From Teochew script to cafe chatter: M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2017 nominees for Best Original Script

Natalie Hennedige and Michelle Tan.
Natalie Hennedige and Michelle Tan.PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Joel Tan.
Edith Podesta.
Thomas Lim.
Haresh Sharma.

Among the nominees for Best Original Script are works inspired by a dialect-speaking grandmother and observations of goings-on in a cafe

Young blood makes its mark at the nominations for Best Original Script at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

This year's up-and-coming wordsmiths include Thomas Lim, 26, for his maiden effort, Grandmother Tongue, in which a young man struggles to communicate with his dialect-speaking grandmother.

Joel Tan, 30, scores with the unnerving Cafe, in which customers chatter inanely over a cuppa even as apocalypse looms outside.

Meanwhile, script veterans such as The Necessary Stage's Haresh Sharma and Cake Theatrical Production's Natalie Hennedige also make their presence felt.

Sharma, 52, drew on his experience of injustice for the epic Manifesto, which depicts the struggles of artists with freedom of speech in Singapore.

Hennedige, 42, joined forces with young playwright Michelle Tan, 29, for Electra, a modern reimagining of the tragic Greek heroine.

Edith Podesta, 37, who played Electra, garnered a nomination of her own for B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, which she also directed and starred in as the canine companion and human wife of a man suffering a stroke.

Natalie Hennedige and Michelle Tan

Nominated for: Electra (Cake Theatrical Productions)

Previous nominations: Hennedige has 15 previous nominations, including Best Original Script for Nothing (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2008), Temple (Cake, 2009) and Illogic (Cake, 2014). Tan has no previous nominations.

Previous wins: Hennedige has won Best Director for Nothing, Best Costume Design for Queen Ping (Cake, 2007) and Temple (Cake, 2009) and Best Sound Design with Zai Kuning for Queen Ping (Cake, 2007).

When playwright Tan was taking theatre as an A-level subject and was searching for a strong female monologue, she found herself drawn to Electra, the grief-stricken Greek princess who seeks revenge against her mother and stepfather for the murder of her father.

"She had so much working against her," says Tan, 29. "Yet she still surfaced with this agency that was quite surprising, even as everything else around her threatened to strip that away."

Electra was the second in a series by Cake that reimagines tragic female icons, following on the heels of a feminist retelling of Ophelia earlier last year.

This time, co-writers Hennedige and Tan combed through the work of ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles and produced an avant- garde spectacle with a bubblegum pop soundtrack and oversized masks against a grid-like set.

Hennedige, 42, who directed the play, found it "enormously enjoyable" to get into Electra's head.

She says: "The tragedy is so rich, the characters are so layered and Electra embodies the questions of equality and justice in today's world that frustrate me."

In an otherwise dark tragedy, Tan strove to elicit a sense of levity.

"I had to hold on to something lighter, some kind of hope, to dispel the negativity and heaviness of everything she's gone through."

They chose to gender-swop some of the roles - actor Lian Sutton played Electra's mother Clytemnestra, while actress Sharda Harrison played her father Agamemnon. Both, along with Edith Podesta, who played Electra, have been nominated for the Life Theatre Awards for their work in the play.

Hennedige says: "After the slaughter of the tyrannical characters in the piece, we see the bloodied bodies of two men and the battered, worn female form that remains at the end - flawed, but still standing - is the figure of Electra."

Joel Tan

Nominated for: Cafe (The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

When Cafe was nominated for Best Original Script, its playwright was taken aback.

"It's weird," says Tan, 30, of the play. "It's bizarre and meandering and very unpleasant to watch. I could barely sit through a performance of it. It just made me very depressed."

In it, two former schoolmates sit in a cafe, gossiping shallowly and ordering the bored staff around, while an unexplained apocalypse brews outside.

Business Times reviewer Helmi Yusof called it "possibly the creepiest, canniest, most cunning play of the year".

For the play, Tan drew on his own experience of working part-time as a barista at a now-defunct hipster cafe in the Central Business District for almost a year.

"It gave me a lot of insight into a range of social dynamics," he says. "You realise Singaporeans are really very unpleasant to wait staff. We were bossed around, condescended to, treated like indentured labour.

"They always assume that if you're working at a cafe, you've fallen through the cracks."

At the cafe, he watched many couples snap photos of their food without having anything to say to each other. "You could be in the company of another human being for hours on end, but spend all that time on your phone or talking in circles about meaningless things."

He pulled these observations together to create "a stark portrait of our society and its relationship with difficulty and disaster".

"What I'm trying to do is make people aware of aspects of their lives that they aren't conscious of," he says. "Theatre cannot always afford to be pleasant, especially now."

Edith Podesta

Nominated for: B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species (Edith Podesta, presented by M1 Singapore Fringe Festival)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Home Boxes (Paper Monkey Theatre, 2011), Best Director and Best Original Script for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta; presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 2015), Best Supporting Actress for Versus (Cake Theatrical Productions, last year)

Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake, 2014), Best Ensemble for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta; presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 2015) Struck by the way a speechimpaired man communicated freely with his pet dog, Podesta wrote a script about how language shapes relationships.

Her work, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, is up for Best Original Script this year, as well as Best Director (Podesta) and Production Of The Year.

Australia-born Podesta is also up for Best Actress for her performance in the show, competing against herself for her role in Cake Theatrical Productions' Electra.

While working on B*tch, Podesta, 37, stayed at a bed and breakfast in the Netherlands run by a husband- and-wife team.

The husband had stroke-induced aphasia, which affected his ability to speak and comprehend language.

The actress observed him playing with his dog.

"He seemed to communicate freely with his limited vocabulary, perhaps freed from human judgment," she says.

She connected it to the feminist movement which, she says, "stems from the need to be heard while having the equal right to speak".

As a result, B*tch explores how the presence or absence of a common language creates and influences the relationship between a man and his wife, and the man and his dog.

Akshita Nanda

Thomas Lim

Nominated for: Grandmother Tongue (Wild Rice/Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

When Lim, 26, moved in to live with his grandmother more than a year ago, they could barely communicate.

His grandmother, 85, speaks the Teochew dialect, but not English or Mandarin. For the first few months, they communicated in awkward snatches of dialect and sign language.

The drama educator channelled this experience into his professional theatrical debut Grandmother Tongue, which he wrote and directed last year to much acclaim and sold-out success.

As they learnt to live together, Lim began to realise how isolated his grandmother was from the rest of the world because of language.

"She has no access to anything on television or in the mail," says Lim, who has to explain letters on pioneer generation subsidies to her.

"At family gatherings, if there are things we don't want my grandma to know, we'll speak in English. But she knows there are things she doesn't know, and that sometimes upsets her."

The play was tricky to write because of the sheer amount of translation it required.

He wrote the Teochew parts in Mandarin - "which was scary because my Mandarin was quite rusty by then" - and tried to translate it in rehearsal.

Lim, who was "shocked" when he learnt of his nomination, was moved by the responses to his play - from seeing families with many generations come to watch it together to hearing praise from teachers, who in schools would have told their students to use proper English over Singlish and dialects.

But most important was the reaction of the woman who inspired the play.

"My grandmother came to see it with my father and there were some vignettes that she recognised as hers. I heard her telling my dad quite loudly, 'This is my story.'"

Haresh Sharma

Nominated for: Manifesto (Drama Box and The Necessary Stage (TNS))

Previous nominations: Five for Best Original Script, including Model Citizens (TNS, 2011) and Poor Thing (TNS, 2015)

Previous wins: Best Original Script for Fundamentally Happy (TNS, 2007), Good People (TNS, 2008) and Gemuk Girls (TNS, 2009)

A playwriting veteran with a hat trick of wins under his belt, Sharma, 52, says he was still surprised at his nomination for Manifesto.

"It was an interdisciplinary effort. We were working very collaboratively, not just with a script, but also with multimedia and ensemble and sound. I did not expect the text to get a lot of attention."

Moving back and forth in time across 70 years, Manifesto explores through multiple threads the relationship between the artist and the state in Singapore.

The sheer scope of the play was the biggest challenge, says Sharma. The play has scenes set in the 1960s, 1980s, 2020s and the current day, and incorporates several languages and a dizzying use of multimedia.

"We had to capture that kind of epic-ness in manageable text that the audience could still identify with and appreciate."

He is no stranger to the uneasy relations between art and the state. In 1994, he and TNS artistic director Alvin Tan were placed under suspicion of being Marxists after The Straits Times reported that they had attended workshops by Brazilian Augusto Boal, a Marxist .

"I drew on that sense of unwarranted accusation and injustice, and transferred it into the play," Sharma says.

He emphasises, however, that Manifesto was not meant to help him and Tan find closure.

"As an artist, you have to deal with certain things like censorship. It's not something that will bring us down," he says.

What does he envision for the future of artists here?

At the end of Manifesto, two characters who are artists decide to join politics, albeit in opposing parties.

"There could be a time in the future when even artists can be politicians and can take different opposing stands on how a country is governed," Sharma says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'From Teochew script to cafe chatter'. Print Edition | Subscribe