Creating something out of Nothing

Life! picks the classics of Singapore's English-language theatre and tells you why they matter. This is the 12th instalment of a monthly series

Director Natalie Hennedige (above) and some of the cast Peter Sau, Siti Khalijah, Nora Samosir, Rizman Putra and Goh Guat Kian. -- PHOTO: STRAITS TIMES FILE
Director Natalie Hennedige (above) and some of the cast Peter Sau, Siti Khalijah, Nora Samosir, Rizman Putra and Goh Guat Kian. -- PHOTO: STRAITS TIMES FILE
Cast members of the play: (From left) Peter Sau, Siti Khalijah, Nora Samosir, Rizman Putra and Goh Guat Kian. PHOTO: CAKE THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS

Play: Nothing (April 2007)

Playwright: Natalie Hennedige

What it is about: Six main characters - from a writer of erotic Chinese novels to a dengue inspection officer from the National Environment Agency - come together and pull apart in a strange sort of no man's land. Together with a bevy of colourful peripheral characters, small and absurd moments of their lives are presented as short vignettes as they grapple with what it means to die, to live and to love.

An old man, Fang, wearing a terrible comb- over and adult diapers, is sobbing on stage. He yells hoarsely at his pink- wigged and impertinent daughter, Daisy, in guttural Teochew: "I've seen rats feast on the carcasses of dogs and dogs licking at the wounds of dead men. But you are uglier than anything I have ever seen!"

These are horrible, horrible lines and the audience knows it. But they are roaring with laughter.

"They're clowns," says writer-director Natalie Hennedige, her voice rising with excitement. "Just like a clown would clobber someone, whack someone over the head or trip someone repeatedly, there is something funny in it - but you're actually laughing at something that's deeply humiliating."

She adds: "But I think that kind of ugliness in humanity is just as interesting as the beautiful and pure and sacrificial things. That makes us human."

This is Hennedige's gift. She has a knack for setting the grotesque against the beautiful and ripping away that veil of decorum from her audience's faces. Such is life, she says in her work, where the world works in absurd, irrational ways and is stuffed full of absurd, irrational characters. But wedged inside all of these strange, kooky personalities are people and situations we all recognise.

Nothing was created just two years after she had taken the leap, at age 30, to set up her own company - Cake Theatrical Productions.

Singapore theatre had been toying with the experimental for quite some time now, with groups such as The Necessary Stage - where Hennedige had spent her formative years as an artist - dabbling in work with non-linear, fragmented narratives and abstract texts.

As resident director at The Necessary Stage, she had taken on bold projects, including a wild re- envisioning of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, What Big Bombs You Have!!! (2005).

Actress and university lecturer Nora Samosir, who played the part of Dog Woman in Nothing, among others, notes that while artists were taking on non- realist work at that point, it was "not to the extent that Cake was doing". She adds of Cake's work: "It wasn't bizarre to the point that no one came to watch it, but there weren't very many theatremakers working in a similar style because it was so far from the realist kind of theatre."

Critics and audiences were equal parts dazzled and baffled by Cake's early work, such as Animal Vegetable Mineral (2005) and Queen Ping (2006), with their psychedelic visual palettes and black, ruthless comedy. But her style and vision stuck, and Nothing catapulted Cake into the limelight when it clinched the coveted Production Of The Year at the 2008 Life! Theatre Awards.

Fang and Daisy's tale of elderly abandonment and a tense parent-child relationship is one of several storylines in Nothing. Each of the primary characters also takes on secondary roles while dressed in the same costumes from start to finish.

There is the tale of Lan, a former and disgraced national taekwondo champion, and his long- suffering wife Linda, a nurse, whose marriage is falling apart. And then there is Mosquito Man, a dengue inspector with a high-pitched, nasal voice, who falls for the painfully shy, frumpy Dog Woman. Scattered across the rest of the play are a host of other characters, including an international aid worker who is sick of giving aid, a woman contemplating suicide by the beach and a young girl who is pregnant.

Many of the play's short vignettes veer between the twin themes of love and death. And this is not purely a romantic sort of love, but love as "a way of living, of existing, of overcoming, of enduring, of celebrating time, moment to moment, day to day", as Hennedige puts it.

She says: "I wanted to find what was opposite to that. For me, it was death. Because if you don't have a will to navigate through life, if you don't have a way to find passion in small things, and then in bigger things, if you can't find a way to find the good in people and situations and the world around you... it becomes a kind of death."

So despite the oddness of their circumstances, there is an honesty to the futility of their lives and the small joys that the characters celebrate that somehow make them believable, almost real.

"I find a way for the characters to confess without going into any true life story. When the actors are trying to reach at something, I tell them to confess, but I don't want to know what they're confessing. Keep that your own secret," she says. And if the actors do this, speaking their scripted lines while making dark, vulnerable confessions within, they can find themselves "quite naked on stage", without actually disclosing anything to the audience at all.

Hennedige wants to find that "nakedness" in every character: "So with something highly clothed and put-on, with the wigs and strange costumes, and the heightened way of performing, the assault to the senses, with the multimedia and the relentless sound - I eventually can strip everything away and find a deep vulnerability."

All of this has been a running thread through almost all of Hennedige's shows, to keep audiences on their toes by combining the sublime and the ridiculous.

One of the first things that came to her when writing the script of Nothing was a verse from the biblical Psalms. Adapted from the New Living Translation version, it reads with an existential air: "We are all but moving shadows and all our busy rushing ends in nothing."

She took about three months to write the script first, before setting it aside and finding "a way to divorce myself from the writer", then putting on her director's hat to tell a story in strong images.

Rehearsals took another three months.

In the early years of Cake, money was tight and the group had to rehearse out of a storeroom with broken dental chairs above her dentist father's shophouse clinic in Tanjong Katong Road - a space the size of two ping-pong tables and a fraction the size of where the show would be staged, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Their lighting designer, Suven Chan, was shocked when she first saw the space, saying: "Oh my God, you guys must have a lot of imagination."

"The limits are the things that liberate," Hennedige says with a grin.

It was through the casting of the performers that the different textures of the play began to emerge. The five performers came from widely differing backgrounds, spoke a host of different languages and were known for varying styles of performance. Hennedige loved these eclectic intersections.

"We put veteran Mandarin-speaking actor (Goh Guat Kian) next to the recent actor-trained graduate (Peter Sau) next to an actor from English- language theatre (Nora Samosir), next to someone whose background is performance art (Rizman Putra), and they all exist on equal ground," she says.

It was Goh's first time collaborating with Hennedige and she found the rehearsal process thoroughly enjoyable.

Speaking in Mandarin, she says: "I've spent most of my time performing in Chinese theatre, doing productions in Mandarin - they're usually heavier dramas, or I'll be playing the mother or the auntie. But in this play, she didn't typecast me as an auntie. I played a daughter and even performed in English in one of the scenes."

Goh speaks mostly Mandarin and Teochew throughout the production, languages that she is comfortable with. The texture of the various languages rubbing up against each other - such as precise Mandarin and formal Malay - and the rhythms and sounds created by the performers' cadences of speech was very important to Hennedige. She would come up with a playlist, featuring everything "from Madonna to obscure Icelandic bands whose names no one can pronounce", and hand it over to sound designer and composer Philip Tan, a frequent collaborator.

Tan says: "Text is very important to Natalie, while sounds - its various timbres and nuances - are important to me. By knowing her views and preference for a certain style and genre, I can understand better what she is looking for and thereby plan my music, soundscapes and the style to design it into the soundscapes or music of various textures that will be suitable for the play."

In one instance, Hennedige wanted to retain a sort of fluid Chinese opera style to Goh's gestures, where she would mime writing calligraphy on stage on long paper scrolls. But at the same time, she wanted to subvert this style of performance by playing jagged electronica riffs by the Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda while Goh was performing.

Hennedige says: "It forces the actor to think about how to perform this style while listening to the music that's a certain way."

She says she makes it a point to have "playful" rehearsals: "I find that you get the best out of actors when they're off their guard and they're at their most playful... you find out something wickedly fun about a person."

Nora adds to this: "She is not wishy-washy about her own vision, but she also gets inspired by what you bring to it as an actor. It's really to fill out her vision and push it as far as it can go, and never just settling for what's 'good enough'."

In many scenes, what comes through is both a brokenness - it might be a small, personal kind of brokenness, such as an old man trying to find love but repeatedly being shut down by his daughter - or a universal kind of brokenness, when a young girl slips through the cracks of the system and is cleaning a toilet, pregnant and alone but for another janitor.

To Hennedige, "the personal and the universal are one and the same". A small, highly specific story, of a woman wanting to drown herself in the ocean, is also an morbidly funny expose on self- centeredness with a very Singaporean dash of bureaucracy.

There are plans in the pipeline for a few of Hennedige's plays, Nothing included, to be published in print.

She says of Cake's work: "We are fiercely committed to the irrational because dreams stem from the irrational recesses of our being - we can't explain everything in a dream but something very honest and urgent is speaking to us, skewing reality. That's what we try to capture in our theatre."

The next instalment of this 15-part series will be published at the end of next month.

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