Stratford-Upon-Kinta (The Early Shakespearean Stage)

There is a good reason why Shakespeare is the only compulsory writer on every secondary school curriculum where literatures are taught in English.  When students engage actively with the Bard’s plays they are also exploring life’s many dilemmas including about leadership, family, love, and power.  From the stage, they increase their confidence, self-esteem, and communications skills.   Here, in Ipoh, over the years, our choice of Shakespeare for the stage was largely influenced by the plays set for the school examinations.

The first play seen on the ACS stage was Julius Caesar, produced in 1916 by Dr Lester Proebstel (Principal, 1926-34).  Unfortunately, there is no record to indicate the names of players who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage.  Following this there was a long break, but the lights glowed again in 1927 with a production of The Tempest, directed by Mrs A Berryhart, a member of the staff.  Following the Elizabethan practice of using young boys for female parts (fitting neatly into the mono gender composition at that time, prior to the influx of girls into the sixth forms) the producer cast a precocious young lad named Yeong Ah Soo for the part of Miranda, and an ardent young fellow called Lau Han Chiong for the part of Ferdinand.

The following year, in 1928, Mrs Berryhart undertook the first production of The Merchant Of Venice with a distinguished cast.  Portia was portrayed by an athletic young man called Tai Swee Kee.  Wooing the rich heiress Portia was Bassanio, a role played by Foo Yin Chew (who later read History at Oxford University, turned tin miner, and subsequently awarded the LLD Honoris Causa by the University of Malaya).  Nerissa was played by Foo Choy Wan and Shylock by Eric Rode.

Julius Caesar was again performed in 1929, with the title part played by Murakami Kesuke then the only Japanese student in the school.  The gentle brute of a Brutus was played by a handsome, dashing young man called Teerath Ram.  Leow Sae Yin was the noble Mark Antony, and the crafty Octavius was played by Lee Hah Ing (educated ACS Ipoh and Raffles College, appointed Principal of ACS Singapore in 1961).  Miss ML Merten produced the play. Much of the success of the performances was attributed to the superb music provided by The School Orchestra under the guidance of Dr. Proebstel.

Twelfth Night was presented under Dr Proebstel’s direction in 1932.  The love-sick Duke was played by K Shanmugam (subsequently Commissioner of Labour, F.O.M.); James Appaduray was Sebastian; Sir Andrew Aguecheek was played by Somasundram (later to be President of the Sessions Court, Penang); Wong Pek Lin played Maria; Olivia was acted by Elizabeth Chong; and Sir Toby Belch was played by Too Joon Hing ( ACS Ipoh and Hong Kong University; Assistant Minister Of Education in 1957).

For the next 17 years the ACS stage was to remain sadly empty.  Both the Great Depression and the Great War had taken its toll, the gloom lifted only in early 1948 with the arrival in Ipoh of Harold Wakefield and his wife Angela.  They heralded the earnest revival of Shakespeare in the school. Meeting in the Wakefield’s home one day early in 1949, a group of sixth form students decided to do a play-read of Macbeth – Shakespeare’s shortest and most intense play. Unexpectedly, that modest activity soon developed into a full blown production with all the sound and fury and strange screams of death and murdered sleep.  Macbeth was movingly played by PS Maniam (Principal, ACS Ipoh 1975-84); Macduff was played by Jamit Singh (trade unionist, friend turned foe to the nascent PAP in early Singapore politics, 1954-63); Lam Yee Cheng gave a memorable performance of Lady Macbeth; Malcolm was played by Lam Khuan Seng; and one of the filthy hags was an intense young man called Lam Khuan Kit.  Mr. Wakefield was the producer and director of this play. The most memorable performance was the first when a highly enthused cast played before a distinguished audience that included The Sultan of Perak and the Chinese Consul.

Since that first post-war production the ACS stage has become a veritable Stratford-on-Kinta.  1950 showcased a new presentation of Twelfth Night.  Lam Khuan Kit (Malvolio), Lam Khuan Seng (Sebastian), Vincent Leong (Feste the Clown), Choong Siok Ling (Olivia), June Choong (Viola), Kasthoori Parthan (Maria) and Chen Voon Fee were notable cast members.

1950 in fact hosted two plays. The second was to be Richard II, the Harold Wakefield co-production with Nicholas Curwen then teaching English at the Sultan Yusuff School at Batu Gajah. This collaboration gave rise to a rich multi-talented cast, drawn from within and outside the school.  Nicholas himself was cast in the title role.  Yip Ah Moi played his Queen; Lila Foster was the Duchess of York; N Thurairajah became Henry Bolingbroke; and Chai Hon Chan appeared as the Earl of Northumberland.  The Ven AC Dumper (then Minister of St Georges Church, Penang) gave a moving performance as John of Gaunt.  This was our first on Shakespearean history and one of the finest productions seen on the ACS stage to date.

Julius Caesar was yet again performed in 1951.  Harold Wakefield was Julius Caesar; Teerath Ram as Brutus; Thurairajah became Cassius; Ng Oi Lin as Portia; DR Daniel (then Headmaster, ACS Klang) as Antony, Doris Lee (Mrs DR Daniel) as Calpurnia. Poor Lam Khuan Kit appeared as Cinna the Poet only to be savaged to pieces by a Roman mob led by a brutish Chai Hon Chan. The Ven AC Dumper took on the unholy role of a conspirator, sticking his dagger deeply into the unknowing Caesar without remorse.  Such formidable play act suitably impressed Mr David Lyttle of Radio Malaya, so much that he arranged to have the cast appear in his KL studio to pre-record for eventual radio broadcast. We are told that half the cast was air lifted to KL for this purpose. It was reported that the cast acquitted themselves well; no mention was made either of broadcast fright ….or of air sickness!  They returned to Ipoh with a better appreciation of radio acting.  All ended very well indeed.

Othello was planned as the next production for 1951.  Conceived by a group of returning ACS alumnus during their long university vacation, but it was however not to be without controversy. Wang Gung Wu (eminent historian, presently University Professor at the National University of Singapore, previously of Anderson School) had floated the radical idea of experimenting with modern dress set within a contemporary theme.  What seemed objectionable to some cast members was his academic interest in investigating inter-ethnic discord; Othello was to be portrayed as Indian and Desdemona as Chinese.  Gung Wu had his idea shouted down as he was just too far ahead of his time.  The cast opted, instead, for the safety of convention and the play went on smoothly. The cast included PS Maniam (Othello), Lam Khuan Kit (Jago), Kasthoori Parthan (Maria), Au Moh Yin (Desdemona), Ponnumah Navaretnam (Bianca), Chee Voon Fee (Cassio), Thurairajah (Roderigo) and Chai Hon Chan (Brabantio).  The cast rehearsed at night and made the sets and sewed the costumes by day.  In three weeks the curtain went up on one of the most polished productions seen.

The Merchant of Venice was revived by Teerath Ram in 1952 with a cast that included Lee Mun Yui (the Duke), Justus Havelock (Morocco), Low Kum Whye (Arragon), DR Daniel (Antonio), N Thurairajah (Bossanio), Vincent Daniel (Shylock), June Choong (Portia), Vivien Oh (Jessica) and Katherine Wulff (Nerissa).

As You Like It followed in 1953.  It was again produced by Teerath Ram who gathered together a fine cast which included present and past members of the ACS and ACGS. Thurairajah and Vivien Oh as Orlando and Rosalind; Celia was played by Ng Oi Lin; Phebe by Esme Moreira; Audrey by Adrienne Chahil; Amiens by Vincent Daniel, and Jacques by Lam Khuan Kit.  The colourful costumes which were designed by Neliya Moreira were exquisitely set off by the forest scenes painted by Chan Sai Fook, an old boy. One of the striking features of this production were the songs and dances and old time Shakespearean favourites like “It Was A lover And His Lass” caught on as song hits.  The dance was performed by Mrs. Fowler’s ballet class.

DR Daniel directed the 1954 production of Macbeth with Vincent Daniel in the title role, Chai Hon Chan as Macduff, Yip Ah Moi as Lady Macbeth, while the director himself played the Porter. Many of the players were new to the audience. The part of Malcolm was played by an upcoming young actor Ernest Devadason.  Choong Ngok Son, another young actor, played Banquo. The witches scene was well interpreted by three young ladies from the ACGS and their dance routine was unique.

The stage took a short break in 1955 to make way for the ACS’ 60th anniversary celebrations.

After the short hiatus, Julius Caesar was produced by PS Maniam in 1956 with mainly veteran players.

Winter’s  Tale followed in 1957 and 2 leading members of the cast of this difficult play were Rasamah Bhupalan Rajendran and DR Daniel.

Adapted from “Methodist Schools In Malaysia” by Dr Ho Seng Ong, pages 539-543

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