Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

Molière’s Tartuffe: An Interview with director Glen Goei, playwright Joel Tan, and star Ivan Heng

French playwright Molière is often considered one of the greatest writers, with his farces and comedies ranking among his best work. In conjunction with the 400th anniversary of Molière’s birth, local theatre company Wild Rice has commissioned a new adaptation of satirical comedy Tartuffe: The Imposter.

Written by Joel Tan, directed by Wild Rice’s Co-Artistic Director, Glen Goei, and starring Wild Rice Founding Artistic Director Ivan Heng alongside a star-studded cast, Tartuffe is a classic tale of a con artist cheating his way into a rich man’s wealth. Tartuffe (played by Benjamin Chow) enters the home of the wealthy but gullible Orgon (Ivan Heng). Will Orgon fall prey to his schemes?

No stranger to provocative theatre that questions societal norms, back in 1664, Tartuffe was twice banned for perceived anti-Catholicism. These days, the shock value is far lessened, but its message of hypocrisy remains crystal clear, with Tartuffe pretending to be a devout, holy man, when in fact – he is a dishonest swindler. Sounds familiar?

Set to premiere this April, we spoke to Joel Tan, Glen Goei, and Ivan Heng to find out more about this new adaptation, about the rehearsal and creation process, and Wild Rice’s hopes going into a better 2022. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: What led to the decision to stage this new translation of Tartuffe for Wild Rice’s 2022 season? 

Ivan: Glen and I have wanted to stage Tartuffe for the longest time. We’ve actually explored so many adaptations, reading almost every one we could find in the English language. It suddenly struck me a year or so ago that every single one of these adaptations was written for their community. So why shouldn’t we get someone to adapt one for Singapore? Joel Tan came to mind because we’ve been working with him on so many projects since his debut with Wild Rice (Family Outing in the 2011 Singapore Theatre Festival). And we couldn’t be more thrilled – this is a brilliant adaptation.

Bakchormeeboy: As a new adaptation, how will Wild Rice add its own spin to the play, and make it a quintessentially ‘Wild Rice’ production?

Glen: This production of Tartuffe fits in Wild Rice’s canon of work because it does what we always set out to do when reimagining a world classic – we reclaim it and make it our own, finding ways to make it relevant to Singaporean audiences today. This means that, even though the entire show is performed in full-on 17th-century costumes, wigs and hair, the show is performed in a language that is familiar and accessible for our audiences.

More interestingly, we’re doing something rather subversive with this production. Molière purists might not be too pleased because we’re offering a new interpretation of the ending of this 350-year-old classic. All the adaptations I’ve read have stuck closely to Molière’s ending, which is comparatively happy and neat, and I think the one we offer is more satisfying. It’s probably closer to the ending Molière would have written himself, if he didn’t have to self-censor and rewrite the piece to fend off pressure and unhappiness from the state and the church at the time.

Bakchormeeboy: Molière is primarily known for his comedies, but Tartuffe is described in the synopsis as’ darkly comic’, suggesting it’s not entirely a laugh-a-minute. Where does Tartuffe fit in to your work, and what could Singaporeans stand to learn from Tartuffe after watching it? 

Joel: I actually think there’s a fair bit of ambiguity in Molière’s work. In Tartuffe, particularly, there’s a lot about it that is quite dramatic: the household is totally eaten away by the events of the play. It’s all very funny, but it’s also a very dangerous and high-stakes situation. In my own work, I’m very interested in everyday monstrosity, and the corrosive effects of unfettered power. I guess that’s something I hope stays with Singaporeans, because we have so much of both in this country.

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the casting process, in particular, why Benjamin Chow as the titular Tartuffe? In crafting a production, beyond finding the talent to create a top tier production, are there other considerations when it comes to deciding who the company will be working with? 

Glen: This is my first time working with Ben. I’ve seen him in so many productions, and he’s really matured as an actor over the years. So I cast him as Tartuffe – a very challenging role! – on a hunch. Over the past few weeks of rehearsals, I’m glad to say my gut instinct has been proved right. As an actor, Ben himself is complex and very interesting. He’s not your obvious boy-next-door, nor is he your obvious triad gangster type. There are many layers to him. The character of Tartuffe is multi-faceted and complex too – he’s like a chameleon, changing on a dime depending on who he’s talking to, and what he wants. 

More broadly, I always cast the best actor for the role. I don’t go for the most famous actors in Singapore; I cast the ones that will best suit the characters in the play. It so happens that we have some of the best actors in Singapore in this production, largely because this is a reimagining of a classic and is very text-based, and so I needed a cast of good, experienced actors who can handle the text. 

Bakchormeeboy: Ivan, why did you decide to take on the role of Orgon and take to the stage for this production? Is it ever difficult to take off the ‘Artistic Director’ hat and switch to actor mode instead?

Ivan: Glen and I have wanted to stage Tartuffe for years, and he had a vision for this production in which I’d play Orgon. To be honest, I had always imagined playing Tartuffe!  But casting is the director’s prerogative, and I trust him implicitly. Also, I take off my Artistic Director’s hat when I’m acting – especially when it’s a character as challenging to play as Orgon. This is a role that actually pushes me out of my comfort zone, because I’d like to think he’s nothing like me. But, as every actor discovers as they find ways to empathise with and advocate for their characters, I’ve learnt that I am more like him than I think. We all are. It’s been an eye-opening experience!

Bakchormeeboy: Glen, how would you describe yourself as a director, in terms of the style you apply? Do you become a very different person in the director’s chair from your regular self?

Glen: No, I don’t become a different person – I remain myself as a director. As a theatre-maker, I’m very collaborative. My goal whenever I enter a rehearsal room is to create a nurturing environment in which all my actors and everyone on my creative team feels like they can say whatever they like. I always welcome their feedback and input. I think I’m fairly calm as a director, too – I don’t believe in raising my voice or losing my temper, because that doesn’t achieve anything and I’d rather foster an environment of play and inclusion and collaboration. This is especially important for a new play, which, in many ways, this production of Tartuffe is – the characters and story remain the same, but every word is new. 

Bakchormeeboy: Joel, you’re best known for writing original scripts, rather than adapting pre-existing ones. Did you ever feel constrained by the fact that the story and characters have already been all laid out for you, and might have felt pressure in doing justice to the original, or was there more of an ease to the process where you just let go and had fun with it?

Joel: Molière’s original dramaturgy is so powerful and really holds up, so it felt really good to surrender to it. My process of adaptation was to follow the original beats quite closely, while allowing myself to say yes to new possibilities that arose along the way. Possibilities like expanding certain moments, or subverting them, or inventing material, thinking all the while about what the play might be saying to us here in Singapore. 

Bakchormeeboy: Were there any high points or surprises that each of you discovered over the course of rehearsals, be it interactions with the team, your own artistic journey, about the script or anything else? 

Ivan: Rehearsals have been great fun. It’s been a lot of laughs. Every day, we keep discovering and being surprised by how relevant this play is – a play that was written close to 400 years ago! Molière actually found a way to talk about the very sensitive subject of religious hypocrisy – by using humour. And we are discovering the power of this play and this adaptation every day.

Glen: This is the second time I’m working with Joel. The first time was 11 years ago, on Family Outing, which premiered at the 2011 Singapore Theatre Festival. It was the first major staging of one of his early plays. I’m so glad to be working with him again, and to see how he’s matured by leaps and bounds as a writer. It feels like he’s at the height of his powers. I just love reading his text for Tartuffe – it’s poetic and lyrical, and even more beautiful when spoken. It’s like nothing I’ve read in many, many years. 

Joel: For me, it’s just been very nice to be back in a rehearsal room again after so long. I realise, as I type this, that this is the first time in a while that I’ve had a play on, and it’s been very nice to reconnect with everyone on the team.  

Bakchormeeboy: Since last year’s Momotaro, Wild Rice has already laid out the full suite of planned shows for the 2022 season – and it’s a schedule that’s looking rich, entertaining and daring. Is there ever any overarching theme or driving force behind the choice of productions? Whether there is or isn’t, what would you say is Wild Rice’s ‘motto’ for 2022? 

Ivan: Wild Rice’s mission has always been to create and present shows that challenge, entertain and inspire our audiences. We have always programmed our seasons with them in mind – staging shows which address urgent issues that we all need to talk and think about, as well as thinking about how we can entertain and lift people’s spirits. 

That’s our mantra for our 2022 season. All of the upcoming plays are very resonant for our times and almost every play is new or original – made in Singapore, for Singaporeans. Our season is eclectic and diverse because Singapore is diverse. We create works that appeal to people of all ages and from all walks of life. To me, the magic really happens when people come to see shows that dare to reach beyond themselves. We can all stand to learn about other people, other communities, other issues. I am thankful for everyone – and that includes critics – who come to watch and engage with our entire range of work.

The prospect of finally being able to play at full capacity comes as a huge relief. Tartuffe is the perfect choice for us to welcome audiences back to the theatre – it’s a crowd-pleasing comedy but also has dark, dramatic undertones that will make people really think. This production marks a milestone for Wild Rice and the wider performing arts community, one that gives us the hope and resolve to begin the process of recovery. I’m personally very excited to be on stage with a brilliant company of actors to really experience our theatre at full capacity!

Bakchormeeboy: Tartuffe coincides with the 400th year of Molière’s birth, and Wild Rice has received support for the production from the French Embassy. Could you tell us more about the challenges and high points of lobbying for support for theatre and the arts during these challenging times? 

Ivan: Engaging with the French embassy here in Singapore has enabled us to reach out to the French expatriate community here, which has been a great help. Naturally, we are glad that they’re so excited about this production too – it does, after all, celebrate the 400th anniversary of France’s most renowned playwright.

In terms of lobbying for support for theatre and the arts – it’s more challenging now than it has ever been. These are incredibly difficult times for Singapore’s performing arts community as a whole, which has been so deeply scarred by COVID-19. It’s only now, with the prospect of full houses, can we finally begin our long journey to recovery. Even so, we will need support more than ever. Wild Rice is fortunate to have an extended family and community that have really stepped up when called upon to do so. But it’s inevitable that a bit of donor fatigue will kick in as the pandemic continues into its third year.

Bakchormeeboy: It’s been over two years since Wild Rice opened their doors to the public with the theatre, and with the pandemic, obviously, the well-laid plans had to be rejigged and adapted. As of now, the performing arts scene seems to be more stable as we finally move towards an endemic approach to COVID-19. How does this affect the way Wild Rice plans for the future? 

Ivan: We’ve learnt a lot from the last two years of dealing with the restrictions and challenges brought about by COVID-19. Chiefly, we have learnt that, even with the best-laid plans, we have to always be very aware of the need to adapt – to be nimble and to find a way through when circumstances change. That’s something Wild Rice will be bringing with us as we keep planning for an unknown and unknowable future. I’m very proud of the Wild Rice team, who have borne the twists and turns of this pandemic with such fortitude and passion – it’s been exhausting, but, together, we have been able to make miracles happen. They give me the confidence to keep going.

Photo Credit: Wild Rice

Molière’s Tartuffe: The Imposter plays from 7th to 30th April 2022 at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC

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