Friday, 29 August 2014

2 Houses provides climax to George Town Festival 2014

Last Wednesday, I spent an interesting evening on the grounds of the development-threatened mansion known as Soonstead in Northam Road (renamed quite some time ago to Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah), George Town enjoying a unique performance of a drama called 2 Houses which was specifically commissioned to close this year's highly successful George Town Festival 2014.

I call it a unique performance because the drama unfolded in various locations around the mansion, including the sea-front lawn at its back. As the play moved from room to room, the audience too was required to move together with the cast members.

For instance, we went from the front lawn to the mansion's hall, then to the back lawn before returning indoors and proceeding up the main staircase to the landing and the balcony. Down a side staircase we went before stopping by a porch, then through the dining room and ending up at the main hall.

No wonder we were forewarned that with all the walking involved, we should be wearing comfortable walking shoes.

So there I was on Wednesday evening, meeting up with several of my old school chums who had also come to see the play. Actually for the George Town Festival, 2 Houses had been slated for a four-night performance only on the 28th to the 31st of August, but tickets had sold out very early despite its RM150 price tag. Through some wonderful arrangement, the producers managed to give two special matinee performances on the 26th and 27th. I heard some people referring to them as full-dress rehearsals. Whether this was true or not, I don't know and not particularly interested to know, but it sure gave the production team and the cast an opportunity to iron out any last-minute hiccups. Anyway, together with these friends, we managed to pick up our tickets for the 27th August show.

This date turned out to be a very good choice for us because the weather was fabulous and cool. It had been raining almost ceaselessly the day before and in fact, even on Wednesday itself, it was raining for much of the morning. But the rain had stopped by afternoon and the weather held. The grounds at Soonstead were damp and a little undulating but it didn't cause much problem at all. And because it wasn't raining, we had the benefit to enjoy the outdoors live band. The audience was milling around in the front lawn, drinking and eating finger food, and basically waiting for the play to begin.

2 Houses weaves a bit of history into a fictional tale. This drama evolved around a wealthy Straits family caught up in a difficult situation during the Second World War. Of course, in this part of the world, it was the start of the Japanese invasion in December of 1941. Kota Bharu had just fallen to the Japs and their army was making their way slowly but surely down the peninsula to Singapore. But first, there was "Fortress Penang" to defend.

Unfortunately, "Fortress Penang" was only in name. With the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sunk in the afternoon of 10 Dec 1941, there was to be no sea cover nor air cover for the northernmost part of the Straits Settlements. The land resistance was soon to be routed.

The drama opened with the fictional Heah family organising a state committee party at their imposing Heah Gate Mansion with the outward intention of seeking the British colonial office's assurance that Penang would be defended at all costs. But there was a private and secondary motive too, untold and unknown to the guests at the party. The proud Heah family, like the rest of the rich families in the Settlement, was desperately seeking British help to escape the island.

But there was to be no British saviour. The local population, rich and poor, would be left to their own devices as the Japanese army over-ran Penang. For the Heah family, there was a grudging offer of a safe passage for only one person in their family and even then, as a cabin boy who would be required to work his way on board the ship. The senior Heah's only son turned down the offer, balking at the idea of scrubbing floors and the like. His future wife, whom the Heah family looked down like second-class relatives, offered a solution: her long-suffering brother would go and help safeguard all the Heah family assets and title deeds.

When the play resumed after the interval, the time had fast forwarded to December 1948. The Japanese had already surrendered and Malaya was well set on a course for a new future that would unshackle British rule and include ultimate self-rule and independence. But first, the country was caught up in the Malayan Emergency and days earlier, news had emerged of the Batang Kali massacre. Historically, British troops had shot and killed 24 unarmed Chinese villagers suspected of helping Communist insurgents in the area.

There was new tension at the Heah Gate Mansion. The senior Heah was facing accusations from the British authorities of being a Japanese sympathiser during the Occupation. But worse, one of their man-servants who had gone off to join the fight against the vanquished Japanese was suspected to have returned to the island and could be coming back to the mansion. But definitely back on home soil was the junior Heah's brother-in-law who was now a successful lawyer. In the rising tension as all the parties came back together for a final confrontation with one another and the British authorities, and the ensuing confusion that followed, two shots rang out and with that, the show soon ended.  

To know the final outcome of the story, it would be necessary to watch 2 Houses but unfortunately, it is all full house for the remaining performances. Although there have been requests to extend its run further here, there won't be any. The performances will stop after the last show on 31 August. For that matter, I hear that there are no immediate plans to even stage it anywhere else later - for lack of a suitable venue which is an empty mansion - despite interest from Singapore, which is a pity because there is so much potential to develop the play further.

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