More than a meeting
The 1955 Baling Talks gets the documentary treatment on stage.
THE communist insurgency in Malaya, which led to the Malayan Emergency ( 1948- 1960), was one of the bloodiest conflicts in our nation’s history.
The Malayan Communist Party’s ( MCP) aim was to overthrow the British administration of Malaya. The state of Emergency, declared by the British administration, stalled the progress of the nation’s independence movement.
A solution needed to be found to move the independence plans forward. In 1955, a meeting between leaders from both sides was called and this came to be known as the Baling Talks in Kedah.
It saw Tunku Abdul Rahman, the chief minister of the Federation of Malaya, David Marshall, the chief minister of Singapore, and the MCP leader Chin Peng brought to the table in an attempt to broker a peace deal.
The talks, as we have read in history books, were unsuccessful because the surrender terms were not acceptable to the MCP. But how many of us actually know what was said during the two- day meeting in that Baling schoolroom?
Five Arts Centre’s touring production Baling takes an insightful look at one of our country’s most defining meetings.
Baling, directed by Mark Teh, opens tonight at Five Arts Centre Studio in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur.
The cast includes theatre veteran Anne James, filmmaker Imri Nasution, actor Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri and activist/ actor Fahmi Fadzil.
“The documentary performance is centred on public documents and transcripts from the Baling Talks,” says Teh, 34, who adds that the performers will be reading excerpts of the talk.
“They will provide their own perspectives on how the ghosts of our history continue to haunt our present – in strange and unexpected ways.” he elaborates.
Teh is a lecturer at the Department of Performance And Media, Sunway University and is a member of Five Arts Centre.
The 100- minute show premiered at the Opening Festival of the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea last September and it has gone on to play in India, Japan and the United Arab Emirates this year.
After the show’s KL stop, Baling will tour Germany and return to Asia just in time for the Kyoto Experiment 2016 Autumn Season in Japan.
Faiq admits that he had doubts about the appeal of the show’s themes ( Malaysian history and politics) to a foreign audience.
However, his fears were quelled when the shows abroad were well- received.
“They ( the foreign audience) were engrossed in the show and could relate to the content and story,” says Faiq.
Teh adds that the idea of real questioning and rethinking of the “nation” appealed to theatregoers abroad.
“This has been a particularly common reaction in the contemporary Asian context – the need to question more,” says Teh.
However, what the tour has shown is that documentary performances in Asia are not as prevalent as regular theatre shows.
“There is a growing interest in this form of theatre. Practitioners see it as strategy to deal with historical or recent events and their consequences,” he maintains.
“Important questions are also posed about the politics of representation, and how you deal with perspectives and truth. The performers here are often not only actors, but people who are close to the subject matter – through work or research. They are ‘ social actors.’”
Interestingly, Baling had its beginnings back in 2005 when Teh directed and devised a 60- minute physical theatre performance based on the historical transcripts. It took on many different forms over the years and toured around the country to universities, colleges and futsal centres.
Baling even played at three libraries in London.
For the latest version of Baling, the production team visited several sites related to the 1955 talks, including the actual school in Baling ( where the talks took place). They also studied how the talks and main protagonists have been portrayed in government history textbooks and other sources.
“How is ‘ Malaysian’ history read? Who is telling the story? How do traces of the past continue to infect and affect the present?
“Malaysian history is quite fragmented and we have used the idea of ‘ fragments’ in terms of presenting our different scenes,” explains Teh.
Production designer Wong Tay Sy also adds that Baling does not have a centre stage area. Instead it has multiple performance spaces.
“We felt it will be interesting if the set of each scene is presented as an ‘ installation’. The audience will be encouraged to move around. Get a different view of the show. Each performance space will be deconstructed and reconstructed throughout the whole show,” explains Wong.
Baling opens tonight at Five Arts Centre, 27 and 27A, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur. Entry is by donation of RM40 ( adults) and RM20 ( students and senior citizens). The show will run until April 3. Limited tickets left for the April 2 show. The rest of the shows have sold out. For bookings, email fiveartscentre@ gmail. com or call 017- 3465 108. Facebook: Five Arts Centre.
The Baling performers ( from left) Imri nasution, Fahmi Fadzil and Anne James in a tense scene from the documentary play. The show allows the audience to observe and interpret for themselves what had been discussed in the Baling Talks held in 1955. — Asian Arts Theatre