PETALING JAYA: Almost everybody loves to hate the “pontianak”. Whether genuinely terrified of her or thrilled at the prospect of being terrified by her, the pontianak is well and alive in Malaysian culture.
Usually portrayed as a ghastly looking, white-robed woman with pale skin, long hair and bloodied long nails, the pontianak is believed to be the angry and vampiric ghost of a pregnant woman who died during childbirth, or who was violently killed by a man.
This month, this creature (supernatural for some, mythical for others) will be explored in local production “Melur the Musical”.
Presented by award-winning musical theatre company Liver & Lung, this is the story of two women, Melur (Tria Aziz) and Cempaka (Mila Mohsin), living in British colonial Malaya. Although they share a close relationship, the same cannot be said of their husbands.
Melur’s husband, Si Aman (Anwar Rusdini), is involved in the anti-colonial uprising while Cempaka’s husband is British-born Wilson (Kai Chalmers), who commits a murder, leading to the emergence of a vengeful pontianak.
FMT recently caught up with director, writer, and co-composer Shafeeq Shajahan, as well as cast members Tria Aziz and Kai Chalmers.
“I am fascinated with Malaysia’s obsession with the supernatural and I always think a country’s preference about what makes them scared tells us a lot about what that country is like,” Shafeeq, 29, said.
He added that he sees the pontianak as a symbol of proto-feminism, and was inspired by the strong women in his family and in the country who braved difficult times.
“Although there are moments that are very scary in the show, the real horror is about how women were treated.”
The musical made its debut in 2016 as part of “Mahsuri (& Other Peculiar Tales)”, an anthology by Liver & Lung, which Shafeeq founded.
This new production sees a bigger cast and band members who collectively perform 26 songs, “a blend of contemporary music and Malay folk music”.
“In the second act, there is a twist which will completely surprise the audience,” he teased.
“I don’t think there is going to be an original musical like this in KL for a while after this, and I am so proud of what we’ve done.”
Vastly different roles
Tria and Chalmers both said they were intrigued when Shafeeq approached them about the musical.
For three-time BOH Cameronian recipient Tria, 50, it was love at first read. “I just fell in love with the script and characters.”
American-Chinese Chalmers, 28, who previously starred in local production “OlaBola the Musical”, revealed that one of his ancestors had actually fought the communists in Malaya.
“Communist-hunting and ghosts are always an interesting combination,” he said.
While Tria described her character as a patriotic Malay woman who was put to death for being a communist sympathiser, Chalmers’ role could not be more different.
He has his own take on it. “Back then, the threat of the communists was very real, and I wanted to take on an antagonist role because there are grounded beliefs and truths that just happened to be in conflict with everyone else.”
This is not the first time the duo have worked together: in 2018, they starred in “The Edge”, a multiple award-winning musical by local composer Nick Choo.
Chalmers was subsequently nominated for best supporting actor in a musical in the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2019. Tria had cinched the “best performer in a musical” prize in 2014, for a staging of “The Edge” the year prior.
Looking back, Tria described her journey thus far as a fun one. “Understanding how people lived under a colonised nation is so interesting, and the struggles they faced before the nation’s independence are beyond what I have ever imagined.”
Meanwhile, self-professed horror lover Chalmers is looking forward to the audience’s experience at the show.
“It is entertaining and fun, with elements of history involved,” he said. “Most of all, I hope they will enjoy the experience of a live horror show that’s not a haunted house. This could be something new for them.
“Plus, watching live horror on stage is interesting, because unlike a film, you can’t click pause.”
‘Melur the Musical’
Venue: Nero Event Space, Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre (PJPAC) @ 1Utama Shopping Centre, Bandar Utama, Selangor
- Feb 16-Feb 19, 8pm
- Feb 24-Feb 26, 8pm
- RM125 (VIP)
- RM100 (general)
- RM75 (standard)
The show is suitable for ages 12 and above. Tickets can be purchased here.