We’ll be seeing a lot of Ghafir Akbar this year! Ghafir, a Malaysian actor who’s made a name for himself in Kuala Lumpur, will make his debut on the Singapore stage in Public Enemy. He will also be working with W!LD RICE on two more productions – Another Country and Hotel – in the coming year.
Ghafir chats with us about mapping out his complicated character, the role of the media in society today, and working on W!LD RICE’s upcoming imagiNATION season.
Tell us about your character, Zainal Ibrahim.
Zainal is the editor of The Reformer, this liberal publication that’s very popular. Think The Online Citizen or Malaysiakini. He’s a young activist who grew up very poor, in a family that was oppressed by the government, its policies and their circumstances. Now, he’s in a position of power himself – he realises that he can change the way people think, because his readers listen to him. That’s an advantage he now has: whatever he wants to change, he feels that he can do it. But, as the saying goes, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ I guess that’s also his downfall. He thinks that he can change everything, but then he realises how far his ideals and his ideas of society will actually take him.
How would you characterise the role of the media in Public Enemy?
What we’ve done in this play is turn The Reformer into an online portal. There’s a modernity to it: everything is very instant and information can get passed on very, very quickly.
It’s a parallel to how things are in Malaysia and Singapore, where the bulk of the media is still very much controlled by the government. But now there are other avenues to get information. People have options now – they can read the New Straits Times, they can read the Malay Mail, or they can read the blogs. It’s also valid information. People can make up their own minds. That’s the power of the media that the government is trying to control, but can’t.
It’s quite interesting to witness the way in which Zainal changes his mind and position during the play. How do you map that out for yourself?
The thing about Zainal is that he’s an opportunist. So I think he will jump on whatever happens that will benefit him. In the beginning, he feels that he can bring down the government by publishing Dr. Thomas Chee’s report. He’s very gungho about it. But, when the Minister comes around and points out that the report will upset his readers and raise concerns about tax hikes, Zainal decides not to stir that pot by publishing the report. As much as he professes to be all about the country and the people, he’s also taking care of himself. Maybe it goes back to the fact that he grew up with nothing.
Do you see echoes of Public Enemy in society today?
Absolutely. It’s amazing that Ibsen’s play is still relevant today. It’s kind of scary, actually! In Malaysia, and I guess it’s true of Singapore too, sometimes we feel very oppressed by the situation – by the policies that are put in place. Often, I feel less and less in control of how I want to exist in a society. It can get really frustrating.
Sometimes, on a personal level, I want to do something, but I feel like I have no power, or that I’m not smart enough, or that I’m not in with the right group of people. Theatre is a reflection of society and I feel that my work – whether as an actor, director, or writer – becomes my voice to make a change. So it’s nice to be in a play that can bring these questions to the audience.
You’ve worked in KL and New York. What were those experiences like for you as an actor and a writer?
I consider myself very fortunate to have had the experience of working in different environments. I started my carreer in theatre when I was 18 in KL. I worked wherever I was wanted – stagehand, box office, or admin staff. I didn’t know much about theatre so I exposed myself to as many aspects of it as possible to learn all that I could. I knew what I wanted to do, but I just didn’t know how. So, a lot of my earlier work as a performer or writer was very, very instinctive or intuitive. I just did what I thought was right. I developed my own personal theories in theatre by doing and observing. That was my early development in KL.
Fast forward to many years later: I had moved to New York after completing my MFA in Acting at the Asolo Conservatory. I found myself in one of the most exciting (and cutthroat) theatre cities in the world. It definitely felt like I was 18 again – eager to discover the possibilities of NY theatre for myself. This time I felt more equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to go further than I did before. But, for all the possibilities it has to offer, NY is tough on its dreamers. There are hundreds of actors like you, who are just as talented, and who want it just as badly as you do. What it did was to force me to be a self-starter, to find opportunities rather than wait for them to come, and to persevere in the face of rejection. I learned a lot about the kind of actor I was, and I learned about myself. You learn a thing or two when you get doors (literally) shut in your face. But I wouldn’t change the path I’ve taken for the world. It’s brought me around the world and now to Singapore!
What’s it been like for you working with W!LD RICE and in the Singapore theatre industry?
It’s been great, to be honest – W!LD RICE has been taking care of me really, really well. It’s my first time working in Singapore, and I feel very, very fortunate to be working with a cast of really talented artists with so much experience. I’m really enjoying the artistic challenges presented to me by W!LD RICE’s season this year, from Public Enemy to Another Country to Hotel. I think it’s very relevant to me, given Malaysia’s shared history with Singapore. I find myself wondering how much that history – of Singapore once having been part of Malaya – still affects what’s happening today.