The Malayan Arts Theatre Group

by Christine Tomlinson

In 1950, my father got a job working for the British Army in Kuala Lumpur, and my mother and I joined him.  After finally mastering shorthand and typing, I got a job at Radio Malaya.  A little while later several of the English officers at Radio Malaya formed a theatrical group. They called it The Malayan Arts Theatre Group, and besides those of us who worked there, they recruited several people from around the town, so I got a chance to meet more of the local people.  We did some really lavish and ambitious productions including Henry V in the round, Macbeth in Malayan dress; Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion; Noah; and A Pantomime (a traditional British takeoff on what’s going on and the men usually are dressed as women).

I mostly worked as a backroom girl—the prompter, playing the background music—but I occasionally was given bit parts.  I played The Dark Lady in Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets; one of the French princesses in Henry V; and a monkey in a very uncomfortable suit in Noah.  We also did short excerpts and once I played Desdemona’s maid in Othello.  I screamed so well when I discovered her body that the librarian at Radio Malaya had me record it so it could be saved for sound effects.  I also played an houri in James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan. This did not sit at all well with my parents’ very religious friends since I wore skimpy see-though harem pants—and the back lighting didn’t help.  And to top that, a picture of the four of us posing was printed in the newspaper for publicity of the show.  Mum had to hear about it for days from her friends.

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Hassan

There were two really memorable productions:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was set in the Lake Gardens—the stream which cut through the Gardens was used as a natural proscenium.  The play on one side and the audience scattered around the grounds on the other.  Of course we had to pray that it wouldn’t rain on days of the show and the prayers worked.  It was probably one of my Aunt Edna’s superstitions but I remember we used to put a pair of scissors out in the open while it was raining and that was supposed to send the rain away  The weather was so uncertain in Malaya I think the scissors were permanently stuck in the tree in the backyard. The other lavish production was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  The costumes were fabulous and very authentic. A lot of money was donated but we really didn’t make too much even though the houses were always sold out.

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Geoffrey Weeks

Geoffrey Weeks, one of the English producers, always played the leading man. He was very good looking and I was madly in love with him.  He was always very kind to me.

Of course, the prettiest girls got the female leads.  The actors and producers were always very professional and everyone put in a lot of time and effort and it was all voluntary. I did a great job as a backroom girl, and for The Important of Being Earnest, when all the senior members were in the show, I was chosen to greet the High Commissioner, Sir Donald MacGillivray, and his lady on the First Night.  I’m not sure how I did my curtsy since my knees were knocking.

The Pantomime gave Mum and Dad a lot of anxiety.   It was decided that we use some of the talented prisoners from the local jail.  They were quite harmless and we had a lot of the prison guards with us backstage all the time.  Dad had made friends with the Hangman—nice guy, used to drink a lot. Dad assigned him to keep an eye on me during the performances.  The Pantomime was a great success and songs like “Stranger in Paradise” bring back great memories of those days.  At the end of each production we would immediately start planning the next so we wouldn’t have that awful letdown. I was always busy with work and the theatre group, which meant I didn’t have time for boyfriends, so I continued my crush on poor Mr. Weeks even though I kept being told it was a lost cause.

Christine

The Dark Lady of The Sonnets

 

Comments
  1. deborah matlack says:

    Wonderful!

    Like

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