High drama and lots of heart

Many nominees of the Life! Theatre Awards showcase realism and get audiences to reach within themselves

Good, solid drama forms the backbone of this year's Life! Theatre Awards, with many nominated works bearing the hallmarks of realism and naturalism.

Leading the pack is the highly rated courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, by newcomer Nine Years Theatre, with a total of eight nominations under its belt - including Production of the Year.

The play throws the spotlight on a testosterone-pumped, highly strung jury room, where a single juror (Jeffrey Low, a Best Actor nominee) casts doubt on a guilty verdict that should have been a foregone conclusion. The debate that happens next transforms many of the other jurors' long-held beliefs and prejudices.

Nelson Chia, 41, who directed the work and is also artistic director of Nine Years Theatre, was "very pleasantly surprised" by the eight nominations.

The theatre company was founded just two years ago, but Chia is already feeling the pressure of living up to the expectations of his audience. But he adds: "I'm confident of creating good quality productions. Audience members may like or dislike the production depending on their taste, the script, actors or directorial concept, but they can't deny that it's good quality.

"That is the goal I set myself for every production."

Close behind 12 Angry Men are two blockbuster hits by Pangdemonium Productions: the moving family drama Rabbit Hole with six nominations and the big-hearted musical about mental health, Next To Normal, with seven.

Both productions, which dug deep into grief and loss, life and living, are also in the running for Production of the Year.

It is a banner year for the four-year-old Pangdemonium, a front runner with 14 nominations in total from its three-show theatre season. Its black-box play Gruesome Playground Injuries, a bittersweet romance between two childhood sweethearts, is up for Best Set Design.

Tracie Pang, 45, co-artistic director of Pangdemonium, says: "I think we were quite overwhelmed. That was probably our first reaction. It was such a long list of nominations that we were quite gobsmacked, but very pleasantly so. It's very nice to have your work appreciated."

She cited, in particular, the Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominations for Eden Ang, Nathan Hartono and Seong Hui Xuan, saying: "We were extremely happy for our young cast members as well. It means a lot to them and to us that the work we're doing to highlight new talent is finally coming to fruition."

The awards ceremony, an invitation- only luncheon event at The St. Regis Singapore hotel, will be held on March 10. This is the 14th edition of the awards, an annual event that honours the best theatre professionals in Singapore today.

The awards are judged by a six-member panel, comprising Lasalle College of the Arts provost Venka Purushothaman, independent practitioner Low Kee Hong, head of artistic development (theatre) at the West Kowloon Cultural District, co-editor of the online arts journal The Flying Inkpot Matthew Lyon, and arts reviewers from The Straits Times, The Business Times and Lianhe Zaobao: Corrie Tan, Helmi Yusof and Tang Hwa Kwee.

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Theatre lovers can vote for their favourite work of the year from the five Production of the Year nominees. Ten readers who vote for their favourite production will win a pair of tickets to the awards ceremony. Details will be released soon.

OCBC Bank has come on board as a presenting sponsor for this category, titled Production of the Year (Readers' Choice) Award. It is a separate award from the top category of Production of the Year, which is selected by the judging panel.

The St. Regis Singapore is sponsoring a lucky draw prize for the readers present at the ceremony: a one-night weekend stay at the hotel's Executive Deluxe Room as well as a dinner at Brasserie Les Saveurs for two. The total value of the prize is $1,330.

Flying Inkpot's Lyon notes of the year's nominees: "This year, a lot of the theatre seemed to be about reaching inwards and mining who we are at our core."

Citing some of the Best Actor and Actress nominees, he adds: "We were treated to performances by people such as Adrian Pang (Rabbit Hole, Next To Normal), Janice Koh (Rabbit Hole, The Optic Trilogy), Tay Kong Hui (12 Angry Men) and Jean Ng (For Better Or For Worse) that possessed a special gravity, drawing us deep below the surface where the waters get muddy and scary things are lurking."

Ng was the star of the intimate, two- person show For Better Or For Worse by 26-year-old playwright Faith Ng, an achingly frank portrayal of a decades-long marriage in Singapore. It is also nominated for Best Original Script. The Checkpoint Theatre production punched above its weight and is the smallest show among the Production of the Year nominees.

Its director Claire Wong, 48, had previously collaborated on Faith Ng's 2010 breakout play wo(men). Wong says of For Better Or For Worse: "Faith really captures the slippages that happen in dialogue when two people have been married for a long time - how it can really be fantastic one moment, and then it slips into a quarrel and something darker, and life goes on."

In a list of works that have their grounding very much in reality, Cake Theatrical Productions' deeply experimental Illogic stood out. It was a sprawling, psychedelic valentine to theatre and garnered eight nominations, including Production of the Year, for the nine-year-old company.

In the kaleidoscopic work, Best Actress nominee Edith Podesta plays a male playwright-director creating a new work and presenting it to his muse and lover, an actress played by Noorlinah Mohamed (also nominated for Best Actress).

Cake's founder Natalie Hennedige, 39, who wrote and directed the work, says: "Illogic was an exercise in artistic freedom for us. Whatever we dreamt, we sought to make it happen in the theatre - unending stairs on a stage for two, water spilling as if from nowhere on a lone actor, a sudden kabuki drop. The actors went the distance with us, giving so freely and so boldly."

The presence of such daring original scripts also helped to beef up the Best Original Script category, which has seen its share of dry years.

Awards judge Helmi, an arts correspondent at The Business Times, says: "In 2012, the strongest and most compelling scripts were the docudrama types, using verbatim text from interviews. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I do enjoy the return of original scripts in this category."

He notes a healthy mix of emerging and established writers in the script category, from Faith Ng to Alfian Sa'at.

And while he takes these nominations as a positive sign, he adds: "It seems to be a critical moment for playwriting. A few playwrights tell me that good local scripts abound, but that they are not being picked up by theatre companies. But the theatre companies say they find little that's sufficiently compelling to stage.

"It does make one wish there were more strong Singapore scripts that could entice these terrific theatre companies to take them on."

corriet@sph.com.sg