Satirical yet vulnerable as three titans of local theatre take to the stage and get personal.
In the immortal words of Macbeth’s three witches: When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain? Following their unprecedented collaboration on short film The Pitch during the sturm and drang of last year, local artistic directors Gaurav Kripalani (Singapore Repertory Theatre), Ivan Heng (Wild Rice) and Adrian Pang (Pangdemonium) have reunited to do the unthinkable once more – perform in a live play together.
Written by Ken Kwek and directed by Tracie Pang, The Commission, which opened the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) on Friday, sees the three artistic directors tasked to collaborate on a new live theatre show for these pandemic times. Riffing off their perceived rivalries with each other, the line between fiction and reality is often blurred as the three banter over how they would stage Shakespeare’s Macbeth, while also revealing their own personal histories and relationship with theatre.
Arriving onstage in black hoodies, our three ‘witches’ make it clear that their version of Macbeth will be reimagined for a modern audience. The only problem is, with all three having such big personalities and distinctly different artistic visions, and someone has to give in. Watching them ‘bicker’ over the superior company, and poke fun at each other’s niche when it comes to each company’s shows, there’s a wry, tongue-in-cheek awareness of public opinion of each director that makes it all the more endearing.
Often, The Commission finds itself maintaining a fine balancing act between the directors acting according to stereotype, and subverting those stereotypes. Take for example Gaurav, so often seen as the suave and composed one, as he learns to navigate his position as a pandemic-era Festival Director and overcome the impossible problems posed in this climate, or how Ivan is accused of being a diva, and constantly pushing his ‘gay agenda’, garnering his share of conservative critics.
The play is interspersed with scenes where the directors humorously attempt to impose their own directorial visions on Macbeth; they perform rituals to offset the ‘curse’ of saying the title onstage, comment on its popularity since it’s a school literature text, give it an Asian twist by performing as Chinese priests, or even have Adrian channel Lee Kuan Yew (from his role in The LKY Musical) while reciting Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” line. Good humour always stems from a degree of truth, and it is incredibly humanising to see all three directors willing and able to take a step back and allow us to have a no-holds-barred laugh with them, at themselves, with these public personas they’ve cultivated over the years.
But where The Commission shines is when each director gets their time in the spotlight, performing a monologue chronicling the personal journeys they’ve each taken in their rise to esteemed artistic director. Alone on stage, Gaurav breaks the fourth wall, and breaks the silence on his mysterious past, something rarely discussed in interviews. Recalling how he came to Singapore from Calcutta as a child, he explains his history with the theatre, going from acting to joining SRT under the charge of founder Tony Petito. As artistic director, he shares the ups and downs of the role; while he’s made plenty of friends and enjoys multiple perks, he’s also lost a marriage and his hair to the job.
Yet despite the challenges, Gaurav shares how this week marks his 25th anniversary with SRT, while also celebrating his 50th birthday. In the 25 years he’s been with the company, he never feels like he’s dragging his feet to work, always excited to what each new day holds. More importantly, he also shares how Ivan and Adrian too have associations with SRT, in spite of their ‘rivalry’ today. At some point part of one big family, the three of them ‘splitting’ has ironically benefitted the local theatre scene, with more companies producing quality work.
Adrian Pang, on the other hand, shares his story of disappointing his parents by leaving a legal career to pursue his acting dreams. From a supporting role on BBC in 1995, to relocating back to be on Singapore TV, he explains how acting is a form of escapism for him, and how his choice to pursue it has also involved plenty of hustling just to put food on the table for his family. With the birth of Pangdemonium in 2010, Adrian stepped up to becoming an artistic director, his theatre journey evolving beyond simply performing onscreen and onstage.
But Adrian doesn’t just share his successes – he also reveals his darkest moments in his battle against depression in 2020. One could practically hear a pin drop in the silence of the theatre, as Adrian describes the ‘black dog’, our hearts connected as one as he told his tale of survival, just barely escaping it thanks to the support he’s had. While the black dog remains lurking in the background, it is at least tamed for now, and he is grateful for those by his side.
Finally, Ivan is given his time onstage, and shares his story. Born in 1963, he explains how late theatre doyenne Kuo Pao Kun was one of his biggest influences. Always one to push boundaries in his art, Kuo was eventually detained in 1976 as part of the hundreds incarcerated under the Internal Security Act over the growing fears over Chinese theatre’s political leanings. For Ivan, 1976 also marked the year he came out to his mother, breaking her heart once, and then again when he told her his wish to become an actor, after putting him through law school.
It was only in 1989 that Ivan finally met Kuo Pao Kun, who then inspired him to create theatre crafted from his own identity and experiences. Much like Kuo, Ivan too is unwavering and steadfast in what he believes in, unfazed by the naysayers. Ivan begins to get into drag, putting on hip pads, a corset, a black pearl cheongsam and beaded slippers, transforming into Emily of Emerald Hill, the show that launched Wild Rice back in 2000. It is from this pivotal moment that Wild Rice dedicated themselves to creating Singaporean theatre with a social message, and cemented their position as a major company to watch. No matter what troubles they’ve faced, Ivan reassures us that through it all, as long as the theatre audience shows up, so will he.
By the end of the play, all three directors may not have come to a conclusion over how to stage Macbeth, but it seems that in the process of collaborating and duking out their differences, something has changed in the air. As they ponder what happens next, they sit down, share a round of whiskey, and cheers to making mistakes, embracing their differences, and the success of their respective companies. Each taking a line from Macbeth’s ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy, we are reminded of how transient life itself is, and it’s all we can do to make the most of the limited time we have, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of if the stars align or not.
Knowing that the journey to where they are today was by no means an easy one, The Commission becomes more than just a scripted play, but a poignant opening to SIFA 2021 that celebrates all that these three have done for the local arts scene and what it’s taken to get here. Through the years of pain, hard work and challenges posed, theatre can and will persevere, commissioned or not, as artists find a way to overcome, and stage what needs to be staged when we need it most.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
The Commission ran from 14th to 15th May 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here