik’s Pegeen raising much laughter. Ooi Aik Tee, as Shawn Keogh, spouse-to-be of the widow, had a difficult part as a shivering coward. He came out of it quite well and looked quite amusing without his spectacles.

Lee Kam Chuen, as Pegeen Mike’s father, had a booming voice that could be heard at the back of the Hall. He was outstanding for his performance as a drunk returning from a wake and for his frequent “It's the will of God” pronouncements.

Sitting (L to R): Kim Sim, Kin Teng, Jeanne Foenander, Edward Dorall, Michael Thorne, Mumtaz Shaikh, Loe Yee Mee
Standing (L to R): Inayat Ali, Ismail Ariffin, Lee Kam Chuen, Leong Yoke Weng, Ooi Aik Tee

The main cast was supported by eighteen other extras playing the parts of village girls and peasants in the final crowd scene. The play, on the whole, was quite enjoyable, although some who failed to get the gist of it found it rather dry. Edward Dorall could claim another winner under his belt. More was to come.

Before the year ended, there was a historic change in the School’s extra-curricular landscape. The proliferation of societies in the early sixties had resulted in declining memberships with too many societies competing for the same number of pupils. It was decided to amalgamate the Musical Society, the Society of Drama and the Art and Craft Club into a single entity called the VI Cultural Society in November 1965. In one fell swoop, the famous brand name - “VI Society of Drama” - vanished into history.

The Annual General Meeting of the new conglomerate was held on 18th January, 1966, to pass its constitution and to enlighten the members on the aims of the Society, one being to foster culture in the minds of Victorians.

The annual school play for 1966 was next in the minds of the committee and the Advisory Teacher. Their choice was probably a legacy of Edward Dorall’s years in France just as Playboy was of his Irish experience and Earnest his English upbringing. It was The Would-be Gentleman, a translation of Molière’s 1670 play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Auditions were held for this comedy of manners to be produced in the Second Term. Then the play was postponed to the Third Term and finally it was called off. Its replacement at that late stage was an innovation – it would be a play that Edward Dorall himself had been working from the beginning of that year.

An all-Malaysian play on a Malaysian theme by a Malaysian playwright, it was entitled Arise, O Youth! It dealt with issues of a family whose son had failed the Sixth Form Entrance Examination. From the fifties and until 1967, the results of this nation-wide examination had been the sole criteria for selection into the Sixth Form and thence to the University. Small wonder that the hopes and dreams of many a Fifth Former and his parents rode on this two-day examination held in September of each year.

Dorall pioneered another first for his tragicomedy. For verisimilitude, he used so-called “Malaysian English” so his script was filled with more “lahs,” “ahs,” “mans,” and “wahs” that had ever been used. He even wrote in a little part for himself.

The cast was principally of Sixth Formers, those who had by definition survived that notorious Entrance Exam. By the same token, no Fifth Former was allowed by the Headmaster to take part just in case life imitated art! Another VI teacher, Peace Corpsman Sam Edwards, was written into the story as a theatrical device. As Mr Halliday, a foreigner, he (and through him, the audience) has the significance of the dreaded Sixth Form Entrance exam explained to him in Act 1.

Tay Kong Leong (played by Leong Yoke Weng) fails his Sixth Form Entrance Examination. His world tumbles around him like a pack of cards. His family rejects him, his friends despise him. Kong Leong’s mother (Gong Chin Keen), possessive and proud, slaps him. His father Tay Fong Thai (Foo Yeow Leong), a self-made man pushes him into a career he does not want. His brother is talkative and unconsciously cruel.

Kong Leong suffers humiliation at a party given by Peter Ho (Yap Peng Lee), a rich, materialistic classmate. One by one, his friends insult him, steal his girlfriend from him and murmur hate. And so he walks out while his friends enjoy themselves, playing out the final paradox, the paradox in Dorall’s own composition: “Arise, O Youth!/ Arise, O Youth / Your Time Has Come. / The Time is Now, / Arise! Arise!” The play shows that some youths can never arise, a paradox of the Malaysian society of 1966.

Foo Yeow Leong, playing the part of the father, Tay Fong Thai, stole the limelight. In the second Act when he was crushed by his son’s failure, he shed real tears. Gong Chin Keen, too, was outstanding. Ranting and raving came easily to her and she was near perfect. Leong Yoke Weng, though overshadowed occasionally by his stage father, had his finest hour at the highly emotional moment when the spectre of failure struck his character.

Mr Halliday (Sam Edwards) meets Tay Kong Leong (Leong Yoke Weng) in his parents' home

Mohanan, as Sundera the failure, the frustrated ex-student, the failure’s failure, the epitome of the faceless failures that abound unrecognised in every society, played his part almost to perfection. He evoked tears and sympathy from the audience. Ramola Sodhy — playing the garrulous Mrs Raja — was outstanding. She practically lived her part and for a few minutes stole the show. And then the tactless one — Chin Yuen Yin playing Tony Yong — showed how cruel the world could be to the ones who have no drive in them, how cruel we can be without realizing it, and that a glowing future is only for those who can pass exams.

Wong Kuan Fook the only Form One boy in the play, showed great potential as the younger son of Fong Thai. As for the playwright-cum-director-cum-actor-cum-composer, Edward Dorall, the play itself was well directed. Of his acting, some thought he was trying to do too much and he seemed in a way slightly detached in his scenes. Dorall’s dialogue was the careful result of observation of youthful behaviour. Those in the audience who regarded English as a second language understood his play with ease. The audience laughed, the audience cried, the audience sobbed at a play they could easily relate to, a play that spoke to the people in the language of the people. Tay Kong Leong could well have been their son, their brother, their nephew.

The play was staged on September 9th and 10th, 1966 at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. TV Malaysia filmed parts of it for its news telecast. “Enthusiasm Carries Arise, O Youth! to Success,” proclaimed the Straits Times. Edward Dorall’s credentials and the Cultural Society’s reputation were now firmly established. The newly exalted playwright almost immediately picked up his pen again for his next piece.

By the time January 1967 dawned, Edward Dorall had another play in the works - A Tiger is Loose in our Community. And this time his canvas is a broader one than Arise, O Youth! Ostensibly about gansterism, its subtext deals with social ills, innocence and deceit, poverty, cruelty, selfishness and generational conflict. Conspicuously absent are any heroes. The typical middle class family is exemplified by the Reades (the senior Reade being played by Dorall), eventually stripped of its class veneer to expose it as no better than the other family – the Chans of the slums - to which the Tiger of the play belongs. When Philip Reade (school sprinter Cyril Gaudart) becomes infatuated with Tiger’s sister, Helen (Hooi Sook Ching), he is cruelly disillusioned. She looks to him only as a chance to escape the filth and the squalor of the squatter village.

Village idiot Kali (right) casues a ruckus in the squatter village

Tiger (Gan Song Chee) has a younger brother, San Fan (the talented Wong Kuan Fook from the previous year's Arise, O Youth!), who, with all the ideals of pristine youth, fraternizes with the village idiot, Kali, brilliantly played by Satkunanantham, who impressed with his singing of nonsensical songs. Any fool can act but only a good actor can portray a fool effectively. Kali and San Fan fly kites together, see goats in wells, and catch frogs. Simple Kali is the only good person in the entire play and, like good people all over, he is hated by his neighbours. The people of the slums are no better. They hate Tiger, but dare not make a move; they plot, but only behind his back.

Philip parts from Helen, disillusioned forever. Kali is manipulated into a fight with Tiger. The gangster dies and, in turn, the neighbours beat Kali to death. But the cycle of violence is not yet finished. Like the phoenix, from the ashes of the dead Tiger arises another. Young San Fan assumes his brother’s mantle and it all begins again . . .

But a parallel climax unfolding in the Reade family is Philip’s discovery that the cushy job which he thought he had so cleverly landed after going for the interview had actually been “advertised” solely for him and that he was the only candidate. That was the best moment of the play.

Wong Kuan Fook, as Tiger’s younger brother, acted his part with the aplomb and stage presence of one much more mature in years. He endeared himself to the audience with his relaxed and natural acting.

The dialogue was good as far as Malaysian English went, with Tamil (by Kali and the sarong-clad chettiar, played by Anil Sodhy) and tons of Cantonese thrown in whenever Tiger and his gang appeared. The sets were well painted and the general organisation of the play was very good. The stage crew performed their job creditably considering the large props that had to be moved about.

Tiger played to full houses at the Town Hall from March 14th to 18th, 1967. Considering that the play was produced in March at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka a mere two months after the script was written, it was a roaring success in more ways than one and filled the coffers of the Society. If anyone was hoping for more home-brewed VI plays, he would have been disappointed. Shortly after his latest triumph, Edward Dorall left the VI on a high note for a lecturer’s position at the English Department at the University of Malaya. There, he would pen more plays, including The Hour of the Dog, a critical success, establishing himself as one of the country’s handful of dramatists writing in the English language. All thanks to the pioneering drama opportunities he first encountered at the Victoria Institution.

The following year, a new advisory teacher came abroad. She was Mrs. Indira Balaraman. She steered the Cultural Society on a daring new tack, choosing Look Back in Anger for its annual play in a year which saw the School looking back in pride in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

John Osborne’s 1956 revolutionary masterpiece on social issues has been credited with laying the foundation of the “kitchen-sink drama” genre. The play was a success on the London stage and spawned the term “angry young men” to describe Osborne and those of his generation.

The play is set entirely in a one-room attic apartment in the Midlands of England. This large room is the home of an intelligent but disaffected young man, Jimmy Porter (played by Surendran Menon), his upper-middle-class, impassive wife Alison (Khaw Kay-Tee), and his business partner and lodger Cliff Lewis (Satkunanantham), who has a separate bedroom across the hall.

True, certain scenes in the play were edited out for Malaysian school children but one can only wonder about the relevance to and reaction of a prudish public to this three-act play about a love triangle involving Jimmy, Alison, and her best friend, Helena Charles, played by Josephine Lee. Essentially driven almost entirely by Jimmy’s tirades at the others’ acceptance of the world around them, the situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Helena. Appalled at what she finds, Helena calls Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern (played on alternate nights by Anil Sodhy and Yu Kok Ann), to take her away. Helena then moves in with Jimmy. In the final act, Alison comes calling, having lost Jimmy’s baby. Helena can no longer stand living with Jimmy and packs and leaves, allowing Alison to return to Jimmy and his angry life.

The play being a modern one, presented a host of challenges to the producer, director and actors. The most demanding aspect was the acting, there being only five in the cast to carry a full length play through to the end. The play also called for displays of adult emotions and situations to be portrayed by teenage actors. There was the challenge of sustaining interest in long dialogues with coarse language, slang and references to British institutions.

Yet the acting on the whole was quite good considering the inexperience of the cast and the inherent difficulty of the play. Kay-Tee’s role of the abused and yet devoted wife was executed with remarkable maturity and sensitivity. She was good throughout the play and surpassed herself at the final scene in which Jimmy and she make up, moving many in the audience close to tears.

For Surendran Menon, this was his first appearance in a school production and he faced the challenging of putting across the frustrations and attitudes of a violently embittered adult. His enunciation was good and he managed to exhibit the full capabilities of his voice. His pathetic appeal to Alison at the end of Act II, Scene I, was both intense and touching. He sustained the substance of the character with mastery and portrayed Jimmy as he should have been — absolutely alive.

As Colonel Redfern, Anil Sodhy had the great disadvantage of being the youngest (and shortest) member of the cast playing the oldest character. He carried himself creditably except for his gait but his stiff military bearing must be commended. His intonation was rather monotonous because of his accent. His portrayal of an embarrassed and uncomfortable father showed his talent to advantage.

Look back in Anger played only three days, from March 6th to 8th March, 1968, at the Town Hall. As in London twelve years earlier, the play was received with both appreciation and cries of rage and disgust. But for a play edited to suit Asian audiences and schoolboy performance, it must be looked upon as an experiment of remarkable daring and audacity, a refreshing deviation from the traditional, “safe” Shakespearean plays and the like.

In 1969, Mrs. Balaraman made plans for another ambitious play – E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread a story set partly in Tuscany, Italy, about an English widow who falls in love with the country and a local Italian dentist. She marries him but dies during child birth. The family of her dead husband in England travel to Italy to try to get custody of the child, who unfortunately dies in an accident. The story deals with, among other things, a clash of values and cultures of the two different countries and issues of truth over passion.

Planning and rehearsals went ahead in the second term and set design and construction under the supervision of Mr. Yeap Tan Lim began. The May 13 riots put paid to any further activity. The nightly curfews that began as early at 11 o’clock and the atmosphere of anxiety persisting well into the following year saw the cancellation of the play. The School’s annual athletic meet suffered a similar fate.

In 1970, Mr. Joseph Siew took over as Advisory Teacher. Initially it was planned to resume preparations for Where Angels Fear to Tread. A cast was cobbled together but now the Society had its own fears of treading that path again. “Difficulties in portraying an alien culture and speaking in Italian” was the reason offered by Mr. Siew, though how much Italian was spoken in the play was not clear. After much heated debate by the committee, Angels was ditched in favour of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

A four-act play written in 1897, it is set in a seaside town and tells the story of Mrs. Clandon and her three children, Dolly, Phillip and Gloria, who have just returned to England after an eighteen-year stay in Portugal. The children have no idea who their father is. The family establishes contact with a five-shilling dentist, Valentine, and his miserly landlord, Mr. Crampton. Finch M’Comas, the Clandons’ solicitor, leaks out the truth to the children that Mr. Crampton is their missing father. Mr. Crampton/Clandon, meanwhile employs the services of a barrister, Bohun, and demands custody of Philip and Dolly, the twin siblings, whom he feels, need proper grooming and etiquette. In the final scene, M’Comas and Bohun reach a compromise and the family is reunited. Gloria is bethrothed to Valentine, and the play ends with Walter, the friendly and wise waiter, dispensing his wisdom with the titular phrase, “You Never Can Tell.”

All in all, the play was an apt choice and was well-staged. It took courage, a great deal of perseverance and talent to portray the creation of a genius. Joseph Siew directed while Jothieswaran, the Chairman of the Cultural Society, became the first ever schoolboy producer.

The good acting made the transition to the world of 1896 virtually complete. Perhaps what jarred were the occasional strained speeches caused by mistimed vowels and consonants. The play could have been improved by some idiosyncrasies affected by the characters – a dignified limp, a nervous cough or tic, an imperious toss of the head, perhaps. The settings - neither over-lavish nor mediocre - were tastefully conceived though. The main characters, Patricia David as Mrs. Clandon, Chan Li Chong in the role of Finch M’Comas and, in particular, Sharlini Kumar as Dolly put up performances par excellence. A now mature Wong Kuan Fook, last seen as the gangster’s younger brother in 1967’s Tiger, played Philip Clandon.

Scenes from You Never Can Tell

You Never Can Tell was staged at the Town Hall from 10th to 13th June, 1970, under the patronage of the Minister Khaw Khai Boh (father of Kay-Tee who played Alison in Look Back in Anger two years earlier). It was a success, dramatically and culturally, and received favourable reports in the press. Victoria Institution shines in witty Shaw comedy, headlined the Straits Times’ review. “The members of Victoria Institution Cultural Society acquitted themselves well in their production of You Never Can Tell .... They made all their points well-timed and projected,” wrote the critic.

Mr. Siew resigned from the VI staff in September and was succeeded by Mr. Yeo Beng Kong. In 1971, plans including rehearsals were underway for staging the annual school play. The unidentified play was cancelled at the last minute because the Advisory Teacher felt that the risks involved in staging the play were “too great to be undertaken,” though it was not clear what the risks were.

1972 seemed to presage a return to the tradition. Two short plays, Shivering Shocks by Clemence Dane and The Proposal by Anton Tchekov were staged from September 28th to 30th. However, it would appear that the Cultural Society’s priority in the following years was more on cultural items. There was no play in 1973. In the following year, the Society’s energies were chanelled to the organization of the School’s Bakat VI and Malam Budaya and, from 1975 on, in the staging of the revived School Concerts. And so, in the early seventies, after almost a quarter century of annual drama productions, the curtain finally came down one of the Victoria Institution’s proudest traditions.

* * * * *

The annual VI School play was splendid example of a School enterprise of several months’ duration culminating in four or five evenings of supreme public effort and applause. It involved scores of VI boys and girls, teachers, Old Boys and many outsiders as well working at many levels of interaction. Each gave up weeks of time to embark on a cultural and social adventure with no material rewards but memories of an enjoyable intellectual journey, one well-crafted, packaged and delivered.

There were the actors, of course - playing the heroes, heroines and villains - who interpreted the story with their body language and their individual voice talents. There were lines to be learned and mastered. Their delivery had to be in consonance, as interpreted by the director, with the mood and thrust of the story. The audience might not have been aware but there were cues to be heeded by an actor for interaction with the other actors during the play. When, where and how he moved was all pre-arranged. An actor had to move in a certain way, stand in designated positions, sometimes marked by chalk or tape during rehearsals. Gestures and facial expressions were of significant consideration. One cardinal principle - never stand with your back to the audience.

When one was only a teenager of 17 or 18, how did one convince the audience that they saw on the stage was an aged Tobit, a vile, scheming Lord Ay, an alcoholic Tay Fong Tai or a boisterous John Falstaff? The School Cricket Captain, a 100-metre sprinter or a Rugby fullback in the afternoon could well be transformed into a harrumphing country gentleman or a supercilious Victorian lady on the stage the same evening. In the nineteen twenties, thirties and early fifties, when there were no girls or only just a handful, there was the additional challenge of a male actor putting across a Lady Kate, an Olivia, a Viola or Portia to the audience. It was hard but that was the challenge of acting.

Taking part in plays was an extremely hard and long commitment. Rehearsals were held regularly for weeks, well into the night. Voice projection, diction, delivery and presentation were key elements on playing the part. Some years the cast had diction lessons given by the teachers. One could not afford to mumble or swallow one’s words for one would be inaudible, especially from the back of the acoustically-poor VI Hall. The best part of rehearsals, though, were the midnight snacks of Hokkien mee paid for by a grateful director.

But actors and actresses, however talented, did not a play make. There were also the unsung and largely invisible crews who drove the whole effort literally behind the scenes. Well before the rehearsals began, the set designers and makers had already started on their job. Usually they comprised the members and advisory teachers of the School’s art club. Even the nationally famous artist Patrick Ng had a hand in the design of sets. And there was a silently padding army of movers to put them in the right places and dress the stage in the gloom before the curtain rose on the next scene.

Costume designers were also needed to make the clothes to dress the actors for the appropriate period – Elizabethan, Venetian, Syracusean, Victorian, Chinese, Greek, Egyptian – and wardrobe mistresses were needed to mend, iron and store the inventory, keeping track of each actor and his costume. Of course, a sharp eye too had to be kept for actors who accidentally wore watches during the performance. Couldn’t have the Archangel Raphael or Shylock the Jew or the Duke of Ephesus having Timexes on their wrists, could we? Over the years a huge annual inventory of costumes, accessories, and props began filling several large chests in the drama room, the legacies of the VI drama tradition.

The Lighting and Sound crew were an indispensable component of a VI production. They did a fabulous job of making the story come alive. The wind, lightning and thunder were always so realistic - either mechanically realized with canvass sheets rubbed again a roller and zinc sheets shaken vigorously or through tape pre-recordings and/or records. Imaginative stage lighting, whether to depict the battlefield at Shrewsbury, the palace of an Illyrian Duke, a storm-lashed ship or even inside the belly of a whale was a hard-earned skill that the VI boys picked up and passed down over the years.

Make-up artistes changed the appearance, mood and perception of a character. In The Tempest, for example, they made the actors look pretty, like the spirit Ariel, or ugly like Caliban. In that same play, the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand were made to look young and dashing, Ariana fairy-like and angelic. Prospero, on the other hand, had to look old and be given a beard and white hair. His wrinkles were drawn in. The removal of the make-up every night was the hardest chore and it all had to be put on again the following evening. Again, make-up skills were learned over the years with great practitioners such as Kok Wee Kiat and Mizanur Rahman passed them to new generations.

And riding herd over it all would a good and experienced stage manager - like Satish Chand Bhandari in Lady Precious Stream - overseeing all aspects of stage preparation, props, painting of sets, music feeds, storage of costumes, make-up room facilities and even actors’ rest places when they were not in scene and when they were on call. Giving directions to others and getting the immediate and correct response was painstaking and demanding work. Immediate response to instructions was vital when a play was being played on stage and scenes had to be changed or lighting modified by dimming and/or increasing or decreasing lights. The stage crew had to be alert all the time as their contributions made or broke the play.

Others like ushers, usherettes, and bartenders, helped make the overall production run like clockwork. The bartenders had a long history, and tradition, too. Boys were recruited to help serve refreshments behind the bar during the intervals at all school plays. By long tradition, teacher Mr. Harry Lau was in charge of the bar!

A play is truly the only school activity which cuts across all age, gender, ethnic and class barriers. Where else could Form 1 boy share the stage with a senior? Together with the VICC Band and the VI Scouts, a VI drama production is one of the few enterprises which bring back Old Boys to help out in set making, directing, make up, lighting, publicity and in the bar. During rehearsals, the cast invariably bonded in an atmosphere of conviviality. That’s the beauty of plays. The drama people were in a world of make-believe and it always had a happy ending for them! After the final curtain on the final night, they carried away with them life-long friendships and memories.

Like the Band and the Scouts, the VI Drama people flew the school flag with pride. Indeed, in the nineteen twenties, the flag was taken as far as Penang and Singapore. Every VI dramatic production invariably aroused public curiosity and support through pieces in the local press with favourable comments.

Passing the torch from 1952 to 1957 to 1960 to 1961 to 1962 to 1966 to 1970

There is a direct spiritual link between Mahadev Shankar, the first President of the Drama Society of 1952 and his counterpart twenty years later. When Shankar stood before the Portia as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, one of the noblemen in the trial scene, in minor role, was a lanky Standard Six boy named Isher Singh. Four years later, in 1956, this same Isher Singh would be playing Aegeon, a Syracuse merchant, in A Comedy of Errors on the same Town Hall stage. The servant of one of Aegeon’s sons, Dromio, was played by Choo Min Hsiung, then a third Former. Min Hsiung would find himself playing the lead role of Prospero in the 1960 production of The Tempest. Prospero’s daughter was courted by one Ferdinand played by Min Hsiung’s junior, Ahmad Zaidee. The latter in turn played the major role in Jonah and and the Whale the following year. Appearing with Zaidee was Chuah Guat Eng who would continue her thespian career as Queen Jocasta in 1962 in the controversial La Machine Infernale. Debuting in that same production as a messenger boy was a Third Former, Leong Yoke Weng, the youngest in the cast. Four years later, as an Upper Sixth Former, Yoke Weng would take on the role of Tay Kong Leong, the central character in Edward Dorall’s Arise, O Youth!, the first production of the VI Cultural Society, the successor to the Dramatic Society. Playing Kong Leong’s kid brother would be a diminutive but precocious First Former named Wong Kuan Fook. In 1971, when the curtain rang down on the very last VI major production, Wong Kuan Fook, by then a Lower Sixth Former, played Philip Clandon, one of two twin siblings in You Never Can Tell. In 1972, Kuan Fook became Chairman of the VI Cultural Society. Sadly, by this time, the long run of public productions had come to its end.

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Chung Chee Min (2010)

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Created: June 24, 2016.
Last update: July 26, 2016.
Contributed by : Chung Chee Min