Tale of Chinese tour guide Yang Yin becomes case study for comedy on blind faith

The cast of Tartuffe at a dress rehearsal (from far left) Jalyn Han, Jean Toh, Koh Wan Ching, Darius Tan, Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee and Hang Qian Chou. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The cast of Tartuffe at a dress rehearsal (from far left) Jalyn Han, Jean Toh, Koh Wan Ching, Darius Tan, Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee and Hang Qian Chou. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Nine Years Theatre is using the real-life story of former Chinese tour guide Yang Yin as one of the case studies for a new production of the 17th-century French comedy Tartuffe next month.

Yang Yin has been in the news for the past year after he is accused of wheedling his way into a wealthy Singaporean widow's good books and nearly gaining control of her $40-million assets last year.

In the French comedy, the slick conman attempts to cosy his way into a wealthy family in order to marry the patriarch's daughter and inherit his wealth.

Director Nelson Chia, who adapted and translated the comedy into Chinese, was particularly struck by the notion of "blind faith".

Chia, 42, says: "In recent years, there've been a lot of cases of religious or charity leaders making inappropriate use of public funds."

"When taken to the extreme, we tend to be able to twist certain teachings in religion to suit what we want, to rationalise our actions.

"But it's not just about those people like Tartuffe who do this. We see a lot of Tartuffes in our lives. But what I'm also interested in are the believers... how people, when they have a certain faith, tend to block out certain things even though it's right in front of their eyes."

The play, originally written by master of comedy and French playwright Moliere in 1664, continues Nine Years Theatre's efforts to introduce audience members and actors to theatre classics.

The company will hold a dialogue session with academic and playwright Quah Sy Ren on Feb 8 to discuss the importance of reviving the classics and the future directions the company can take.

Tartuffe also marks the second official performance by the Nine Years Theatre Ensemble Project after its first outing at An Enemy Of The People in January last year.

Chia set up this ensemble as part of a long-term goal to build a professional company of actors working together as a solid, cohesive unit.

Hang Qian Chou, 33, who is playing the titular Tartuffe, is part of the ensemble. Before joining the group, he had constantly struggled to improve when directors told him that he lacked "gravitas".

After going through over a year of intense physical training, including body awareness, he says: "Now, at least I am able to ground myself more on stage, instead of just coasting around. Before I started to do the Suzuki method, sometimes directors would say, 'You need to be more grounded'.

"And I was like, okay - but I didn't really know how to do that. But now that I have some of that training slowly starting to get into my body, sometimes I can feel it myself, even before the director tells me."

Nine Years Theatre runs regular theatre training classes for those interested in honing their performances in Mandarin, such as diction classes, and also well-subscribed physical training classes, such as the Suzuki Method of actor training, which puts the actors through exercises focusing on energy, breathing and the body's centre of gravity.

This year, the company is adding another set of classes to the list: basic stage directing in October.

Chia, who won the best director award at the Life! Theatre Awards last year, will be training director hopefuls in fundamentals such as blocking (the movement of actors on stage), rhythm and script analysis.

"It can take 10 years to groom one person - and there is no path," he says.

"I have young people asking me, 'How did you become a director?' I don't know. I just started directing, people let me direct and one thing led to another. Maybe in the long run, I can find ways to let them do things."