Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros holds an absurd premise: over the course of the play, all but one of the residents of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses. As strange as it may sound, it is as apt a play at the time as can be, as it wrestled with themes of Fascism and Nazism in a post World War era, and how easy it was to conform.
Fast forward to 2023 however, and fascism and Nazism, for the most part, are no longer a major concern of the day, especially in Singapore. What has remained however, is an incredible pressure to conform to what the majority considers ‘normal’, something that playwright Edward Eng has picked up on and resonates with, in his new play Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns?
Playing from 4th to 7th May 2023, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? marks the second play that new theatre collective Gangguan! is producing, following their 2022 play The Change (also by Edward). Taking inspiration from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? instead takes place in modern day Singapore, where two friends (Cheryl Ho and Shannen Tan) are making a radio play for the internet. As they explore the ‘rhinoceritis epidemic’ from the 1980s, where rhinoceroses inexplicably started taking over the growing metropolis of Singapore, the two delve deeper and grapple with issues of satisfaction, capitalism, and what we are aware of (or not).
Speaking to playwright Edward and director Adeeb Fazah, who both remain coy about what exactly the fringe play will entail, we find out more about the origins of the script, the rehearsal process, and their own learnings and evolution as artists over this preparation period. The first question, naturally revolves around the play’s title, which in its entirety, is actually Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? (or can they not see them like how we can’t see our noses).
“After reading Rhinoceros, one of the thoughts that came to me was about how a rhino’s horn is highly prized in Chinese medicine, and because of that, the rhino represents a very extractive industry. But it’s also made of keratin, the same stuff in our nails and hair, and rather than having to kill it off, you could technially tranquilise it and saw off the horn,” explains Edward. “So that made me wonder – could they feel the removal of their horns, whether physically or emotionally? Only if you’re actively aware of these things you possess will you realise their absence, otherwise, it’s probably completely possible to go about your day without grieving its loss.”
“So I wanted to use that as the conceit for how in our modern life, and while it’s removed from its original context, I instead thought about how in the 80s and 90s, there seemed to be this sense of never ending optimism, and people were willing to trade civil rights for money with the rise of capitalism, in a kind of social compact. And today, despite living in a developed country where we’re better off and more stable, we bemoan labour, and many of us still feel fundamentally pessimistic or sad about life,” he adds.
Edward essentially wrote an entirely new play based on the idea of Rhinoceros, primarily because its more formal (though comedic) qualities did not gel with what he wanted to achieve with the play. “Even though it’s quite absurd and comedic, I wanted to write a play that was objectively less formal and stressful than the original,” says Edward. “In gathering a team, I did want to find someone else to direct it so that I could focus on the text and support other elements such as the idea behind the audio play within the play, and we’re very lucky to have Vick Low on board as our sound designer to compose for us.”
For director Adeeb Fazah, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? stretches him in new directions, with a decidedly more absurdist play than he is used to working on. “I have a love-hate relationship with absurdism. One playwright I’ll always think about is Harold Pinter, who is sometimes argued to be absurdist and sometimes not,” he says. “I think the closest thing to absurdism that I’ve directed is The Lobby, but for me as a director, what’s most important is coming back to the character journeys, and figuring out who is driving the action forward. By understanding that flow and relationship, it helps structure the rest of the production in terms of design elements and how actors should portray their roles and find the rhythm of the show. Having direct access to Edward as our playwright helps a lot, so we’d be able to understand exactly what he was thinking or intended with every line, which allowed us to start the process of play.”
“We actually had quite a long lead time for this production, because to me, it was so important to afford time to explore and workshop character movement, speech and interaction,” he adds. “By having the space to explore, we’re also able to take time to hone in on the sonic elements to enrich the experience for the audience, which is a big part of the storytelling. There is this constant idea of play, and we’re figuring out whether it’s the actors or the sound that’s telling the story at any point in time. Sometimes you see the characters onstage pressing buttons and making foley sounds, and sometimes there are sounds they don’t control, and the text gives a lot of room to play with those elements and show the audience the kind of universe they live in.”
With one of the key themes of the play being friendship, it was integral for there to be just two actors, not only making it easier to manage, but also to ensure the play could focus entirely on the ebb and flow of their relationship. “The original Rhinoceros had a cacophony of people, and I felt that it was something that prevented it from achieving a kind of elegance,” says Edward. “I didn’t intentionally write them as both female characters – that was determined more by the casting. They were written to be Singaporean, to give specificity and ground them in something real. Audience members will first discover the workings of these two friends, mostly just vibing and enjoying their radio show. But as time goes by, people realise something else is happening to the two friends, and the remainder of the play is about how they deal with it, and whether their friendship survives a changing world.”
“It’s also interesting how both Shannen and Cheryl weren’t that close before production, more of industry peers who would say hi if they saw each other. So it was important that we took time to build their friendship in real life, and establish what levels their friendship were at,” says Adeeb. “In terms of casting, it was important to find actors who could handle some degree of comedy, and actors who were open to play and experimentation. We drew a lot of their performance from the actors’ own observations of the world, their own experiences, and it was altogether quite easy to unlock memories of the pandemic to bring to life this story of two Singaporean friends in a room during a crisis.”
What’s also exciting is how following their Singapore run, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? will then be touring to the Edinburgh Festival from 15th to 27th August. “We wanted to develop ties with the UK theatre ecosystem, and it made sense because it’s a small, fun show that travels easily,” says Edward. “I think it’s important as part of both personal and professional development, not just in terms of opportunities to tour, but even writing programmes, or opportunities to collaborate in future. Taking it overseas also offers us valuable feedback outside of the small ecosystem that is Singapore, so I’m glad we took the chance and got this opportunity.”
“Why do we feel terrible even when we’re living in the best time in history? We live in a society that delivers on creature comforts, economic stability, and the general sense of ease. Yet it’s also a society some people find uncomfortable, because there seems to be this loss of control,” says Edward. “We’re all very aware of the amount of safety and security we have, and this play within a play being set in the 80s, there is an inherent sense of optimism and agency, and you wonder how long that lasts for.”
“This is, in its simplest terms, a play about what do you sacrifice for the success that you think you want. The characters are kind of seeing success and peace and all that in two different lenses, almost through cultural difference,” says Adeeb. “At the end of the day, do you want to be a happy person but with less financial power, or do the thing everyone has said and get a degree work in office for the rest of your life? This resonates with me a lot, and brings to mind a lot of what i do with my time or career in my adult life, versus what is expected of me. That was my entry point into the play, and helped me consider these characters with real histories and real aspirations and real desires, and that struggle between a stable livelihood and trying to make meaning of your existence.”
As Gangguan!’s second play, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? already feels like a huge step forward for the collective, and stretches its team in new, ambitious ways. “I’m excited to be working with Gangguan! after watching The Change. Edward’s plays are refreshing, with this breezy naturalism to them,” says Adeeb. “Even during the rehearsal period, discussing and unpacking the vibe of the play, hearing Edward talk about it helps us understand the dramatic arc, and how he himself hears the characters speak. It’s interesting to be part of that journey, and it takes a lot of courage, because I never imagined I’d be given a chance to bring a work overseas anytime soon.”
“What Gangguan! aims for is to work with more people, whether it’s a sound designer or director, and our process unlocks a new kind of space and possibility for production,” says Edward. “I take inspiration from the International Institute of Political Murder, and think a lot about how we want to differentiate ourselves from traditional repertory theatre, and how we need to develop a manifesto or rules for a different kind of theatre. We’re indeed going for that breezy naturalism, and stretching the definition of theatre beyond being a slick, polished art form, and to use it as a medium to help audiences see beyond what is plausible.”
Photo Credit: Gangguan!
Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? plays from 4th to 7th May 2023 at Centre 42. Tickets available from Eventbrite
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