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
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 “..do 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
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
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.