SINGAPORE – Malay theatre group Teater Ekamatra’s Shakespeare remake Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Wild Rice’s update of Moliere’s 17th-century scam satire Tartuffe: The Imposter lead the pack in 2023’s The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, with nominations in five categories each.
Both are in contention for the coveted Production Of The Year award.
The directors of the two productions, Bangsawan Gemala Malam’s Aidli “Alin” Mosbit and Tartuffe’s Glen Goei, also received nods in the Best Director category.
The Life Theatre Awards, inaugurated in 2000 by The Straits Times (ST) to recognise achievements in the theatre scene, returns in its 21st edition.
It reflects developments in the theatre scene and this year’s nominees, ranging from glitzy full-scale productions such as Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Tartuffe to small one-man shows, track the scene’s robust post-pandemic return to the live stage.
Other nominations for Bangsawan Gemala Malam, a cross-cultural blend of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with traditional Malay operatic theatre, include Best Actor for Rizman Putra for his multi-character blitz, Best Costume for Max Tan and Best Lighting for James Tan.
For Tartuffe, Joel Tan’s channelling of Moliere in his rewrite of the Wild Rice adaptation has earned a spot for Best Original Script. Frederick Lee’s jewel-toned baroque costumes put him in the contest for Best Costume, while the entire cast of Tartuffe has been nominated for Best Ensemble.
Both plays were praised by ST Life’s reviewers when they were staged.
Bangsawan Gemala Malam, a Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) offering, was called “something of a coup” by Life’s senior culture correspondent Ong Sor Fern, with particular praise for “effortless scene-stealer” Rizman.
Tartuffe was also commended as “Wild Rice firing on all cylinders” by former assistant Life editor Olivia Ho. Its ending was rewritten by Tan, so it “feels closer in spirit to Moliere’s original intentions”.
Theatre veteran Alin, who is being nominated for the third time as a director, said: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream is still a very well-loved Shakespearean comedy. Giving it the bangsawan treatment, with all the performance elements and vocabularies, somehow fit the play perfectly. It is fantastical, irreverent, sensual and full of fun.”
Wild Rice’s founding artistic director Ivan Heng, who played wealthy aristocrat Orgon in Tartuffe, said: “The production deftly employed all elements of comedy from farce and slapstick to parody and satire. But it also tackled several challenging issues head-on, such as religious hypocrisy and political expediency.”
Tartuffe: The Imposter was staged during the 400th anniversary of Moliere’s birth.
“It was meaningful that our French community loved the adaptation and said it was very much in keeping with the spirit of Moliere’s original masterpiece,” he added.
“It was a thrill I’ll never forget – experiencing a packed house howling with laughter in one moment, and gasping in shock the next.”
After nearly three years of disruptions due to Covid-19, 2022 was the year of revenge arts programming and there was much for the Life judging panel to chew on.
Other than Life’s Ms Ong and Ms Ho, it comprised former arts correspondent Toh Wen Li as well as current Life writers Benson Ang, Clement Yong, Charmaine Lim and Shawn Hoo.
Hot on the heels of Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Tartuffe in the nomination stakes are two domestic dramas that were less fantastical but no less well-staged.
Checkpoint Theatre’s portrait of parenthood and marriage, The Fourth Trimester, and Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) exploration of mental health, The Almighty Sometimes, each received nominations in four categories.
The Fourth Trimester, which follows three couples and a single woman in their turbulent 30s after the birth of a baby, was described by Ms Ho as a “must-watch”, standing out particularly for its script full of minutely observed detail that clocked in at three hours.
Written by Faith Ng and directed with tender nuance by Claire Wong, it is also up for Production Of The Year, Best Director, Best Original Script and Best Ensemble.
SRT’s The Almighty Sometimes, a staging of Australian playwright Kendall Feaver’s impressive script on how the relationship between a daughter and mother is affected by bipolar disorder, earned nominations for Production Of The Year, Best Director for Daniel Jenkins and Best Set for Eucien Chia.
Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, 20, in her first major role as Anna the daughter, is also a strong front runner in the Best Actress category, leaving a lasting impression on judges with her range and emotional stamina.
The Fourth Trimester’s playwright Ng, who has been nominated twice before, said: “The heart of the play resonated with audiences – that it’s okay not to have all the answers, and what it means to make the right choices for yourself despite societal expectations.
“I embarked on a two-year research process of talking to parents, individuals in parenting groups, infant-feeding support groups, fertility support groups and healthcare professionals. Then it was a matter of weaving all these stories together and creating authentic characters to give voice to them.”
Jenkins, who is an acting veteran but a relatively new director, said: “I am incredibly proud of our production and all the hard work that went into creating it, and to have that recognised is an absolute joy.
“It is such an important story to tell and so relevant in our post-Covid-19 existence when the need for mental health awareness and self-care has become so important.”
Jenkins said he has received more personal messages from audience members thanking him for telling this story than any other play he has been involved in.
“It demonstrates the importance of theatre and the responsibility we have as theatre-makers to tackle the tough subjects, to bring an audience together to participate in a shared, unrepeatable event.”
Other plays which earned four nominations are Nine Years Theatre’s family dramedy Between You And Me, staged during the Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts; Wild Rice’s climate play Pulau Ujong, written by Alfian Sa’at; and Pangdemonium’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Ubin, Drama Box’s four-hour theatre experience on Pulau Ubin, will contest in two categories, as will The Finger Players’ Every Brilliant Thing, Oliver Chong’s Chinese translation of Duncan Macmillan’s 2015 Edinburgh Festival hit; and Wei Collective & Collaborators’ escapist one-man show, Being.
The ST Life Theatre Awards is organised by Life, the lifestyle, arts and entertainment section of ST.
The awards recognise the best productions in 10 categories: Production of the Year, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Costume, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Set, Best Ensemble and Best Original Script. The winners will be announced on Feb 8.
The category of Best Digital Presentation, introduced during the pandemic, has been stopped as productions return to the stage.
The nominees for the best acting chops go to...
Four actors will vie for Best Actor in this year’s ST Life Theatre Awards, with two nominations – Oliver Chong in Every Brilliant Thing and Neo Hai Bin in Being – going to actors who impressed in their one-man plays.
In Every Brilliant Thing, multi-hyphenate Chong takes viewers on a journey as his character responds to his mother’s suicide attempt, finding delight in the depths of depression.
It is Chong’s fifth nomination in the category, after winning in 2020 for his role in A Fiend’s Diary. He said of his unnamed character in Every Brilliant Thing: “In preparation for the role, I stayed in character for two months leading up to the opening.”
In Being, Neo dons a fish-like costume to explore the relationship between man and nature. The movement-based production draws on Neo’s own Chinese short story Da Hai De Ren (People Of The Sea), first published in Lianhe Zaobao in 2017.
Neo said: “We had no director. The backstage and the creative team gave creative input and devised the play together. Amid the lifting of Covid-19 regulations last year, we are glad that we could still share breathing space with the audience.”
The other two nominations go to actors in plays by Teater Ekamatra.
Earning the plaudits are Rizman Putra for his multi-character performance in Bangsawan Gemala Malam and Hafidz Rahman for his role as the flamboyant mistress of ceremonies-cum-witch doctor Joyah de Vivre in Teater Ekamatra’s Make Hantus Great Again, an entertaining satire featuring hantus, vampires and jiang shi (zombies) competing in an election.
Rizman, who plays characters including Hermia’s pompous father Egeus and blue-collar worker Rabu in Bangsawan Gemala Malam, changed his physical routine to make sure he was fit for the physically demanding roles.
“I cycled while learning my lines. As I cycled, I would attempt to embody the character and move through the space as the character,” he said.
Instagram personality Hafidz said Teater Ekamatra wanted him to tap his social media personality for his character. “It proved to be a tremendous undertaking because the character is larger than life, eccentric yet biting all at once. My improv needed to be rock solid as well, because you can prepare only so much.”
In the Best Actress category, newcomer Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen will be hoping that her dynamism as Anna in The Almighty Sometimes is enough to pip the three other veterans nominated.
She is up against Mina Kaye for the latter’s star turn in Pangdemonium’s End Of The Rainbow, Catherine Grace Gardner as overbearing matron Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie and Goh Guat Kian’s dignified potrayal of retired television actress Li Qing in Between You And Me.
Van Zuijlen said The Almighty Sometimes required her to take on very extreme emotional states.
“I spent a lot of time trying to connect to the character, researching on bipolar disorder. I’ve always taken a ‘If you like it, take it and if you don’t, you don’t have to’ approach, so I’m grateful so many people liked my performance.”
Kaye, who won Best Actress in 2015 for her role as LV in The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice, said: “I was terrified and thrilled when I got the offer for this role of a lifetime. Playing a Hollywood legend certainly puts a huge pressure on you but, at the end of the day, it’s really about discovering her as a person, as a human being, and communicating that to your audience.”
She said she spent 1½ years studying the late Judy Garland’s mannerisms, singing style and the way she walked and talked. “It was like getting a bachelor’s degree in Judy Garland.”
The Glass Menagerie’s Gardner said many renowned actresses have played the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play and so “the pressure was on”.
She added: “I thought it critical to show her vulnerability underneath her presumed toughness. I felt the need to portray her as a relatable mother and also represent the zeitgeist appropriately, in the hope her struggle as it relates to today’s world would resonate with the audience.”
Goh’s nomination is her third in this category – she last won in 2006 for The Finger Players’ Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea. She said: “Every character in the play has his or her own story. It is not just about myself or any single person.
“I believe it doesn’t matter whether the audience has a similar experience with the character that I play. They will still be deeply touched by the love and pain that she goes through on stage.”
Behind The Scenes
In the Best Costume category, Frederick Lee’s crinolines and decolletages in Tartuffe: The Imposter is up against Max Tan’s batik and metallic bodysuits in Bangsawan Gemala Malam and the wonder that is Pinocchio’s retractable nose in Wild Rice’s year-end pantomime.
Leonard Augustine Choo’s gorgeous period-appropriate outfits in The Glass Menagerie, the glitzy dresses in Dream Academy’s Dim Sum Dollies: Still Steam and the painterly cheongsams in Toy Factory Productions’ critically acclaimed The Crab Flower Club also pleased judges.
Asked about how Pinocchio’s nose was fashioned, Wild Rice’s Heng would only say: “I see you have a real nose for news, but I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to reveal the magic behind it. We’ve all signed a non-disclosure agreement and sworn ourselves to secrecy.”
For Best Set, veteran Eucien Chia has two nominations for his work in The Glass Menagerie and The Almighty Sometimes.
In his minimalist set for the latter, he makes good use of a central wall of sliding panels that keeps audiences slightly off-kilter, as furniture moves unexpectedly in a visual parallel to the disorienting effects of mental illness.
Chia said: “We had to put every single piece of the various scenes on wheels, instead of being fixed in a single spot. But it also allowed us to completely clear the stage to create an abstract void for certain scenes, for example during the movement work by the ensemble in moments of Anna’s extreme mania.
“I think the end result was much more dynamic than the original idea. The whole set had to be designed to be packed up every single night for storage, as the team changed over to the morning kids’ show.”
Smaller productions fared best in the Best Lighting and Best Sound categories.
Gateway Arts’ I And You and The Finger Players’ Puppet Origin Stories earned nominations in Best Lighting, alongside The Glass Menagerie, Bangsawan Gemala Malam (both by James Tan) and Pulau Ujong.
Being, The Finger Players’ My House Is A Wild World, Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae’s Devil’s Cherry and SRT’s C-o-n-t-a-c-t, the latter of which saw audience members armed with wireless headphones walking around the civic district against a backdrop of corporate workers going home, contend for Best Sound.
The full list of nominees for The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards:
Production of the year
The Almighty Sometimes (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
Bangsawan Gemala Malam (Teater Ekamatra)
Between You And Me (Nine Years Theatre)
The Fourth Trimester (Checkpoint Theatre)
Tartuffe: The Imposter (Wild Rice)
Ubin (Drama Box)
Catherine Grace Gardner as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (Pangdemonium)
Goh Guat Kian as Li Qing in Between You And Me (Nine Years Theatre)
Mina Kaye as Judy Garland in End Of The Rainbow (Pangdemonium)
Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen as Anna in The Almighty Sometimes (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
Oliver Chong as Unnamed Protagonist in Every Brilliant Thing (The Finger Players)
Hafidz Rahman as Bomoh-cum-Mistress of Ceremonies in Make Hantus Great Again (Teater Ekamatra)
Neo Hai Bin as X in Being (Wei Collective & Collaborators)
Rizman Putra as Multiple Characters in Bangsawan Gemala Malam (Teater Ekamatra)
Aidli “Alin” Mosbit for Bangsawan Gemala Malam (Teater Ekamatra)
Nelson Chia for Between You And Me (Nine Years Theatre)
Oliver Chong for Every Brilliant Thing (The Finger Players)
Glen Goei for Tartuffe: The Imposter (Wild Rice)
Daniel Jenkins for The Almighty Sometimes (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
Kok Heng Leun and Koh Hui Ling for Ubin (Drama Box)
Claire Wong for The Fourth Trimester (Checkpoint Theatre)
Leonard Augustine Choo for The Glass Menagerie (Pangdemonium)
Frederick Lee for Dim Sum Dollies: Still Steam (Dream Academy)
Frederick Lee for Tartuffe: The Imposter (Wild Rice)
Max Tan for Bangsawan Gemala Malam (Teater Ekamatra)
Max Tan for The Crab Flower Club (Toy Factory Productions)
Tube Gallery for Pinocchio (Wild Rice)
Steve Kwek for Pulau Ujong (Wild Rice)
Genevieve Peck for Puppet Origin Stories (The Finger Players)
James Tan for The Glass Menagerie (Pangdemonium)
James Tan for Bangsawan Gemala Malam (Teater Ekamatra)
Alberta Wileo for I And You (Gateway Arts)
Cyril Barbessol for C-o-n-t-a-c-t (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
Darius Kedros for Devil’s Cherry (Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae)
Jing Ng for Being (Wei Collective & Collaborators)
Glynn Urquhart for My House Is A Wild World (The Finger Players)
Chan Silei for No Disaster On This Land (The Finger Players)
Eucien Chia for The Glass Menagerie (Pangdemonium)
Eucien Chia for The Almighty Sometimes (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
Johanna Pan for Pulau Ujong (Wild Rice)
Petrina Dawn Tan for Miss Julie (Singapore Repertory Theatre)
The Fourth Trimester (Checkpoint Theatre)
Pulau Ujong (Wild Rice)
Tartuffe: The Imposter (Wild Rice)
Best Original Script
Alfian Sa’at for Pulau Ujong (Wild Rice)
Nelson Chia for Between You And Me (Nine Years Theatre)
Faith Ng for The Fourth Trimester (Checkpoint Theatre)
Suhaili Safari and Agnes Christina for Kepaten Obor – Igniting A Withered Torch (Agnes Christina, Suhaili Safari and Adib Kosnan)
Joel Tan for Tartuffe: The Imposter (Wild Rice)
A Yagnya for Between 5 Cows And The Deep Blue Sea (A Yagnya)