The Theatre Luminary

For award-winning actor and theatre director Dato’ Zahim AlBakri, a short-lived television career was a blessing in disguise

Published: 12 October 2017, Text by: Zurien Onn

It was in the latter half of the 1980s that a young Dato’ Zahim AlBakri had a taste of what it might have felt like to be Jon Bon Jovi, with screaming girls waiting for him outside the studio, asking for his autograph and requesting photos with him. He was the star of a television show on RTM1, one of only three television channels in Malaysia back then, where he played a trainee kadi (Malay for a Muslim marriage clerk in this context) in the comedy Jangan Main-Main. No doubt his Pan-Asian good looks, along with excellent comedic timing, helped him become the heartthrob of the moment.

Unfortunately for him, that was the only time he experienced such fandom, he divulged, as his television career was cut short. Not long after his newfound fame, a government ban prohibiting television commercials starring models with Western facial features was put in place. At that point, Zahim had a few lucrative television commercial jobs lined up, but all fell through due to his looks, a result from being the son of architect Datuk Ikmal Hisham AlBakri and Datin Valerie Suffiah Abdullah, a trained speech and drama teacher and former television host and principal ballet dancer from Yorkshire, England.

Television’s lost was theatre’s gain. After Jangan Main-Main, the young Zahim was cast alongside Liza Othman and Jit Murad in a play, going back to his roots and training, having studied at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in Middlesex, in the United Kingdom.  

In fact, Zahim had always wanted to be a “play boy”. “A boy in plays,” he explained. “I didn’t even know the word ‘actor’ then, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.” He described a time when he was little and Datin Valerie brought him and his siblings to watch a play, which he thought was a movie until someone flipped a coin and it landed in his lap. It was real!

However, he mostly dabbled in theatre without actively pursuing acting. Not knowing what to do after his final secondary school examination, he joined his brother and sister who were studying in London, and enrolled in a Politics and Economics course at Cardiff University. He later switched to major in Law and Politics, but this never came to completion either.

“I realized that the whole year I was there, my time was more devoted to the theatre club,” said Zahim. He later auditioned for and was accepted into Drama School, and he knew then that he was finally in the right place. Zahim came home to Malaysia soon after graduating, and after that short television stint, found himself immersed in the world of theatrical arts.

After the play with Liza and Jit, both theatre veterans now, Zahim acted as the male lead in a staging of Romeo and Juliet. He earned bad reviews for it, which he attributed to his own fault for looking down on the character he was playing. It was a lesson learned for him, but that was when he met Andrew Leci, the director of the play. After Romeo and Juliet, Zahim and Leci teamed up with Jit and Malaysian theatre doyenne Jo Kukathas to create the Instant Café Theatre. The name was a reference to how it was set up only two weeks after the main players met up at Bon Ton Café in Kuala Lumpur, but it also alluded to its more spontaneous offerings, consisting of skits and satire.

The outfit was a success. “Initially, we wanted to change shows weekly,” said Zahim, “but apparently audiences wanted the old stuff – they had told their friends about it and they came expecting to see the same performance.”

They did have to change some of the material occasionally, most notably when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s Prime Minister at that time, came to watch. “It was the least political show that season,” said Zahim.

Five years on, Zahim left Instant Café Theatre to create Dramalab, essentially to focus more on directing as he felt there was a need to develop writing for plays (as opposed to skits) as well as to develop writers.

Zahim has acted in numerous local movies, directed and won many awards for theatrical works, and has been conferred two honorific Datukships for his contribution to the theatre scene. He is currently deep in the local production of Shadow in the Sun, a play about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, originally written by British actress Kate O’Mara, who also acted in it, along with fellow actress Patricia Shakesby. The two controversial monarchs were first cousins yet had never met each other. O’Mara had cleverly devised the play based on letters and diplomatic messages between them – Elizabeth based in London as Queen of England, and Mary imprisoned for 19 years, on Elizabeth’s orders, in various castles in England.

One of the actors in the local play, Sarah Shahrum, is incidentally the niece of Shakesby. Sarah will be playing Mary, while Elizabeth will be played by Susan Lankester, another theatre luminary in Malaysia. For Zahim, as production on the play progressed, he seemed to have chanced on instances that supported his decision to helm the play.

On a trip to his mother’s hometown in Yorkshire, the director had the opportunity to visit one of the castles that Mary had been imprisoned in. On the flight there, he accidentally eavesdropped on a conversation behind him. One of the passengers turned out to be a stuntman working on an upcoming Mary Queen of Scots movie, most probably the one starring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan, set for release in late 2018.  

Zahim’s fortunes in the play’s production have turned out better than he expected; when the original costumer dropped out, it allowed award-winning Malaysian fashion designer Melinda Looi to be roped in. As he proudly shared photos of the costume designs, it was apparent that he is in his element, directing and producing a play that will be something different and exciting for Malaysian theatre-goers to anticipate.

Shadow in the Sun will be showing at the Kuala Lumpur Damansara Performing Arts Centre from 8 until 12 November 2018. Tickets can be purchased from dpac.com.my.

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