Arts Interview Theatre

Kingdoms Apart: An Interview with Playwright/Director Chong Tze Chien on adapting the Mahābhārata

The Indian epic The Mahabharata is often considered ‘the longest poem ever written’, charting an age old battle between two groups of cousins in the Kurukshetra War for power. To date, it remains one of the most well-known texts in world mythology, and has received countless retellings and adaptations over the years.

For theatremaker Chong Tze Chien, The Mahabharata has held a special place in his heart for years. First encountering the text almost 25 years ago in his time as a Theatre Studies student at NUS, Tze Chien has since harboured thoughts of one day doing his own staging of the epic. Now, that dream will finally come to fruition, as he and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay present Kingdoms Apart next week, a contemporary reimagining of the Indian epic tale, which receives its premiere at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre.

Chong Tze Chien

“When I was first approached to do this project in 2019, I was excited about the Singtel Waterfront Theatre space itself, and how flexible it was, allowing me to play with different configurations,” says Tze Chien. “In addition, the Esplanade wanted me to do an Asian-centric production, and I immediately knew I wanted to do The Mahabharata. It was one of the primary texts we had to reference quite a bit during my university days, and to think I would finally be able to put on a production of this scale. Sure, it’s going to be a challenge, but I seem to be a sucker for challenges, and often pick the most difficult things to do and push myself to new heights.”

Kingdoms Apart clocks in at about three hours, including a 20 minute intermission, and has been carefully curated from the original Mahabharata. Recontextualised for a modern day setting, the performance will be staged as theatre-in-the-round, where audiences surround the action in the middle of the space.

“The length of the production is dictated by the story I want to tell, and I try to produce only as much as it requires. To stage a lengthy epic like The Mahabharata, I really had to go back and look at what story means, and figure out how to distil its essence into 3 hours,” says Tze Chien. “It was about finding the most economical way to tell the essence of the story without belabouring it, especially with how it splinters into so many subplots and meanders into characters with their own stories, so I had to think about how to stage it for a reasonable length of time without losing complexity and scale of the original.”

That is no easy feat – one of the most well-known adaptations of the text in the Western world is the 1985 stage version by theatre legend Peter Brooks, clocking in at a whopping 9 hours. Even the 1989 film version, also by Brooks, was only reduced to a 6 hour TV series (and three hours for the DVD release).

“Just digesting the original text took about 8 months, and in that time, I not only had to understand the story and essence, but also think about what it means to me as well,” says Tze Chien. “What Kingdoms Apart is, is not a straight up adaptation, but instead reframing and reimagining it. Even if you’re familiar with the text and characters, you’ll see them in new light, because this is me taking ownership over what the text means to me, and deciding to convey it in my own way without bastardising the original.”

So what exactly does The Mahabharata mean to Tze Chien? “I thought a lot about how our entire world is in our phones, from our photos to our emails to our credit cards. Even if there’s problems, we don’t have a choice, and continue to submit to the system. And in a way, we’re stuck, just like how the characters in The Mahabharata are also stuck in this age old feud, and the only way to get out of it is to hit the metaphorical factory reset button,” explains Tze Chien. “Otherwise, they’re stuck in this cycle of destruction, which leads to war, bloodshed and death. It made me think about whether the world itself needs to hit the reset button, and sometimes i think we’d rather live with injustice and systemic malfunctions that do that, because we’d not only lose the bad things, but also the good. Kingdoms Apart then explores ideas of revolutions, of the heart and mind and society, and questions theories of total annihilation and rebirth.”

That idea of revolutions and cycles ties in strongly to the set, which also deals with the cyclical nature of life – it’s theatre-in-the-round after all. “Everything that goes around comes around, so I thought of the set as a temple, one where you enter and feel immersed in, like a forum,” says Tze Chien. “The action speaks to you directly, simultaneously intimate yet epic, as you’re surrounded by multimedia screens. There’s a segment of the play that also takes place in a fictitious 1983, and explores the impact of mass media, characters begin slipping in and out of dreams, and there’s even a tv show within the play.”

To achieve all that, Tze Chien has gathered an all stars team of designers to work with, including set designer Eucien Chia, lighting designer James Tan, longtime collaborator and music director/composer/sound designer Darren Ng, multimedia designer Koo Chia Meng, costume designers Yuan Zhiying and Jacqueline Teo, and Ashley Lim and Bobbie Ng on hair and makeup.

“Often, it’s good travel companions that make a journey a beautiful one. Since coming up with this idea back in 2000, over the years I’ve actually had so many meetings with designers, with jamming sessions to respond to the original text and to my ideas, and it’s been such a collaborative process, because the design elements are very important to me,” says Tze Chien.”All of it needs to cohere as a single production, and this play in particular is very design-centric, with the set and other elements framing the play. The designers would respond to my briefs and suggestions, drafting and redrafting until we came to a final result, while even for sound, Darren was still processing and changing things while watching the rehearsals, adding new elements to it. All my designers are in the rehearsal room with me, and they’re all actively contributing and there to journey on this process together.

Not to mention, with Tze Chien’s background with The Finger Players, and the presence of puppetry through many of his previous productions, puppetry will once again be featured in Kingdoms Apart, as designed by Myra Loke. “The decision to include puppetry was simply because it’s a language and feature I’m comfortable with, but unlike say OIWA (2021), it’s now playing more of a supporting role,” says Tze Chien. “All the design elements work together to create the world I want to present, from the multimedia to the combat choreography, to the costumes to the music, yet as diverse as they are, they all somehow come together to speak the same language.”

Perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of the production is the decision to go race-blind with his casting, deviating from The Mahabharata’s Indian origins to present a multicultural ensemble cast from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, comprising Ghafir Akbar, Brendon Fernandez, Matt Grey, Anne James, Neewin Hershall, Loong Seng Onn, Futoshi Moriyama, Farez Najid, Jean Ng, Edith Podesta, Lian Sutton and Vadi PVSS, alongside puppeteers Jo Kwek and Vanessa Toh, K. Rajagopal in a voiceover, and a Japanese live vocalist, Yuya Antical.

“You know, India itself is very multicultural. Pre-COVID, my last trip was in January 2020 to India for research, and when I was there, I was bombarded with so may languages and accents, when most of the time we just think in simple binaries, like North and South,” says Tze Chien. “There’s so much diversity, where a waiter could speak five dialects and a customer simply speaks Tamil, but somehow knows how to respond. It’s like how in my own household, my parents speak Hakka but I can’t, and reply in Mandarin and Cantonese, but we still understand each other. This is the world I want to present – we may not speak the same language but still understand each other in this babble-like language. It’s a fantasy world that’s still full of discord that goes so much deeper beyond language, race and ethnicity, and the play then allows for that to explore the politics of difference.”

On how he expects audiences to react to this new imagined version, Tze Chien explains the difficult balancing act he has to do, catering to newbies to The Mahabharata or diehard purists. “That’s why finding the essence of it is so important, and at the heart of it, it’s about two families vying for the same throne. It’s a simple, familiar narrative trope of fighting for power, like Game of Thrones,” says Tze Chien. “But with this, we’re trying to suss out the politics and underlying tension that exists between the families. It’s about figuring out if and when war is ever justified, and how easily media can manipulate our perceptions and influence the will of the people. Especially in the 1983 context, war no longer is about bows and arrows, but how media contains an arsenal of weapons in its own right, that questions authenticity and provenance, and what gives people the right to rule a kingdom or country.”

With Kingdoms Apart being the biggest production Tze Chien has staged yet, what lies ahead for him? “I think I reached a point in my life where I thought, maybe I’m a tad too comfortable, and now, I’m following my gut and going for these projects that challenge me as an artist,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger; small productions have their own challenges too. But it’s really about diving deeper into your practice, and following my artistic instincts. Maybe at some point I’ll create a one man show, or somehow spark a new journey. I don’t know what’s next, but what I do know is that it’s important to be honest with one’s self and one’s practice, and that you honour your own craft in the process.”

“Maybe it’s a form of karma and reaping what you sow. I believe that the work you produce is a mirror of your life, and whatever residue emotions and experiences you have will be reflected in the work, sometimes in the most brutal, confrontational way possible,” he concludes. “For me, art is no longer just a practice, it’s practically a religion, where the process of creation is a spiritual pilgrimage. Extending that metaphor, the rehearsals are the journey, the world of the play is the temple, my scripts are scripture, and the final production, with audience and theatremakers in the same space, becomes a form of communion. Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s beautiful, but above all, it has to be honest.”

Kingdoms Apart plays from 23rd to 27th November 2022 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Tickets available here

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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