Director Ivan Heng of W!ld Rice on his Animal Farm

The highly anticipated revival of W!LD RICE’s Animal Farm opened this week. The play, based on the classic tale by George Orwell, opened to rave reviews back in 2002 and this revival has played to full houses and standing ovations at the 38th Hong Kong International Arts Festival last month.

In this exclusive interview, our writer, Ho Rui An, speaks to Ivan Heng who is the director of Animal Farm and Founding Artistic Director of W!LD RICE. The theatre company, which is also known for its other iconic works, such as Cinderel-LAH! and Emily of Emerald Hill, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

TOC: As a theatre company, W!LD RICE has really taken on a huge range of productions over the years. There are the re-interpretations of world classics, the pantomimes as well as original, new works. How did this particularly blend come about? What do you think defines W!LD RICE as a company?

Ivan Heng: Well, if you look at the companies in the UK, there is a company that does the classics, one that does new works as well as one that does Shakespeare. In our case, we work with a combination. We do works with a distinctively Singaporean voice that has a Singaporean point of view. We put Singaporean stories, characters and happenings on stage. We see theatre as a forum to share experiences, whether is it to celebrate our diversity, identity or triumphs, to negotiate inequalities, to address injustices or to mourn great losses. We rework the classics in such a way. At the same time, we have a focus on new writing in the Singapore Theatre Festival. And we also constantly revisit the Singapore canon. I think there is a need to keep relooking at these works so that they remain relevant to us.

TOC: Let’s talk about your pantomimes, which are really a trademark of W!LD RICE. How did this whole interest in fairy-tales begin?

Ivan: Ah yes. I think fairy-tales are there to teach us things, whether is it to warn us against dangers, to comfort us, to point out what is good or bad. So fairy-tales always come with an educational or moral lesson. So how it all started out was that a friend from law school told me that he has been supporting my work for some time, and now that he has children of his own, he really doesn’t want to just leave them at home. He wanted to bring them to the theatre. So he asked if I could do something for families. Having lived and worked in the United Kingdom, I’ve always known that the pantomime was a great family show, a form of ageless theatre that reaches out to all ages. There’s always something for everybody.

TOC: How do you go about selecting the fairy-tales that you choose to re-present and recontextualise?

Ivan: What we do with our fairy-tales is that we subvert it. We started with Cinderella because it is really the world’s most popular pantomime. In the play, Cinderel-LAH!, which is coming back soon, Cinderella is not a weak princess. Instead, she’s feisty. We set it in a flat in Seng Kang, where her mother has remarried and is basically a Mahjong obsessive. The two ugly step-sisters, Precious and Treasure basically torture Cinderella because she’s nothing but a maid. So we wanted to convey that kind of domestic situation in a funny way. Aladdin was a tale of adventure, about his boy who started to neglect his mother after he was granted his wishes and became rich. Jack & the Bean-sprout! was all about materialism, how the mother wanted always to upgrade the flat. Oi! Sleeping Beauty!! was about Sleeping Beauty waking up to this place called Singacorp, where her kampong has turned into an island city-state where everything is being ran like a corporation, where everyone is just under a spell to be productive. It’s always funny, light-hearted and original. And in a sense, each work is a brand new piece of musical theatre.

TOC: Let’s talk about Animal Farm, which is also a re-interpretation of a very popular world classic. The revival just ended its run in Hong Kong not too long ago. How was the audience’s reaction?

Ivan: We had an overwhelming reaction, in terms of how the show completely sold out. There were standing ovations. I think the audience could really relate to the show in terms of thinking about the relationship between Hong Kong and China. It was seen like a kind of reactionary play to the present circumstances. China is now such an irresistible, global economic power and for the denizens of Hong Kong, the play made them pause to wonder what it was that was happening when people were just starting to make money. The question, inevitably, is whether we are losing our freedoms. What are the human rights that are being violated? And like Singaporeans, they found it very, very funny. They laughed a lot. And the play hit them very hard, like a kick in the stomach.

In Singapore, the question for us was, “Who is Farmer Jones?” What do you mean when we say we kick Farmer Jones out? Naturally, the impulse is to say that Farmer Jones represented the British. As in Animal Farm, you have a revolt and after that, you start setting up a whole bunch of rules which support these ideals that make this certain utopia. It’s almost like “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people…” It’s embodied in the pledge. In Majulah Singapura. The question for us is whether or not these questions have been subverted. And that is the question that Animal Farm asks. How should we be ruled? How should we rule? What is the proper relationship between the individual and the state?

TOC: In this light, can we expect to see explicit references to Singapore in the play?

Ivan: Well, we have been… complimented on our ability to discreetly pinpoint Animal Farm to instances in Singapore’s political history. But I think that kind of reading is a bit too reductive. But at the same time, there are many, many coincidences that begin to startle us, which both delight and frighten audiences. And that’s why it’s so powerful.

TOC: You did mention that the upcoming version is a revival. Will there be any significant differences from the earlier versions of the play staged in 2002 and 2003?

The 2002 version was a chance to ask the question of whether we were truly remaking Singapore, since there was a whole kind of movement to open up that time. We were trying to find out if we could continue to be economically competitive in a creative economy. There was also a question of whether we could open up politically. And Animal Farm asks those questions for us, using art as a forum.

And then in 2003, Iraq had happened and Bush was of course unilaterally making decisions for the rest of the world and ignoring his citizens. And it seems to me that governments were losing touch with their citizenry which in fact voted them into power. And Animal Farm again asks these questions for us.

In this new version, we tried many things. We tried to shift things a bit to reflect what was happening today. But after weeks of experimentation, we realised that all we needed to do was to tell Orwell’s story. And perhaps this proves that this was truly a timeless and universal classic. It’s been seven years, which means that this time we could reach out to a whole new audience who have yet to see the work. And for those who have watched it and grown up with it, it continues to amaze them. Those who have read and fallen in love with the book told me that they had never imagined that Boxer would talk like that. They could never imagine Boxer as a taxi driver, Clover as a HDB aunty, Benjamin as the hardcore cynic or Molly as a spoilt RGS girl. You see, these are all the characters we know.

TOC: So you are materialising all these personifications in Orwell’s tale?

Ivan: Yes, you see these characters in the flesh. And that’s the wonderful thing about theatre, about bringing a novel to life. The thing is, you are in a room with hundreds of people and it’s all live. You laugh together and don’t feel so alone. It becomes a very public affair. Singaporeans like to gripe and moan and say things furtively in coffee shops or in the privacy of their homes. Or anonymously on the web. But in a play, we put forward this allegory, which is very much a story about power. And when the audience laugh together, you realise that you are not alone in thinking these ideas. This dismantles the fear and in some ways, only when you are able to dismantle the fear can you really move on.

TOC: Singapore theatre today is evidently more ambitious and theatremakers today are tackling much more challenging material and constantly pushing the boundaries of the medium. While we have matured over the years, do you think anything has been lost in the process?

Ivan: Theatre is still one of the few places in Singapore where you can express ideas. It’s a relatively safe place to challenge easy assumptions and provoke thinking. While I don’t think theatre in this day and age can overturn governments, I think it’s important to be able to engage with the issues and concerns of the day. It’s an opportunity for reflection. Has anything been lost? I think we have a very, very diverse scene and different companies have their own raison d’être and they find their own audiences. But with things like the MDA and censorship, you sometimes do wonder whether or not we have become more conservative or whether we are opening up. And I think censorship takes many, many forms. It may not be as blatant as cutting your words but they certainly give you a rating, which severely limits your audience. And ratings prevent you from reaching out to a younger audience who may also need to hear these things. But this is the whole idea of nanny-ing, isn’t it? You are not old enough. You are not capable of making these decisions cause you may make the wrong decisions and then where will we be?

TOC: And theatre is the conscience that challenges these systems?

Ivan: Yes, you hold up a mirror to the system. At the moment, it seems that our society is moving farther and farther right, becoming more conservative, judgemental, biased and prejudiced. So naturally theatre would stand up and say this is what is happening. But then again, if society were to move left, and there is a radically left-wing movement, I’m sure theatre would also point it out. So in a way, theatre is trying to find that ground and it really is one of the most democratic of the art forms, because you are totally at liberty to take any sides.

TOC: The interesting thing is that you did NDP as Creative Director last year. How would that fit in with the rest of your works which are more about challenging the system?

Ivan: For me, it was really wonderful to express one’s love for one’s country quite unreservedly for that one day a year. That doesn’t spot me from questioning and doing the other works. As you know, in 2006, the first Singapore Theatre Festival was staged as an antidote to the NDP. Because I felt that there were many, many other ways of looking at the Singapore story.

It’s all part of my body of work. NDP continued to tell Singaporean stories. It continued to ask questions. We deconstructed the entire pledge and expressed every statement based on the possibility of what it meant to live in a society based on justice, peace and equality. We looked at that possibility. And I think Singapore does that very well. We do understand diversity quite deeply, well, apart from some fundamentalist crazies. I don’t know whether we understand it less and less. But where else can we find a temple, a synagogue…

TOC: But these are largely visible markers of diversity. There is still a lot of intolerance that is covertly expressed.

Ivan: This is the thing. I think society has shifted.

TOC: Do you think Singaporeans are really as diverse as we project ourselves to be?

Ivan: I think that’s a question that we definitely have to ask. And therefore I think it’s problematic that we are not allowed to do plays about religion and race. Basically they prescribe that we don’t talk about it.

TOC: Since we are talking about culture, there seems to be a lot of cultural hybridisation happening in your works, be it your plays or in the case of NDP.

Ivan: We are like an orchid, aren’t we? That’s who we are. We are all in a very, very small space so naturally we always bump into each other. But in the end, we are all Singaporeans. This whole idea of listing down that one is “Chinese-Malay” or “Chinese-Eurasian” is odd. While in some ways we are moving on, some things still remain deeply divisive and rigid. There are many sensitive areas that we really need to talk about more.

Animal Farm is running at the Drama Centre Theatre from now to 8 May 2010
– get your tickets (from $39) through SISTIC (discounts available)


Interview by Ho Rui An and photos courtesy of W!LD RICE


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