Theatre review: Wild Rice's Public Enemy hits the mark

Few playwrights manage the feat of having their plays still regularly performed more than a century after their death. Shakespeare is one, Ibsen is another.

This is the second time in just over a year that an adaptation of the 19th-century Norwegian master's An Enemy Of The People has been staged here. Wild Rice has opted to stage Scottish playwright David Harrower's 2013 version of the play, Public Enemy, following Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin version last year.

The play is a biting critique of how democracy vests power in the hands of a credulous majority, and one can see how that would resonate in today's Singapore of online mobs and a more vocal public.

But the power of the play lies not simply in its ideas but its acute psychological portraits and tightly wound plot - the hallmarks of many an Ibsen play, qualities which kept the audience hanging on to every word in this skilful, sensitive production directed by Glen Goei. It did not feel long despite its run time of one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission.

Wild Rice has transposed the play from an unnamed European town to a kind of parallel-reality Singapore and renamed the characters. Scientist Dr Thomas Chee - played by Ivan Heng as a foppish, eccentric, impassioned Peranakan gentleman - makes a shocking discovery. The baths on which his city has built its fortune (as the "spa hub of the region") are actually polluted; Dr Chee thinks his case is watertight but one by one, would-be allies turn against him and he becomes the public enemy of the title.

In any adaptation, localisation of references is a tricky business and can misfire. Goei, however, did enough to hit closer to home and inject humour into a play that can be a little didactic at times, while remaining essentially faithful to the script with its elements of both tragedy and dark comedy. One can only recall Wild Rice's over-the-top attempt 11 years ago at Singaporeanising another European playwright's political satire set originally in an unnamed European town - Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit - to sense how far the company has come.

Public Enemy proceeded at a cracking pace, on a set made up of sliding grids and grey-framed modular furniture that could be speedily reconfigured for different scenes.

Heng struck a convincing if slightly fussy note as a mad scientist-figure determined to pursue the truth at great personal cost. In contrast, Lim Kay Siu as his antagonist brother, government minister Peter Chee, played it a little too straight - he was commanding, utterly rational but not quite Machiavellian enough.

It was the supporting cast which stood out. As Dr Chee sympathisers, Kee Thuan Chye as his industrialist father-in-law, Ghafir Akbar as an ambitious journalist and Gerald Chew's newspaper magnate all sharply essayed the self-interest at the heart of each character's calculations, which made the subsequent plot twists believable.

Serene Chen gave Dr Chee's long-suffering, supportive wife Katherine the right note of realism and resignation to be a foil to him, while newcomer Yap Yi Kai was sassy and spirited as Dr Chee's elder daughter and his biggest champion.

In an inspired touch, the scene in which Peter Chee and his supporters gatecrash a public lecture delivered by the crusading Dr Chee was played out with actors among the audience and the house lights turned on, involving everyone in the proceedings of what felt like a raucous annual general meeting.

It climaxes when Dr Chee, quivering with both realisation and rage, tells the audience, "It's not the politicians we ought to fear, it's you, the majority", leaving one in no doubt as to the play's message.

If democracy is in a crisis today - something Ibsen was prescient enough to expose over a century ago - it is not because of the failings of the system, but of human nature: our inability to swallow inconvenient truths, and our willingness to believe those in power who say what we want to hear.

Book it

Public Enemy

Where: Victoria Theatre

When: Till April 25; Tuesday - Saturday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3pm

Tickets: $50 to $80 from Sistic (tel: 6348-5555, www.sistic.com.sg)