School to stage play on life of James Brooke


Main supporting cast of musical drama – ‘The White Rajah of Sarawak’.

IMAGINE how interesting it would be to travel back in time and have a glimpse of the life of the first White Rajah of Sarawak – up to the time he set foot in the Land of the Hornbills.

That, more or less, is the chance we are about to have and what is even better is that it will not only be interesting, but actually also captivating because episodes of James Brooke’s life will be presented by a group of student actors from St Joseph’s Private School (SJPS).

The stage play titled ‘The White Rajah of Sarawak’ will be held on Aug 4-5 at the Archdiocesan Curia and Cathedral Parish Centre (ACCPC) of St Joseph’s Cathedral, starting at 7.30pm.

The story is mainly a theoretical narrative of how an English adventurer who leaves the shores of his native England, comes to Sarawak, falls in love with this exotic land and its beautiful people, ultimately becomes its ruler, and thereafter, determines the course of its history for the next hundred years or so.

The opening scene begins with James Brooke, as a child, in England.

Father Alvin Ng, the script writer, composer and lyricist, told thesundaypost that the play, which is not meant to be political in nature, would have elements of adventure, romance and even comedy to the accompaniment of music, songs and dances.

He said careful efforts had been made by the creators of the musical chronicles of the life journey of James Brook to balance its historical accuracy and artistic creativity.

It is an all‐student cast, musically backed by the school’s mini orchestra and a chorus of singers, and the play is considered to be their biggest dramatic production so far.

Ng said to the best of his knowledge, there had never been a staging of such a musical drama although there was news of a film being made based on the same theme.

He revealed the group of school teachers who mooted the idea of the White Rajah of Sarawak were inspired by the lives and stories of the Brookes, and motivated by the successful staging of a William Shakespeare play – ‘The Tempest’ – in 2015.

Thomas Williamson, played by Tristan Tan, is smitten by Intan, played by Leticia Henry.

The teachers came together and decided to take on the challenge of producing an original musical production which they hope will tell the story of Sarawak’s origins as found in the annals of its history.

The ‘White Rajah of Sarawak’ features an original script, accompanied by nine songs, six of which are original compositions.

Ng clarified that, for stage play purposes, some of the characters in the musical‐drama are real while others, including some portrayed events, are purely fictitious.

“So, real historical events may have taken place quite differently from how they are staged in this production, and any similarities to any living characters should be regarded as purely coincidental.”

Among those on the list of Dramatis Persona are Pangiran Indera Makota, Governor of Sarawak, nemesis of James Brooke; Thomas Williamson, James Brooke’s Eurasian interpreter who later drowned in the river; James Brooke, English adventurer and explorer, founder of modern Sarawak, first White Rajah; Intan, the daughter of Orang Kaya Temenggong Sijugah whom Williamson was smitten by; Empawi anak Entalang, comic Iban farmer; Haji Mohd Wahid, comic Indian Muslim cloth seller; Iban maidens, friends of Intan – Antan, Bunga, Ijak, Luli and Rata; and Pangiran Badruddin, younger brother of Muda Hashim.

Ng said all the musical pieces and scripts were composed and written within two months, adding that the working group are now in the final stage of orchestral arrangement, to be performed by the students, invited musicians and some old boys of the school. Benedict Lo is the music director and arranger.

Teachers who helped with the script did a lot of research from history books and biographies, even delving into works, printed in the 1950s, now available at the current Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita.

“We try to be as accurate as possible but then, it’s difficult to be historically precise when doing a musical. There has to be a balancing between historical accuracy and artistic portrayals of what the scene might look like in the times of the White Rajah,” Ng noted.

“For example, when we want to depict how Kuching looked like in 1839, we can only depend on portraits and pictures that were sketched.

“Actually, a lot of things have to be done through our imagination, especially in trying to show what events could have been like during that period of history.”

A cast of more than 70 will take part in the approximately two-hour long play. In fact, everybody involved is still in the thick of putting things together. The organising committee started auditioning for the actors and the musicians in March – with full dress rehearsals from the beginning of this month.

Ng said students taking part were from St Joseph’s big family of three  private schools – the Secondary School, the Primary School and St Joseph International School. The Primary School pupils will have minor roles.

On the costumes, he said, “We have a lot of costumes. I have lost count.

“What I remember is we have the British costumes such as Victorian dresses for women. That’s because we have to feature the mother and grandmother of James Brooke in the opening scene. Then, there are the local costumes, especially those of the Ibans, and their longhouse scene.

“We also have traditional costumes of the Malays and the Chinese.

“Audience will be brought back to the era around 1839. And, yes, all these antiquated items, including traditional musical instruments, required a lot of effort and resourcefulness from both teachers and students to obtain.”

Norman Wong as James Brooke, and Kieren Paul as schoolboy James Brooke.

Ng pointed out that much tailoring work was involved as well with a lot of help from not only the students but also the teachers who headed and supervised each production department for costumes, ticketing, technical aspects, sound track, backstage, make-up, food, security and the like.

“Everything has to be well-organised and coordinated, and everyone has to be cooperative. We’re talking about super team work here. Everyone is important.

“Although the task has been challenging, everyone involved will surely appreciate the experience and cherish the memories.”

He said the producers tried to make everything as authentic as possible, adding that besides using English in the main dialogue, other languages used are Bahasa Sarawak, Mandarin, Iban and Hokkien.

“The cast also have a lot of fun learning some Iban and Sarawak Malay phrases and words. We are also happy to introduce our song titled ‘Kamek Orang Sarawak’.”

The students have also learnt a lot about Sarawak history by participating in the play. Perhaps, they may even get to know some historical episodes not found in their school history textbooks.

Ng said St Joseph’s Private School is always keen to promote the performing arts – which is one of the reasons for staging this musical drama, aimed, among others, at promoting wholesome learning and development of the students.

“It will enable them to experience the staging of a full-scale drama production, develop an interest in drama and stagecraft, give them an opportunity to try out their talents in acting and expose them to the rigours of staging a musical production so that they get to build up their perseverance and discipline in the process,” he explained.

Hopefully, this will also help to generate interest among the students in history, literature, and more specifically, dramatic arts.

Ng said the show is generally for the public but the producers are hoping students from the other schools as well parents and relatives of St Joseph’s students would be the first to show interest in attending.

“After seeing so many shows on TV and in cinemas, let’s see some real people performing in a play on stage for a change,” he said.

About 700 tickets are available for each show and for more information, call 082-414575 or 082-420575.

Pangiran Mahkota, played by Marcus Ho, confers with a follower, played by Roy Tang.

James Brooke, played by Norman Wong, befriends Raja Badruddin, played by Ivan Chua.