Best Actor

Best Actor nominees: Who can beat Adrian Pang?

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Lee Jian Xuan speak to the nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards

ADRIAN PANG

Nominated for: The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions; Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Previous nominations: 12, including Best Supporting Actor in Forbidden City (2003) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor for Next To Normal (2014) by Pangdemonium and Best Actor for Frozen (2015) by Pangdemonium

 

Previous wins: Best Actor for The Dresser (2007) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor for Much Ado About Nothing (2010) by Singapore Repertory Theatre and Best Actor for Rabbit Hole (2014) by Pangdemonium

Of course it would take an actor of Adrian Pang's polish and pluck to carry off the role of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. A three-time winner of the Best Actor award, Pang, 50, took on with composure a role many would baulk at.

He says: "Sure, it was daunting, but no more daunting than playing, say, the paedophile serial killer character in Frozen, or the father to a boy with autism in the upcoming Falling - all based on real persons.

"It's a matter of trying to uncover hidden truths beyond the lines on the page and excavating the human being beneath the public persona."

The role of Mr Lee carried with it the weight of everyone's expectation and preconceptions.

Pang says: "For people who worship the man, there was no way I could live up to their image of him. For those who are not exactly his fans, they were just waiting to throw s*** at the whole enterprise.

"So either way, I couldn't win. So I decided very early on to say 's**** it' and knuckled down to just try and do my job and get through the whole thing more or less intact."

Pang, who is married and has two sons, did more than that, turning in a performance that won strong praise.

Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan wrote: "This character of Singapore's first Prime Minister rests squarely on the shoulders of an excellent Adrian Pang - and he carries the part with finesse and grace, and a deep, moving pathos that supporters will cherish and detractors will be quick to critique."

Pang said he approached the role as he would any other - diving into homework. But he adds: "There was huge pressure to 'get it right', so the script morphed and mutated on a daily basis in rehearsals, so that certainly kept us on our toes.

"At the end of the day, I had to remind myself - it's a musical, it's entertainment. I'm playing a singing politician," he adds.

"Sure, it wasn't just any politician, but I just had to try to keep my head and not freak out at the scary spectre of it all."


THOMAS PANG

Nominated for: Tribes (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: None

In Pangdemonium's Tribes, newcomer Thomas Pang, 25, seems to transform almost effortlessly into Billy - a deaf boy who struggles to communicate with his family - fingers sketching precise shapes in the air with quick confident motions.

But he confesses: "I have really meaty hands that don't make the prettiest or clearest signs or letters. Spelling is pretty difficult."

He immersed himself in the role - spending months taking sign language lessons and wearing noisecancelling ear plugs.

"Voices and cars just became murmurs," he recalls. "It was so peaceful. You see more."

The effort paid off. Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan said Pang's stage debut in the play, written by British playwright Nina Raine, was a "revelation".

This year, he joins a bevy of young talents who have been nominated in various categories for the Life Theatre Awards.

The bachelor says: "The arts scene in Singapore is thriving, thanks to the dedication of our predecessors, but what this gives the 'young' is mobility within a maturing culture and the security to create and develop our own works in an established scene."

He adds: " As young creators, we make those spaces and we have our mentors to thank for building us up and for believing we will do better."


KHAIRUDIN SAMSUDIN

Nominated for: Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC) (Teater Ekamatra)

Previous nominations: None

A familiar face on Malay-language television channel Suria, Khairudin Samsudin has been host, actor, amateur cook, talent show judge and director, all done with his typical easy charm. But last year - 15 years after he left the world of theatre - he returned to the stage.

Khairudin, 44, seemed to settle effortlessly into his role as Roslan Jantan, the anchor minister of the group representation constituency at the centre of Teater Ekamatra's Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC).

As the charismatic but kooky Minister for Manpower, he drew loud laughter from the audience, even as his passionate speeches on race led to some reflection.

The play, written by Alfian Sa'at, inverts Singapore's GRC system by setting the action in a small nation where Malays are the majority and the ruling party must field a minority Chinese candidate to win a group representation constituency.

Khairudin says performing in an intimate, immediate space after being so used to television was daunting. "Somehow, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off - memorising the script and performing it with seasoned theatre actors such as Neo Swee Lin, Farah Ong, Firdaus Rahman and Dalifah Shahril," he recalls. "But, good gracious, all of them were great co-actors and they helped a lot."

He started dabbling in theatre in his teens and joined Teater Nadi - a theatre group for youth - when he was 15. He joined Malay theatre company Teater Kami in 1999 before leaving about 15 years ago. He then joined Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts as a part-time lecturer and resident artist and became more involved in television productions.

He is married with four children.

When Teater Ekamatra's artistic director Fared Jainal offered him the chance to direct and write for Projek Suitcase 2015, a monologue festival that took place around the Malay Heritage Centre, he was happy to accept.

When GRC came up, he thought, "Why not?" and took up that offer.

He says that in his television work, maintaining continuity of emotions and actions from one scene to the other is important as scenes are often not shot according to the flow of the story.

"It takes a different discipline for stage and TV. And, of course, for stage, the rehearsal time is much longer than TV. We get to explore more in terms of characterisations and plots... The process is much more satisfying and demanding sometimes."


EBI SHANKARA

Nominated for: Off Centre (Oliver Chong; The Esplanade's Studios:fifty)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for The Full Monty by Pangdemonium (2011), Oi! Sleeping Beauty by Wild Rice (2006) and Cinderel-lah! by Wild Rice (2004)

The role of Vinod - a student battling depression - was a tough coat for the gregarious Ebi Shankara to shrug off. "It took quite a toll on me. I felt like it took a part of my soul," says the 28-year-old actor.

"When the show ended, it took me a while to respond to things. I didn't put anything on Facebook. I didn't put up any photos saying, thank you for coming. I just couldn't. I was too affected. The role left this aftertaste that lingered for a while more."

The play centres on two people - Vinod, a top student from a rich family battling depression, and Saloma (Siti Khalijah Zainal), a lower-income former vocational student who is schizophrenic.

Two months of intense rehearsals had placed him squarely in Vinod's mind and had him questioning himself and his own sanity at times.

"I started asking myself, am I off centre? What is centre? There were certain things Vinod does that I would have done in my life, things I used to do as a kid," says Shankara, who is single.

"Is there something off centre about me too?"

When he was young, he was, for one thing, obsessed about the placement of objects.

"I had to make sure things were put back in the exact same place after I used them. If I took a CD out of a case, I had to put it back in the same place, take it out, put it back again, take it out, put it back. I got a sense of satisfaction from that," he says.

"I don't do these things any more, but when I started reading up about mental illnesses, I started to see all these small tics I had as a kid in a different light."

He had not seen past stagings of Off Centre, which was written by The Necessary Stage resident playwright Haresh Sharma, but took to YouTube for some heavy research, watching people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder recount their experiences.

Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan heaped praise on his performance. "Shankara turns in his finest performance to date, giving Vinod a vulnerability, but also a steeliness that is captivating to watch," she wrote. "He brings an edge of desperation to the part, veering from confident caretaker to frightened child, and so fully inhabits the nervous tics and fluttering gestures of the character that you forget he exists and only see Vinod instead."



PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, NEO XIAOBIN, DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

YANG SHI BIN

Nominated for: The Struggle: Years Later (The Theatre Practice) Previous nominations: None

Close to five decades have passed since The Struggle, theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun's play on workers' rights, was banned by the authorities.

Over the years, the play has stayed in Yang Shi Bin's mind. He was set to perform in it when the play was banned a fortnight before it was to be staged.

Last year, he had a chance for closure. The 1969 play about a group of workers exploited by their employer was resurrected by The Theatre Practice's directorplaywright Liu Xiaoyi as The Struggle: Years Later.

The reworked play is a patchwork of snippets from the original, accompanied by documents and reminiscences of some of the actors.

Yang, 68, says: "For 46 years, no one wanted to do this production. Then Xiaoyi approached me and started asking questions about what happened, how we felt, the situation then. He asked me, 'Are you interested in working on this?'"

Yang, who is married and has two sons, leapt at the chance. He plays multiple roles in the production - starting off as an actor, speaking to younger actors about the past, and later entering the script of the original play as a father, letting him tap his memory in the process.

"This is special as the show is a continuation of my work back then. On stage, it's not just me per se. When I did the show, I felt very strongly the shadows of my companions who were then with me," he says.

It also gave him the chance to mine long dormant memories, among them his experience working with Kuo, who died in 2002 of liver and kidney cancer.

Both of Kuo's daughters are following in his footsteps in their work at The Theatre Practice and Yang remembers revealing to Kuo's younger daughter Jing Hong aspects of her father that she never knew about.

He says: "When I talked to her, we would cry about the past. In a way, it's a cleansing of my heart.

"All these things we don't talk about resurfaced. She was born in 1971, so she did not know what her father was like before that."

For more stories on the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, go to http://str.sg/Zy7U.

The awards will be given out on April 25 at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards ceremony, an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'Who can beat Adrian Pang?'. Print Edition | Subscribe