Moral questions abound in Soviet play rendered in Mandarin

(From left) Cast members Neo Hai Bin, Timothy Wan, Hang Qian Chou and Mia Chee at Nine Years Theatre’s rehearsal of Dear Elena.
(From left) Cast members Neo Hai Bin, Timothy Wan, Hang Qian Chou and Mia Chee at Nine Years Theatre’s rehearsal of Dear Elena. PHOTO: NINE YEARS THEATRE

Four high school students play a wicked game with their teacher, dropping by to surprise her on her birthday with the real aim of coercing her into letting them make changes to their exam scripts. When she refuses to compromise, they make her a shocking proposal.

Issues of education and morality rear their head in Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of the Russian classic Dear Elena Sergeevna.

Titled Dear Elena, it runs at the Drama Centre Black Box at the National Library Building from Oct 17 to 20. The original play by Russian playwright Lyudmila Razumovskaya premiered in the early 1980s, before the fall of the Soviet Union, and has since been staged in different parts of the world.

"It brings out a lot of complex issues about society and the education system," director Nelson Chia, 47, says. "The tension happens between two generations - the teacher and students have very different views on moral issues."

Nine Years Theatre's adaptation, which is based on an existing Chinese translation by Tong Ning, will see Mia Chee, 41, play the role of the teacher Elena, alongside a cast of fellow members of the Nine Years Theatre ensemble - Hang Qian Chou, Neo Hai Bin and Timothy Wan - and Shu Yi Ching.

"The overarching thing about the play is morality and the choices we make," says Chee. Chia chimes in: "Situations push us to a certain point where we are so obsessed with the things we need to get, or want, from life."

  • BOOK IT/ DEAR ELENA 

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street 

    WHEN: Oct 17 to 20; 8pm (Oct 17 to 19), 3pm (Oct 19 and 20), or 7.30pm (Oct 20)

    ADMISSION: $38 at sistic.com.sg/events/elena1019

    INFO: Advisory 16 (Mature content). Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, including closed captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. For more information, visit nineyearstheatre.com/dearelena.php.

The play, he adds, will not be presented in a wholly naturalistic way, and will occupy a fluid territory between the naturalistic and the abstract.

"I read an interview with the playwright, who said it is not a realistic play," says Chia. "A lot of people like to direct it in a realistic way - the China version is totally naturalistic. But in the script, there are lots of moments when they burst into things like a Greek tragedy monologue. They (the students) burst into a lecture about the Antigone Complex.

"So I try to make space for that. There are moments where I find space for this 'epic-ness'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2019, with the headline 'Moral questions abound in Soviet play rendered in Mandarin'. Print Edition | Subscribe