In the spotlight… Norzizi Zulkifli, Director
By Rosheen Fatima
Mak Yong, one of the oldest forms of performing art in the country, has been subjected to many obstacles over the years; with a state-wide ban in Kelantan and performances becoming few and far between. Rosheen Fatima speaks to Norzizi Zulkifli, the creative mind behind an East meets West fusion of Mak Yong and Shakespeare to see where the dance stands today
Tell us a little bit about the history of Mak Yong in Malaysia.
Mak Yong comprises music, dance and drama and was originally only performed before kings and emperors. It was the favourite court entertainment of the Rulers of Patani and was introduced to the palaces of Kelantan several centuries ago. Mak Yong pre-dates Malaysia’s Islamisation and is sometimes thought of as an offering to appease a spirit or an appeal for goodwill. ‘Yong’ is derived from an old Malay word (‘hiang’) meaning ‘divinity’ whilst ‘Ma Hiang’ refers to the Mother Spirit whom locals believed watched over their rice crops and consequently, their livelihood. It is perhaps for this reason that it was banned from unapproved public performance in Kelantan. Mak Yong is performed by women and only certain characters are men which are the Peran Tua and Peran Muda (those are the servants) and also supernatural characters.
After Mak Yong was banned, how do you think it affected the form?
The form was not affected, but it killed the growth.
How did you come up with the idea to fuse Mak Yong and Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (MSND)?
As I was trained in directing using the Western directing theories and techniques, I am always excited to explore traditional art forms using these techniques. We can be on par with the West by having works that portray ourselves and our identity. That’s where the fusion idea came in. I thought why not take any different piece and present it in Mak Yong form. But my vision is not to have the gist of Shakespeare in my Mak Yong, but to make it totally Mak Yong by using his story.
How difficult is it to fuse such different genres of performance art?
It was very challenging in the process of adapting the original text and putting it in Mak Yong form. First, Mak Yong has a certain structure. Second, how to merge the characters in MSND with the stock characters in Mak Yong. Third, organising May Yong songs into the new text and fourth, to transform the characteristics of Mak Yong in the MSND. The essence, the mystical, the authenticity, the flavour, the Kelantanese accent. It was tough, to be honest it was harder than I thought. [Laughs]
How close to its original form is the Mak Yong that is performed in this show?
Ninety per cent is still original Mak Yong. The form, songs, dance and style of acting is still there. But I made slight changes to certain norms in Mak Yong because I believe we have to adapt it to the purpose of the performance.
How do you think Mak Yong has progressed or regressed over the years?
If we count in terms of the quantity of the performances then we only have two or three performances of Mak Yong a year in KL. But in terms of quality, Mak Yong has progressed a lot in terms of the production side, with modern approaches and technical aspects being combined in presenting Mak Yong nowadays.
What do you think the public’s perception towards this art form is?
I think the audience is excited to see traditional theatre because it is so rarely performed. I believe the audience hungers to see some authentic traditional performances.