Theatre company Wild Rice presenting five politically-themed plays for SG50

As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel, a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Public Enemy (above) starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel, a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Public Enemy (above) starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel, a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes (above) and Public Enemy starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel, a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes (above) and Public Enemy starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel (above), a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Public Enemy starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
As part of its 15th anniversary, Wild Rice will be staging five productions, including Hotel (above), a cheeky adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Public Enemy starring Lim Kay Siu and Ivan Heng. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE

Wild Rice theatre company says each production represents one of the five stars on the Singapore flag

One of Singapore's most recognisable theatre companies is turning 15 even as the country turns 50, and it has decided to throw quite a different birthday celebration for the Golden Jubilee.

Wild Rice, founded by Cultural Medallion recipient Ivan Heng in 2000, will be presenting five productions this year and early next year, each for one of the five stars on the Singapore flag - democracy, peace, progress, equality and justice.

Heng, 51, says: "We knew SG50 was going to be very 'rah-rah'. But I think there are different ways to celebrate. The theatre gives us an opportunity to think deeper, have a more thought-provoking and probably more meaningful experience of what it means to live here, how we came to be, what made us who we are."

Despite a period of cuts in government funding a few years ago, the company has never shied away from lively, tongue-in-cheek socio-political commentary and has navigated many an "out-of- bounds marker" along the way. It seems that this year will be no different.

Its first production is Public Enemy at Victoria Theatre in April, based on Scottish playwright David Harrower's new adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy Of The People. The 19th-century play, which wrestles with the concept of "the greater good", is getting a 21st-century Singaporean makeover.

Physician Thomas Stockmann, renamed Dr Thomas Chee and played by Heng, discovers to his horror that the water supply of his small town is severely contaminated and wants to put on hold plans for a much-anticipated spa that is set to revitalise the town. Its people, of course, are not pleased, including his brother, the mayor played by veteran actor Lim Kay Siu, 58.

Nine Years Theatre staged a Mandarin version of this play at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival last year. But Heng and director Glen Goei, who have wanted to do this play for a few years, say this adaptation will be markedly different.

Public Enemy represents the first of the five stars on the Singapore flag - Democracy. It looks at Dr Chee's struggle to hold on to what he believes in, despite everyone else's opinions to the contrary, in a town discovering the inner workings of democracy. The production received its performing licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA) last week and has no accompanying rating.

Goei, 52, who is directing the work, says: "With all our classics, we contemporise them and put them in a Singapore context. So we decided to change the names. There's nothing sinister about the choice of names. It's just that we wanted to choose local names - the MDA wanted to know what the names were before we were given the licence."

He says, when he first read Harrower's adaptation, "it read so much like Singapore... the issues about democracy, the responsibility of the majority, when we talk about the majority we often forget about the minorities".

In June and July, the second "star", Peace, will be represented by Another Country, a sequel of sorts to Wild Rice's Second Link (2005), which brought together Malaysian and Singapore theatre practitioners.

The company's resident playwright Alfian Sa'at will be working with his Malaysian playwriting colleague, Leow Puay Tin, to select various writings and texts from both sides of the Causeway and weave them into the final product.

Another Country will be directed by Heng, who is Singaporean, and Malaysian theatre practitioner Jo Kukathas, who often collaborates with artists here. It will be performed in both countries. Heng says of Aug 9, 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia: "That was the day of Singapore's independence, but it was also the day of our divorce."

He adds: "If we can take the time to understand, to interpret and then express each other's concerns and aspirations, you begin to have this idea of empathy and go into this idea of what it means to have peace between neighbours."

Alfian, 37, is also writing a new play, Hotel. It is a commission for the Singapore International Festival of Arts in August and September, which comes under the "star" of Progress. Hotel is set in a fictional Singaporean hotel across the span of a century. The sweeping, multi-generational epic traces Singapore's journey from British colony to affluent nation, and includes characters such as Malay film stars, prisoners-of-war and Indian mutineers.

"SG100," the playwright quips when discussing his work, "these are things that challenge the SG50 narrative. There is so much before 1965, there was a Malayan history, a colonial history".

He said it is very important "to be mindful of those other things" and not see Singapore history "as some sort of messianic person who emerged sometime in the late 1950s and brought Singapore out of the malarial swamps. We were already very cosmopolitan, a very vibrant city in the 1920s".

Wild Rice will ring out the year with its traditional Christmas pantomime in November and December, and this year, Pam Oei will direct a cheeky adaptation of the familiar fable The Emperor's New Clothes.

It is written by Checkpoint Theatre associate artist Joel Tan, 27, and stars Lim Kay Siu as the titular emperor. This production represents the star of Equality, with its look not just at vanity but also how a people might collectively not want to appear ignorant and cling to a herd mentality.

Oei, 43, reveals a twist to this pantomime - all the actors will be playing musical instruments. Lim, for instance, will be playing the violin. Pop heart-throb Benjamin Kheng of local band The Sam Willows will be acting as one of the mischievous tailors.

Actress Oei, who is directing for the second time, after Hansel And Gretel in 2012, says: "I would like the music to be a whole new language of its own."

With a packed season, Wild Rice will be completing its five-star arc next year, with the production for Justice yet to be announced.

The theme for the entire season is imagiNATION.

Heng says of this: "It goes back to this whole idea of creating a sense of pride and a sense of belonging, to really give expression to what it means to be living in the here and now. Doing these historical plays is also about the presence of history and projecting forward, it is about envisaging the possibilities, the disappointments but also the hopes - that's what this season is about."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan