Farah Rani (left) and Ashraf Zain played Bintaga and Tunggal respectively. All images credit The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) 

Some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in the past year has been in Bahasa Malaysia, whether original or translated. Kandang has been on my watchlist since Omar Ali’s translated version of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal rocked my world earlier this year.

Before you ask, I have nowhere near a command of the language. In fact, I can do little more than ask for directions and order food. Does this mean I miss out on some of the finer points of the dialogue? Oh, certainly. Am I still able to enjoy the play? Absolutely.

I liken it to the idea that losing one sense sharpens the others. Not understanding the dialogue hyper focuses the non-speaker on – in this case – the talent and imagination of Kandang’s director (also Omar Ali), actors, choreographer, and costume, set, lighting and sound designers.

Endee Ahmad (left) and Coebar Abel were instrumental in conjuring the mood in Omar Ali’s Kandang.

The Kandang set is part barnyard, part kampung, complete with a stage where musicians Endee Ahmad and Coebar Abel shape our moods with traditional instruments.

All animal characters could also be villagers. They wear plain white shirts and loose trousers with traditional headdress (tanjak) and a cloth sash (sampin) tied around their waists. Each animal is loosely identified by the way the tanjak and sampin are worn. The pigs’ cloths are folded to give them ears and a kinky tail. For oxen and goats, the head cloth supports long drooping horns or short flattened ones, respectively.

Actions are equally descriptive. The oxen occasionally low and swing their heads in heavy arcs. When dogs are not racing around barking, they stand alert with muscles strained, ready to spring on command.

Faez Malek as Jalak, an opportunistic boot-licking rooster.

The performers hunch over, push their shoulders forward and hang their arms straight down, their hands curled under so we see hoofs, not fingers. Faez Malek as Jalak the rooster crows, sashays and struts with jerky movements. As the one with the only enviable job on the farm, Jalak has reason to be pleased with himself. Nik Waheeda, as Pendek the goat, prances in little steps and bleats the last word in every sentence.

Without language I also find my place with familiar events, for Kandang is based on George Orwell’s book Animal Farm. Like the book, the play mirrors a hundred rebellions, coups and mutinies before and after it was written. Markus the wild boar (Zul Zamir in one of his three roles) is the rabble rousing outsider, a free animal who moves with the power and confidence his enslaved comrades lack.

Zul Zamir portrayed Markus (Old Major), the wise boar who founded Haiawanisme.

A rapt herd gathers round Markus, increasingly loud in their approval of what he is saying. There is even – as in all good uprisings, from strikes to revolutions – an anthem. The joy and energy of the singers tells is enough to give context – hope and unity for a better future.

So what does one miss by not speaking the language? A lot of double-speak and very clever plays on words by co-playwrights Omar Ali and his father Tan Sri Muhammad Ali Hashim. Even before this was confirmed by my pitying friends, I sat in quiet envy as the rest of the audience suddenly howled with laughter at a particular line. Comedic breaks helped balance out the grim pattern that so often follows the high of a successful overthrow.

Farah Rani’s Bintaga was a voice of reason as all the other farm animals such as Nabil Zakaria’s Bajak fell prey to Tunggal’s lies.

When Markus dies in the first battle against the farmer, there is what we now call a leadership vacuum, one filled quickly by pigs Tunggal (Ashraf Zain) and his second-in-command Gading (Joe Chin). As does the rest of Kandang’s excellent cast, both Ashraf and Joe create dismayingly familiar players; so-called leaders who are quickly corrupted by their greed for power. Their tyranny is foreshadowed after their victorious final battle against humans. All other animals have left the farmyard but Tunggal and picks up the fallen farmer’s rifle. There is no equality when there is only one weapon.

Before the fall is the climb, of course. This new society is governed by new rules – the Rukun Haiawanisme (even I have used a school notebook here so the joke did not escape me). All rules remind the animals who the enemies are (the two-footed) and who their brothers and sisters are – the four-footed (The fowls cry foul – ‘discriminasi!’ – pointing out that chickens, ducks and geese only have two feet, but the pigs quickly assure them that wings count as well). Strictly forbidden are clothes, sleeping in beds, and killing a fellow four-footer.

Joe Chin (centre) as Gading, the shrewd pig who served as Tunggal’s mouthpiece.

Throughout the show, the guiding principles of the Rukun Haiawanisme, printed high up on the wall, will be revised and even deleted to suit Tunggal and his cronies. Anyone not in his favour is doomed.

Being of the same species does not automatically make you a crony. Tunggal quickly identifies idealistic fellow pig Bintaga (Farah Rami) as a threat. Like all pigs she is articulate and highly intelligent, making her more of an ‘equal’ than the rest of the animals. He can’t have that. He never lets her reach the point of becoming his opposition. One of Kandang’s most chilling scenes is where he systematically quashes her, first by countering any suggestion with a different one. No objection is too petty – Red? White! Spinach? Kale!

Adam Luqman, James Lim and Syed Khairuzman played the loyal dogs of Tunggal.

He counters her logic with ridicule, or garners the crowd’s attention and approval by leading another round of slogan shouting, which drowns out her voice. When she prevails still, he uses force by literally calling in the dogs – his secret, private army of trained killers. And so Bintaga is silenced forever.

Pendek is horrified at this violence and unlike her companions is not easily distracted by paralogism. But she is no leader and no threat to Tunggal. He uses the time-honoured way of shutting up minorities – we’re a democracy and majority rules.

After Bintaga, Nik Waheeda’s Pendek was the only sane creature in Ladang Tunggal.

Until the end, Nik Waheeda’s Pendek is the one voice of dissent though without the pigs’ facility for oration, her protests are mainly distressed meeeehhhhs. Soon it is not the pigs that silence her, but her friends who are understandably frightened for her safety.

As Kandang shows very clearly, even the most loyal subjects are not safe in an autocracy. Balau (Clarence Kuna’s beautiful Boxer) is natural leader for change, not glory. It is he who keeps his comrades motivated to do the work mandated by the pigs (by now walking upright, wearing clothes and doing business with the humans). When Balau collapses from overwork, the pigs send him to ‘hospital’. Here, as Clarence delivers Balau’s monologue with a sweet smile, believing to the end that things will be better. As he talks, red light begins to glow from under the audience’s seats, flaring up until it burns like a furnace. You don’t have to speak the language or see what happens next for your heart to shatter.

Clarence Kuna’s Balau can be considered a symbolic representation of the hardworking but oppressed middle class of Malaysian society.

I can say that friends (ranging from 11 years old to the parents in their 40s) who speak BM fluently were delighted by the dialogue. I know there is no way I’d rather learn the language than watching one of Omar Ali’s plays again and again.

Here is where the Kandang team made their single miscalculation: they did not schedule enough shows. Social media was rife with people holding out their begging bowls for any spare tickets. A couple of my friends fell victim to their own indecision and were unable to catch one of the best shows of the year (so far). The good people/animals of Kandang showed they have heart and held an extra show on Saturday afternoon.

For now, I can only hope that success of this Kandang will mean a restaging in the not too distant future. Do not, I repeat, do not miss it. I’ll be there too.

Did you manage to catch Omar Ali’s Kandang? What are your thoughts about the play? Share with us in the comments below or drop us an email at editors@eksentrika.com