Since their inception in 2012, Singapore’s Nine Years Theatre (NYT) has carved out a name for itself performing classic international works adapted in Mandarin. From Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio (Singapore) to Shakespeare’s King Lear (UK), Nine Years Theatre has tackled works from one end of the world to another, often adding their own spin to each production, and well-supported by their core ensemble at the heart of each performance.
It’s a very confronting feeling, coming to know parts of yourself you didn’t see before. I’d like to think that beyond the challenge we all have a choice. A choice on what to do with that revelation.
Now in their ninth year, the company has survived the difficult year COVID-19 has hit the performing arts scene with, and emerged stronger than ever, starting off 2021 strong with a brand new live production. Helmed by NYT Associate Director Cherilyn Woo (FAUST/US), this time around, they’ll be tackling one of the greatest Greek tragedies of all – Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Translated by Huang Shuhai, Oedipus was first performed in 429 BC, and recognised for its tight construction, mounting tension, and use of the dramatic devices of recognition and discovery, creating catharsis and fear in its audiences. The play takes place in the city of Thebes undergoing a devastating pandemic. Oedipus rules over the city, and takes it upon himself to restore it to its former glory. Consulting with an Oracle, it’s clear that the only way to reverse this curse is to find the murderer of the previous leader. But the deeper investigations go, the more secrets from the past begin to surface.
Also there were no details about how live performances will resume at that point in time, we were simply taking a leap of faith.
Starring Hang Qian Chou as Oedipus, and supported by fellow NYT Ensemble members Mia Chee, Neo Hai Bin and Timothy Wan, this thrilling modern re-telling of Oedipus Rex posits a truly existential question – are we in control of our fate, or are we slaves to it? We spoke to director Cherilyn Woo, cast member Mia Chee, and NYT Artistic Director Nelson Chia to find out more. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: What was the reason NYT chose to adapt Oedipus Rex?
Cherilyn: Nelson and I were discussing what show I should direct. I knew I wanted something with a hero’s journey. That topic combined with my interest in interpreting classics for a contemporary era, Oedipus Rex was a great fit.
Bakchormeeboy: Will NYT be changing up any plot elements or characters in Oedipus, considering it’s a “modern retelling”? Could you share more with us?
Cherilyn: We’ve re-interpreted the chorus scenes. I was also particularly interested in exploring different perspectives of how people view the seat in power. Typically Greek choruses are played by several people, but in this case we have a cast of four. For me, I saw that as an opportunity to explore who we could hear different individual voices and what they think of what is happening and of their leader.
Bakchormeeboy: Was there a reason behind NYT sticking to a short three day run, especially considering the limited audience numbers for safety?
Mia: There were a number of factors to consider — artists’ and crew’s availability, theatre venue’s availability and costs, and the company’s schedule, etc.
Back then when we were finding a window to mount this postponed production, this was the most suitable period considering all factors. Also there were no details about how live performances will resume at that point in time, we were simply taking a leap of faith.
Bakchormeeboy: How different was the rehearsal and preparation process for Oedipus, compared to pre-COVID times? How did the uncertainty affect the way plans were made?
Nelson: There are the necessary safety measures in place – checking in and out, sanitizing, masks, etc. Apart from that, the usual procedures and planning of a rehearsal do not change very much, we keep to our usual rehearsal timings, trainings and warm ups, and number of runs before we go into theatre – because we believe in maintaining the standard of our work, and even striving higher, despite the Covid challenges.
The uncertainties mainly affect the producer’s work – we need to be very prepared for possibilities of changes due to second wave of infections and changes in safety policies, etc. On top of that, reduced audience seating also has an effect on the ticket revenue.
Bakchormeeboy: In terms of casting, how would you say Hai Bin, Mia, Qian Chou and Timothy fit their roles? Would you ever cast against type, especially considering how members of the ensemble tend to embody certain archetypes after so many productions?
Cherilyn: It’s always interesting working with the ensemble members. This is my second time working with them as a director and I’m learning so much from them about the craft of acting and creating a character. They are such skilled actors that I can see the different qualities they would bring to the character no matter what the character is. This makes the casting process much more exciting because they offer unique viewpoints to a role. It’s a fascinating journey to see what unfolds whichever character I place them in, because the discovery is always surprising.
Bakchormeeboy: In your marketing, the theme you picked up on for Oedipus was the idea of blindness, whether literal or metaphorical. What do you think Singaporeans often find themselves turning a blind eye to?
Cherilyn: Doing this play has made me question myself about my own relationship with sight. Not just seeing and looking, but awareness as well. I think it’s only human to have our own blind spots, especially to facets of ourselves. Learning about these blind spots is part of life. Sometimes they come in difficult lessons, sometimes through watching others. It’s a very confronting feeling, coming to know parts of yourself you didn’t see before. I’d like to think that beyond the challenge we all have a choice. A choice on what to do with that revelation.
Bakchormeeboy: NYT has announced plans for 2021, including Three Sisters and a restaging of First Fleet. While live theatre is still king and only likely to return as the situation improves, are there any contingency plans? Have the events of 2020 affected the way NYT sees future plans, and have they led to the company considering new directions for the company to develop?
Mia: Fingers crossed that live theatre remains open! However, should theatres be mandated to close again, we would have to turn things online for these productions to happen. We, together with the relevant organisations, have committed to these projects and will make them happen no matter what. The events of 2020 did push us to explore new zones, such as starting the NYT Brewery — a new exploratory space, a platform that allows us to discover, fall, get up and continue to create — something we had been wanting to start but hadn’t had the time.
Otherwise, the company is still committed to making work in the theatre, and we are still working hard on some pending international collaborations live in-person. To make things work, to come together to collaborate despite the difficulties, is part of the art itself.
Bakchormeeboy: Following on from the previous question, many of your shows this year are collaborations, whether with the SCCC or SITI. Do you personally prefer having collaborations and co-presentations, or to stage works purely by the company?
Nelson: Not a question of preferences, but a question of how it being a collaboration or otherwise may affect or benefit the work. Some works are quite personal while others are will benefit from inputs of various aspects from another organization.
Bakchormeeboy: Greek tragedy is intended to evoke catharsis in its audiences. Is that still the primary aim of Oedipus, or is there something more that NYT hopes audiences will leave the theatre thinking about?
Cherilyn: Greek theatre was always made with the intent of creating dialogue and space for people to reflect and analyse the stories in front of us. They were pieces that reflected event and behaviours in society, like a mirror. Theatre has existed over the years because it creates a special place for that. Oedipus is a story of a tragic hero. His tragedy will be one that is hard to forget. But I hope that as we walk away from the theatre we also remember what a hero he was. That even in the event of facing himself he was a man of great courage, and may he be a leader that helps us fight the things we fear the most.
Oedipus plays from 5th to 7th February 2021 at KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from SISTIC