Alai Imbun

Directors: Michelle Fung, Md Bubba 

Producer: Play Naturally  

Writers: Michelle Fung and May Cho

Venue: Balai Purun, Tasek Merimbun

Showtimes: July 21-22

Ticket price: $15

It’s been great to see the expansion in local theatre towards the staging of original Bruneian content.

In 2019 alone, local theatre company Sutera Memento has put on original productions such as “Takdir” and “No Change of Colour”. We’ve also seen Medley House Productions’ “When Does Love End” and UBD Performing Arts Club’s “Arbitrium”.

Heralding a new season of theatrical productions, Play Naturally, a new company co-founded by Jazie Zaini and Gan Sylvia, has joined this robust line-up by debuting an original play called “Alai Imbun” on July 20 and 21.

For its first production, Play Naturally — pegging itself as “Brunei’s first conservation theatre lab” — decided to stage a re-imagining of Dusun folklore around Tasek Merimbun, a large blackwater lake and ecological heritage site that was home to some of the earliest settlements in Tutong’s interior.

Co-written by Michelle Fung and May Cho, “Alai Imbun” is supposedly set in the 1980s (but also pre-dates the practice of paddy farming, the time doesn’t quite line up) and centers around a Dusun family who are thinking of moving to the city because it’s no longer sustainable to make a living by farming in the Tasek Merimbun area.

The father, Imbun (Joraimie Joraisie), tells his precocious daughter (Aqilah Ali) bedside stories about the animal residents of Tasek Merimbun, including the protector of the lake, Buayo, a white crocodile famous in Dusun folklore, who is played with simmering restraint by Masduqi Hussin.

We are also introduced to Logon (Terry Wong), who is the spirit leader of the lake. He is accompanied by his ethereal lover, Bulan, the spirit of the Moon (played by an actress with the same name); and his advisor, the anthropomorphised Heron (Jehan Wasli).

In this folkloric world, Logon’s main concern is ensuring that the legacy of Tasek Merimbun is preserved for future generations.

In a clever and amusing scene that merges the worlds of folklore and human reality, a meeting is convened between the city businessman Don (played with staccato energy by Wazif Zamri), his jittery sidekick Adam (Sham) and the majestic folkloric ensemble.

Don proposes a plan to revive the reputation and prestige of the lake – he wants to put Buayo on display in a conservation sanctuary, which will make Tasek Merimbun famous.

Logon agrees to send Buayo away to the sanctuary, against the advice and protests of Bulan, Heron and Buayo himself, who does not want to leave the lake he has guarded for so long.

After Buayo’s departure, Heron squawks rather poignantly that maybe the folkloric residents of the lake shouldn’t be remembered, because at least then his friend Buayo would still be at Tasek Merimbun with them, setting up a nice narrative line about the exacting price of legacy.

At the sanctuary, the mercenary Don starts mistreating the homesick Buayo. Logon, Bulan and Heron arrive to take Buayo back home, but it is too late.

To redress the imbalance which Buayo’s death causes, and to entice the Dusun people into staying at Tasek Merimbun, Bulan gives Imbun the very first grains of paddy.

The play ends with Imbun and his family celebrating the first Adau Gayoh, a traditional Dusun festival to mark the annual harvest, with Logon, Bulan and the folkloric animals of the lake heading off to enjoy the paddy harvest.

The story tied up neatly, with very definite moral messages, and a subtler, but maybe slightly unfocused conservation message about nature and culture forming a delicate and evolving ecosystem.

These clear moral lines meant that the story was very suitable for introducing concepts of conservation and Dusun folktales to children, who would particularly enjoy the comic interludes provided by the squabbling Owl (Mike Han) and Snake (Hilmi Sanif).

A view of the black water lake from the balcony of Balai Purun at the Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

The questionnaire distributed after the play also seemed to target a younger audience’s understanding of nature, culture and conservation.

There were a few missteps in the play – costume malfunctions, slow pacing in the second half, Logon’s uncertain characterisation, a late attempt to give Don a backstory, inconsistent diction in sections of the play – but overall it was a lovely spectacle. In particular, the makeup work was mesmerizing.

Logistically, there were a few hiccups. The timekeeping was poor – doors opened 30 minutes late and so the play ended over half an hour after the time stated on the itinerary.

Shoes had to be removed at the venue – again, this is fine, but you should let your audience know ahead of time. I would have brought socks, for everybody’s sake.

At intermission, audience had to leave the venue for 15 minutes because the set was being moved across the hall. There seemed to be no narrative purpose for this movement, and it meant audience members had to find new seats and enter through different doors. Some of these things could have been thought through a bit more.

But as an overall theatrical experience, it was a fantastic opportunity to visit the surreal Tasek Merimbun, and the marketing team prepared a brilliant, gorgeous infopack with all the information you needed to get to the venue and what to expect when you arrived.

Included in the infopack was some thoughtfully curated information on Tasek Merimbun and Dusun culture and folklore, and it was clear a lot of heart and effort had been put into showcasing the lake, and its status as an ASEAN Heritage Park.

Play Naturally should be commended for this bold and original initiative. It was such a refreshing experience, and if “Alai Imbun” is anything to go by, Play Naturally is set to be a welcome and horizon-widening addition to the local theatre scene.

Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is also an author, playwright and  co-founder of Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.