Time Out Singapore: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ Review

8 Dec 2015: There’s nothing like winding down at the end of a big, action-packed year with a big, action-packed pantomime. And who else can we count on delivering that but Wild Rice? This time, the company took on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and turned it into a full-fledged song-and-dance show. Here are five magical elements that make the – very localised – production such a delight for the whole family.

The Emperor's New Clothes

The cast

The great Lim Kay Siu leads a brilliant cast of emerging and established talent. The Sam Willows’ Benjamin Kheng and fellow pop singer Sezairi have a wonderful dynamic as the tailors Nathan and Khairul, while Andrew Lua, Siti Khalijah and Benjamin Wong make for the ultimate comedic trio as government ministers.

The songs

The music is without a doubt the strongest element of the production, brought to life by three musicians as well as the actors themselves (who knew Lim Kay Siu could play the violin so well?) It took every bit of self-restraint for us not to triumphantly yell out the lyrics to ‘Naked as My Butt’ as we exited the theatre.

The costumes (or lack thereof)

The play revolves around the 50th edition of the ‘NDP’ – that’s ‘New Dress Parade’, natch – as there’s nothing Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun adores more than his clothes. In fact, he decided that an air-conditioned dome would be built over his kingdom just so he could break out his Fall/Winter pieces.

The set

The set here is, typical of Wild Rice productions, a sight to behold. We’re especially impressed by the dungeon scene, during which the huge birdcages used to imprison innocent people whom the Emperor disliked cinematically haunt the stage.

The jokes

A panto ain’t a panto without the laughs – and there’s certainly no shortage of that. Case in point: Khai No Surname and Nate No Surname’s tailor shop is a mash-up of their names, ‘KNN’. At the Emperor’s request, the name gets upgraded to include ‘Costume Custom Bespoke’ at the end, which also gets abbreviated. We’ll leave it at that.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Another Country’

22 Jun 2015: In Wild Rice’s upcoming play, ‘Another Country’, the battle of the century unfolds: Singapore versus Malaysia. Ivan Heng tells Gwen Pew more

AnotherCountry

Ivan Heng is reading from a script, his arms flowing and eyes dancing to the rhythm of the words. ‘Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets,’ the Wild Rice co-founder begins. ‘Robes of silk, satin, brocade and white muslin, emphasised by the glitter of barbaric gold and Parsees in spotless white; Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs…’

He pauses to make a point: ‘This was written in 1879. 1879, and not a swamp in sight!’

Which makes it easy to see why, on our nation’s 50th anniversary, the colourful passage was selected as one of the 50-plus published works to be featured in Wild Rice’s upcoming play, Another Country. Lifted from a letter written by English explorer Isabella Bird to her sister during the former’s visit to Singapore, the description of the island is at odds with the version preferred by those who believe in the ‘fishing village to first world’ narrative ascribed to a certain, late political leader. Provocation – along with a good dose of humour – is the crux of the production.

Another Country is, chiefly, a story of two neighbours: Singapore and Malaysia. It explores the relationship between ‘us and them’ – and humanity as a whole – using short stories, plays, interviews and jingoistic songs to bridge the pair. The first half of the performance features texts culled from Singapore’s cultural archive while the second half plumbs from Malaysian works. And the twist: each half is performed by actors from the opposite country.

‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them,’ muses Heng, who directs the Lion City portion of the play. ‘We share so much with each other: our heritage, our culture, our stories. [The stories in Another Country are] of hope, disgust, strength, humour, love. There’s a sense of longing and wistfulness about them that’s quite romantic, quite sayang [a Malay word with dual meanings: ‘love’ and ‘with pity’].’

Through the barricades

The chosen texts date back to the 15th century. Alfian Sa’at, who curates the Singaporean works, explains that while he was led by his ‘idiosyncratic taste in both the literature produced about Singapore and by Singaporeans’, he opted for a ‘broad historical sweep’. Texts from the Malay annals, writings from colonial travellers, Singaporeans writing in exile, songs about the Little Red Dot and even the work of Catherine Lim and Michael Chiang make appearances. ‘I was very conscious that I wasn’t performing a canonising function,’ Alfian adds.

And not a rabble-rousing function, either. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin – he’s Alfian’s northern equivalent inAnother Country – insists his chosen texts serve not to mend fences but break them altogether.

‘In his poem “Salam Benua (Greetings to the Continent)”, the Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang urges us to choose not to be separated by “passports, visas and frontiers”, which are all “names for barriers”,’ recalls Leow. ‘The world would be a better place for all of us if we could follow him in sending our greetings past these arbitrary man-made barriers, to humanity, to the people of all continents.’

Heng agrees with Leow’s message of amity. He believes Another Country is, above all, about peace. ‘Peace is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand one another as human beings,’ he says. ‘We all want to be happy. It’s a utopia, of course, but we try.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Public Enemy’ Review

15 Apr 2015: Wild Rice opens its 15th anniversary season with a play that challenges the inherent problem of society, but Gwen Pew is left disappointed by this watered-down adaptation of a great classic

★★★☆☆

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Staged during our nation’s golden jubilee and ahead of our next general election, Wild Rice’s take on Public Enemy – first written by Henrik Ibsen over a century ago, adapted by David Harrower in 2013 and now relocated to a fictionalised Singapore – promises to get us talking about difficult things. We went into the theatre ready to be confronted by a series of uncomfortable truths about a society bound by a selfish majority, and yet, despite this being a visually stunning production, we’re not convinced that its ambitious goal was achieved.

The plot revolves around Dr Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng), the medical director of the country’s well-renowned natural spas, who is hell-bent on exposing the toxic state of its waters. While he has his initial supporters, including members of the press and the business community, he soon gets tangled in a web of social, governmental and personal interests. Ultimately, he is thrown under the bus by a political system headed by his influential brother, the mayor Peter Chee (Lim Kay Siu).

The point of Ibsen’s iconic work is to critique the perils of a complacent society, whose inability to think for itself allows those in power to manipulate situations and sentiments in order to satisfy their own agenda. But the production doesn’t get this across, as Thomas quickly loses sight of his noble goal of bringing the truth to light once the tides and ‘solid majority’ turn against him. He declares that he loves his country in his rambling speech at the climax of the play – which was hurled at the audience with the house lights turned on – but he never shows that love in action. He declares that he is dedicated to his family, but he’s willing to put them all in danger because of his own ego. He declares that he is after the truth – but we’re not even sure whether the findings in the report are accurate. (We’re reminded by Peter that Thomas didn’t try to get a second opinion on them.) And when he declares at the end that he’s remaining in town after being branded a public enemy, he’s no longer fighting for the truth – he is, instead, fighting against his brother and the people who don’t agree with his views.

There are indeed many powerful themes and issues that the production could play with – from sibling rivalry and the responsibility of the media to a man’s duty to himself, his family and his nation – and while all of them are lightly touched upon, they are never explored to their full extent. The characters are also introduced without context, which makes it difficult for us to empathise with them. But most importantly, it’s almost impossible to root for the feeble and highly self-destructive protagonist, even though he is portrayed as a hero right until the final scene. So while we’re troubled by the fact that the nation is wrought by political and social back-scratching, we’re left at a loss about the play’s central message. The combination of these elements results in a piece that feels clumsy, convoluted, and diluted.

That said, as a theatrical performance, it’s aesthetically very attractive. Wong Chee Wai’s sleek, grey set, when paired with Lai Chan’s impeccable outfits and the cinematic lighting and sound effects, provides a very slick backdrop for the story. The cast is also composed of able actors: Heng channels the rash, frumpy and impassionate doctor compellingly; Serene Chen supports him well as his poor, loyal wife, Katherine; while Ghafir Akbar makes for a suitably slimy and fickle editor of the local newspaper. The rest of his family and acquaintances are likewise competently played, but Lim deserves special mention for filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence as the mayor, even when he’s merely glowering silently in the corner.

Overall, this is a performance that unfortunately has more style than substance. The fantastic set and good acting make for two straight hours of decent entertainment, but strip the visual appeal away and what we’re left with is a weak adapted script that never quite delivers the sting that it threatened to.

Time Out Singapore: Sebastian Tan

He’s best known for being the Hokkien-spewing, show tune-singing, glitter-loving Broadway Beng, but Sebastian Tan will be stepping into bigger shoes this month: He’ll be making his Wild Rice directorial debut by helming the company’s annual pantomime. Written by Alfian Sa’at, Monkey Goes West is based on the legendary Chinese story of Journey to the West, and as expected from the theatre company, it’ll bear a local twist. Gwen Pew chats with Tan before the show opens.

Sebastian Tan (Monkey Goes West)

5 Nov 2014:

1

While it’s not Tan’s first time directing – he has previously directed shows as part of Singapore Management University’s Arts Festival and assistant directed with Singapore Repertory Theatre’s The Little Company – he still gets a rush of emotions ahead of rehearsals: ‘I’m feeling nervous, excited, powerful, happy, anxious, fabulous – the whole works. I’m like a pregnant lady now, ready to give birth come 21 November. Now, push! Breathe! Push some more!’

2

It was Tan who suggested staging a play based on Journey to the West: ‘When Ivan Heng [Wild Rice’s artistic director] first approached me about directing a musical,I wanted to bring something different to the usual Wild Rice panto table. I chose something that speaks to me, but is also an epic story that’s popular in both the East and the West.’

3

The story is one that he’s loved since he was a child: The endless adventures part of the monk, Tripitaka (who is Singaporean in this adaptation), and his disciples Monkey, Sandy and Piggy evoked so much of my imagination even to this day. I love it for its richness in terms of story, themes, colours, costumes, sets, lights… everything!’

4

He sees the transition from actor to director as a natural one: ‘As an actor, I’m like a kid, playing and exploring. As a director, I’m like the kid growing up to be an adult – I draw from the many experiences I had as a kid and apply them to what I do. I have a lot more responsibilities and a wider, broader vision, and I believe it will make me grow even more artistically.’

5

He’s focussed on Monkey Goes West, but he’s already booked up until 2016: ‘I’ve started to work on some projects, like my concert with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra next year, and the Broadway Beng movie is out in 2016, so watch out!’