ST Life Theatre Awards: Dauntless dames who triumphed through tragedy
All three nominees for Best Actress at The Straits Times' Life Theatre Awards this year voiced characters who triumphed through tragedy. Dalifah Shahril showed how a former comfort woman refused to be destroyed by sexual and domestic abusein Hayat Hayatie. Na-Young Jeon brought a legend to life as the woman whose tears brought down the Great Wall of China and who humbled the emperor through her death in The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey. Janice Kohrevisited the words of the late Paddy Chew, one of Singapore's most vocal Aids patients in With/Out. The Straits Times speaks to them about these epic roles
Dalifah, 39, is excited about her Best Actress nomination at the Life Theatre Awards. It is her first and it is for a role she helped create 16 years ago.
Hayat Hayatie, or Hayatie's Life, was first staged in 2002 and devised by Teater Kami under Khairi Razaai, a Singaporean theatre-maker now based in Australia. Then, she played the much-loved and sheltered daughter of Hayatie, a woman forced into a brothel during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War II.
Last year, when Teater Kami and Khairi revived the play, she took on the much harder lead role. It allowed her to consider how she had evolved as an actress. "Simple stuff like doing this action onstage," she says, making a gesture, "it can be the same action after all these years, but now your style is different. And you want to improve on it more."
The lead role required her to depict brothel life in various shades, from brutal rape to the small pleasures of receiving mail. In Dalifah's person, Hayatie grew onstage from a frightened child to a survivor.
"You can literally see her pain, but she is so strong-willed," she says of the character. "She knows how to handle trauma and hardship." The play went on to present the problems women faced post-war, such as poverty and domestic abuse.
Dalifah is a veteran actress who started her career with a children's play staged by Teater Kami in 1999. Her acting credits include 2015's critically acclaimed Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC), by Teater Ekamatra, and Yusof, the presidential drama created by Zizi Azah for Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's Pesta Raya festival.
But Hayat Hayatie occupies a special place in her heart - for it, she pored over newspaper articles about former brothels in Singapore and interviews with some survivors. It was sobering and eye-opening. "We went through so much, did so much research," she says. "It's one of my favourite plays."
Nominated for: With/Out (Loo Zihan and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)
Previous nominations: Four for Best Actress, including for Rabbit Hole (Pangdemonium, 2014), The Optic Trilogy (Wild Rice, 2014) and Hitting (On) Women (Action Theatre, 2008)
Previous wins: Best Actress for Proof (Action Theatre, 2003)
Nineteen years ago, Koh, 44, saw a ground-breaking work of documentary theatre that publicly addressed the stigma, fear and personal issues Aids patients experienced in Singapore.
It was a monologue performed by the late Paddy Chew, an Aids patient living in Singapore. In 1999, he devised and staged an account of his life, with the help of theatre-makers Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma from The Necessary Stage.
Now, Koh is nominated for Best Actress for a performance based on her reinterpreting Chew's text.
With/Out, directed by Loo, was created for the Studios season at the Esplanade. Cameras at the Esplanade Theatre Studio captured Koh's performance, which was projected live on a giant screen, almost in sync with a recording of Chew's 1999 monologue. Equipped with headphones, viewers could choose to get up close to Koh and her voice; her filmed image; or tune out everything but Chew's voice and larger-than-life screened presence.
While Koh's words were similar to Chew's, the persona she played was completely different. "Paddy performed himself and his performance was on-screen throughout With/Out. It did not make sense to try to 'become' him. He was already there," she says.
Chew used humour as a defence and to lighten the mood. Koh chose a darker but equally convincing route, prepping for the role by going to a funeral parlour and choosing her own coffin.
She describes her character as "someone who was fearless at looking at death in the eye, and willing to make sense of and expose her fears, her loneliness, her anger and regrets, in a way that was open, courageous and as honest as could be".
"This was what inspired me about Paddy and made me love this man," says Koh. "Maybe it was his therapy, but he made it public and gave us a chance to learn from his experience."
Nominated for: The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey (Glowtape Productions)
Previous nominations: None
Dutch-Korean actress and singer Na-Young, 29, receives her first nomination in the Life Theatre Awards for bringing a heroic figure from Chinese folklore to life.
The musical is inspired by the legend of Meng Jiang Nu, whose husband was conscripted to build the Great Wall of China and died as a result. Her tears cracked the wall and humbled the emperor responsible.
It was a nearly six-year labour of love for a creative team including Singaporean playwright Jean Tay and producer Grace Low. Na-Young was cast in 2014 and became intimately involved in devising the work with Tay, composer David Shrubsole and director Darren Yap. She even wrote some of her lines.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, she trained in musical and theatre academy Codarts Rotterdam and played the lead role in the Dutch revival of Miss Saigon. She played Fantine in the West End revival of Les Miserables in 2013 and 2014 and is now in the British tour of Miss Saigon as the sassy second lead, Gigi.
Since much of her experience is in Western musical theatre, she says she was fascinated by the idea of playing a woman who is a legend to Chinese-speaking people.
"I found it challenging to find a normal girl next door in a woman who has such a legendary journey, to find the real-life Meng Jiang Nu underneath the grandness of her character," she says.
Before rehearsals started, she and Nathan Hartono - who played Meng Jiang Nu's husband - travelled to China to see the Great Wall.
"Experiencing the magnitude of the wall helped me imagine what an incredible project it must have been back then to build it," she says.
It also helped her understand just why Meng Jiang Nu is a heroine to so many people. "I would like the character to be remembered for her resilience, her courage to think for herself and stand up to authority. I hope she will be remembered like the many women who have stood up for their rights and changed the course of history."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2018, with the headline 'Dauntless dames '. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.