Best Supporting Actor

…and the Best Supporting Actor nominees are

Veterans of the stage go up against young up-and-comers in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Castmates turn competitors as Johnny Ng and Tay Kong Hui face off for a stab at the title. Both are nominated for their roles in Nine Years Theatre's Chinese adaptation of the Russian play The Lower Depths.

Then there are the first-time nominees: Benjamin Chow, who holds his own as left-wing leader Lim Chin Siong in The LKY Musical; Ghafir Akbar, who brings to life his role as an ambitious editor in Public Enemy; and Norisham Osman, playing two roles in Ma'ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do.

NORISHAM OSMAN

Nominated for: Ma'ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do (Najib Soiman; Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)

Previous nominations: None

There seems to be nothing multi-talented Norisham Osman, 31, cannot do. He sings, moves easily between traditional and contemporary Malay dance, and is active in theatre.

As a seasoned stage manager, he is usually pulling the strings off stage, but for his sparkling performance in Najib Soiman's Ma'ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do, his third time acting on stage, he bagged a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In the play, a chock-a-block, multicultural reimagining of Shakespeare's classic romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, set in a modern-day mental asylum, he juggles two roles.

In the play-within-a-play, he cycles between the role of sharp-witted and cruel Benedick and that of a mental patient.

"The switching of characters is not an easy thing. This is the first time I'm playing not just one character, but multiple characters in a play," he says.

But, he adds: "The biggest challenge for me is that I have never done any Shakespeare plays before this, so I started by doing research about the play itself."

He also served as British-Jamaican actress Sharon Frese's Malay-language tutor behind the scenes: running his castmate through her lines and teaching her an unfamiliar language.

"Working with a bunch of talented cast members of different races, backgrounds and ages was really awesome," says the actor, who still finds joy in new challenges on stage. "Everyone was so genuine and sincere in supporting one another. Recalling the tunes and melodies for the play and remembering the dance steps together was totally enjoyable."


TAY KONG HUI

Nominated for: The Lower Depths (Nine Years Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Actor and Best Ensemble for Twelve Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre, 2014), Best Ensemble for The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (Drama Box, 2011), Best Actor for House Of Sins (Drama Box, 2009)

Keeping up with Tay Kong Hui takes some effort. The tall and straightbacked actor takes long, loping strides.

But in his role as an old man whose compassion and kindness are rebuffed, he swops his breezy gait for a well-studied shuffle, hunched feebly over a cane.

Tay, 50, piled on the years in preparation for Nine Years Theatre's Chinese adaptation of The Lower Depths, Russian playwright Maxim Gorky's bleak portrait of poverty and the people living on the bottom rungs of society.

He has been acting since the early 1990s and says authenticity was key. He spared no effort, building the character in excruciating detail.

He studied the behaviour and mannerisms of old folk, observing them in coffee shops and hawker centres, to better bring his character to life.

He gave his character chronic arthritis too, transforming himself with some difficulty into a slouched, slow- moving old man. "As my knee is not as bad as theirs, I have to twist my ankle to the maximum to achieve the same visual effect. I'm quite happy the whole production ended just before my ankle gave way," he quips.

Always game for a role that tests his limits as an actor, he also believes that age should not matter when it comes to the roles one takes.

He says: "I always like to keep my range versatile and I never like to be constrained by my age."


BENJAMIN CHOW

Nominated for: The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions)

Previous nominations: None

Faced with playing charismatic left- wing leader Lim Chin Siong - one of the most divisive figures in Singapore's political past - newcomer Benjamin Chow's initial response was one of terror.

"Let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that he was an iconic and controversial character in our political history," the 26-year-old actor says. "Lim Chin Siong was a human being - not a fictional character - who had fought for his hopes and dreams, been imprisoned, been respected, who had carried his own fears and his own joys. And here I was, tasked with the responsibility of portraying him."

It was not the first time he has played a character with historical heft. For a 2014 play at the Lasalle College of the Arts, where he studied acting, he was cast as German dictator Adolf Hitler.

But, he says: "That was a school show. It was a safe space. The LKY Musical, on the other hand, was my first major production as a professional actor, so I knew I had to put aside my fears, give this everything I could and prepare for the work as respectfully as possible."

He dedicated himself to piecing together an account of the man, reading transcripts of Lim's speeches and even going so far as to get his hands on a second-hand copy of Comet In Our Sky, a 2002 book tracing Lim's life, from a seller overseas.

The work paid off. On stage, he held his own against seasoned actor Adrian Pang, who played Lee Kuan Yew.

Chow, wrote Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan, had done an "incredible job", sharing with Pang an easy chemistry.

Chow says: "In the past, I've been cast as the good guy and I've been cast as the bad guy - and in most of these instances, the line was clear, at least for the audience.

"But playing Lim Chin Siong, I found that the line cut right down the middle, largely depending on your personal political stance and how much you know of our history. He could be perceived as either - or both."


GHAFIR AKBAR

Nominated for: Public Enemy (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: None

Ghafir Akbar on stage is a many-bodied creature. Last year, the versatile actor flitted between multiple roles with ease in shows such as the sprawling epic, Hotel.

So slipping into the role of a driven editor of a liberal online publication in Public Enemy was a rare chance for the Malaysian actor, who has been acting professionally across the Causeway since 1999. Public Enemy was his first Singapore show.

"If you look at my year last year, or my body of work, you can see that I've worked on many pieces where the ensemble plays multiple roles," says Ghafir, 34. "So, I was ecstatic to get a chance to perform one character for the duration of the play. No big costume change, no change in physical body or no change in speech. That's rare for me."

And Zainal Ibrahim, who at first throws his support behind Dr Thomas Chee when he reveals the water in his town is polluted but later turns his back on the disgraced scientist, was a meaty role for the actor to chew on.

"Audiences might easily identify him as a villain, though I really believe he did what he had to do to survive. He had a rough time growing up and climbed his way to the top. But it's his internal struggle between what's right and wrong that made him a great character to play," he says. "I rarely get to play a villain and Zainal was a dynamic one to sink my teeth into."

The biggest challenge for him was to figure out what inner turmoil led to the character switching allegiances. Even Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's original script An Enemy Of The People - on which Public Enemy is based - did not make the reason clear. So each moment and every line had to be looked at "under a microscope" to explain why he made the decision, says Ghafir.

"It still wasn't clear to me, but I was fortunate to work with a director and ensemble that spent as much time theorising off stage as putting scenes on its feet," he says. "Whatever we discussed, we tested it on our feet in the rehearsal room. We actively reminded one another of where our characters came from, the society in which they lived and the consequences of their actions. I was working with really generous actors, so sometimes, all I needed to do was just to listen to them."



ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, NEO XIAOBIN

JOHNNY NG

Nominated for: The Lower Depths (Nine Years Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Trash (Drama Box, 2007), Best Actor for Happy (Drama Box, 2006) Previous wins: Best Supporting Actor for 12 Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre, 2014)

Taking the stage as two different characters - a policeman and a bygone actor who finds comfort in the bottle - Johnny Ng slipped into each role so convincingly that he had some people watching completely fooled.

"Some audience members thought it was two different people, which is good," he says with a laugh. "It's good if I can hoodwink them into thinking that."

The charismatic Ng, referred to fondly as da ge (big brother) by his juniors, has four decades of theatre experience under his belt and is a stalwart of the crosstalk circuit.

His long years in the Chinese theatre scene have not dimmed his passion. By turns hilarious and introspective, Ng, 62, says he is still picking up new things with every show.

"I feel that every time I do a production, I can learn something new. It can even change my attitudes and beliefs towards topics, to question what I think. And that's very meaningful," he says. "I don't do this for the money... I believe arts and culture are very important in Singapore."

On stage, he is an engaging actor - aware not only of the character he is playing, but also of his audience's response.

"You can't be 100 per cent into your own acting. You need to feel the audience response. It may not be language but non-verbal cues and emotions," says Ng.

"Theatre is very special that way. You can sense even the smallest reaction from the audience."

This big brother, who comes into this year's Life Theatre Awards armed with one win and a handful of previous nominations, also has young talents on his mind.

When asked how he felt about being nominated once more, he says: "To be honest when I was younger, I desired recognition more. I'm still thankful to the judges for recognising me, but I'm already 62.

"While it's encouragement for me, I think it's better to give it to younger actors as motivation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Old & new face off'. Print Edition | Subscribe