Mandarin troupe takes on first Asian classic

Seeing red: (clockwise from left) Mia Chee, Tay Kong Hui, Timothy Wan and Hang Qian Chou in Nine Years Theatre's Red Demon.
Seeing red: (clockwise from left) Mia Chee, Tay Kong Hui, Timothy Wan and Hang Qian Chou in Nine Years Theatre's Red Demon.PHOTO: RYAN LOI

Nine Years Theatre, known for adapting Western works, will stage a translation of Japanese play, Red Demon

Known for its adaptations of Western plays, Mandarin drama troupe Nine Years Theatre is presenting Asian classics for the first time this year.

First up is a translation of Red Demon, Japanese playwright Noda Hideki's allegory for xenophobia, at the Drama Centre Black Box from Thursday to March 13.

Later this year, the group will stage Taiwanese theatre icon Stan Lai's Red Sky, a 1994 play about the elderly. Next year, the troupe will present Haresh Sharma's Fundamentally Happy, in collaboration with The Necessary Stage, and also an adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon's famous novel Art Studio, which follows the fortunes of artists sharing a studio in 1980s Singapore.

The move to doing Asian works was a necessary next step, if nerve-racking, for Nine Years Theatre's co-founder and artistic director Nelson Chia.

Since the troupe was founded in 2012, it has won multiple nominations and prizes at the annual Life Theatre Awards for Mandarin adaptations of non-Asian plays.

Chia has received two awards for best director: last year for the 2014 production of French playwright Yasmina Reza's comedy Art, and for American playwright Reginald Rose's courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men a year earlier.

  • BOOK IT / RED DEMON

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Thursday to March 13; 8pm, Tuesday to Friday; 3 and 8pm, Saturday; 3pm, Sunday

    ADMISSION: $38 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Last year's adaptation of Russian playwright Maxim Gorky's bleak script about poverty, The Lower Depths, won over critics as well.

"To do a French play or American play is easier," says Chia, who is 44 this year and married to the group's co-founder, actress Mia Chee.

"With us in Western costumes speaking this language (Mandarin), we were able to create our own little world. With Chinese plays or Taiwanese plays, I have to wonder: 'Are we going to be Taiwanese? Chinese? What kind of language will we speak? Will we have accents?' I'm still thinking about Stan Lai's Red Sky, how will we do it?"

So he is getting his feet wet with Noda's allegorical play Red Demon, translated by the troupe's Neo Hai Bin. In the story, villagers in an isolated seaside settlement encounter a strange-looking "red demon". It speaks an unintelligible language and sparks their fear and wrath.

The titular role is played by Hang Qian Chou, while other stalwarts from the company ensemble, including Chee, Tay Kong Hui and Timothy Wan, play the villagers.

In the original Japanese production of Red Demon in the late 1990s, the demon was played by a British actor. Playwright Noda took on the role instead for an otherwise all-Thai casting some years later.

Since Nine Years Theatre has a dedicated ensemble of actors, Chia did not deliberately set out to remove race from the staging equation. However, he says, he is happy it has turned out that way.

"I thought it might present a different possibility from previous productions where the demon has always been a foreigner," he says. He draws parallels between the isolated village of the play and Singapore, a small island country grappling with a growing population of immigrants.

"But this is not the first time this has happened. My grandparents were immigrants too. We've forgotten that."

Chia says it is easy to blame incomers for tensions in society, putting the fault on their speaking a different language, perhaps.

"But in the play, villagers are able to communicate with the demon. Sometimes, you don't have a desire to communicate and you confuse that with an inability to communicate. There has to be that desire to communicate."

Actor Wan, 28, comes from mixed Cantonese-Hokkien heritage and finds the play's use of language fascinating.

Nine Years Theatre will remain true to Noda's text, where the demon speaks a mixture of gibberish and English.

"One of the things we have to think about in the play is the idea that the foreigner is the outsider because he doesn't speak the same language," Wan says.

"But within our culture, who is Singaporean? We all don't speak the same language. We are all foreigners in our own way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Mandarin troupe takes on first Asian classic'. Print Edition | Subscribe