A dark play to mark Golden Jubilee

Nine Years Theatre to put on Chinese- language adaptation of Russian play, The Lower Depths, that focuses on the poor

Seven actors will play 15 roles in The Lower Depths. They are (clockwise from top) Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee, Johnny Ng, Jean Toh, Tay Kong Hui, Koh Wan Ching, and Hang Qian Chou (centre).
Seven actors will play 15 roles in The Lower Depths. They are (clockwise from top) Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee, Johnny Ng, Jean Toh, Tay Kong Hui, Koh Wan Ching, and Hang Qian Chou (centre).PHOTO: NINE YEARS THEATRE

In the run-up to the country's biggest National Day yet, one theatre company is celebrating with an unusual, and some would say, dour choice of play.

Known for their Chinese-language adaptations of world classics, Nine Years Theatre is casting the spotlight on the poor and lower echelons of society with their version of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths.

Written in 1902, The Lower Depths is widely considered the Russian playwright's most influential work. It follows the intrigue and domestic dramas among a group of peasants staying at a boarding house for the destitute. A compassionate newcomer tells the others stories to help them accept the cards fate has dealt them.

Nine Years Theatre's artistic director Nelson Chia says Gorky's play reminded him of Singapore's widening income gap and disparity in the quality of life between different social classes.

He says: "While we're celebrating the success of the nation with SG50, I thought of those left behind. Whenever a society pro- gresses, there are always those who cannot catch up."

While we're celebrating the success of the nation with SG50, I thought of those left behind.''

NELSON CHIA, Nine Years Theatre's artistic director

When Gorky's play was first staged by The Moscow Arts Theatre, it was criticised for its deeply pessimistic themes, though it has since been recognised as a masterpiece of Russian social realism.

Chia says: "It's a very dark script, but we like to see the play as sharp criticism that actually inspires hope in the audience to make a change and start realising that this is still a problem all around us."

The last time The Lower Depths was performed here was in 2010 in English, by a now defunct physical theatre group TheatreStrays. The group adapted it to the Singaporean context and performed it at a shophouse in Little India, limiting each performance to just 10 people in the audience.

Nine Years Theatre's version, performed in a black box space, keeps to the same characters and script as Gorky's. The company believes this approach will still bring something fresh to the stage, as the work has been translated into Singaporean Mandarin with a local audience in mind.



    WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box

    WHEN: July 23 to Aug 2 (Tuesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 & 8pm; Sunday, 3pm)

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

However, the play is not set in Singapore or overtly set in Russia. Instead, Chia decided to let the setting remain ambiguous: "The fact remains that it could be any city... I think classic works have the ability to relate universal sentiments to audiences, rather than rely on linking up to specific, real world counterparts."

As always, Chia does the job of both translating and directing, while the play is performed by members of the group's ensemble project, set up to provide ongoing training in the Suzuki Method of theatre. The ensemble consists of company director Mia Chee, Hang Qian Chou, Neo Hai Bin and Jean Toh. The other actors in this production are Koh Wan Ching, Johnny Ng and Tay Kong Hui. The Suzuki Methodhelps actors gain a stronger awareness of their physicality, in order to be more naturally expressive and to rise to the physical and emotional demands of a role.

In preparation for the play, actor and Nine Years Theatre stalwart Neo Hai Bin, 30, says the cast watched Akira Kurosawa's film version of The Lower Depths: "We're seven actors playing 15 roles, so it's quite demanding and we're constantly digging deeper, trying to get to the heart of our characters ."

The 1957 film transposed the play to Japan's Edo period (1603-1867).

Neo will be portraying two characters in The Lower Depths: a thief and a teacher. "The two characters are really different. The teacher is much older and he's become very pessimistic and resigned to fate.

"The thief, on the other hand, is a young character who's full of vigour and hope. But because he's always been called a thief, he's been blackmarked for life. Sort of like how Normal Technical or ITE students get marked and they're looked down upon by society."

The company's recent output includes adaptations of lighter fare such as Moliere's Tartuffe and Yasmina Reza's Art, the latter of which won Production of the Year at the Life Theatre Awards in April.

Chia reveals the group will next be doing Japanese playwright Noda Hideki's Red Demon (1997) in March next year. "It's about people who eat demons and other humans, and discusses the demons within all of us."

He thinks it vital that theatre shed light on all that is flawed about human nature and society. As he puts it: "We're called Nine Years Theatre because nine is one less than the perfect number 10. It means there's still room for improvement, much like how Singapore still has a long way to go, despite 50 years of progress."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'A dark play to mark Golden Jubilee'. Subscribe