Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the world’s most popular comedies, boasting some of the funniest lines of the English language. In April, Wild Rice brings this enticing comedy to life on stage with Glen Goei directing an all-male ensemble of actors.
Here, Goei and Wild Rice’s Founding Artistic Director and actor Ivan Heng answer some questions about the play, their lives, the subject of love and the relationship of the government and the arts.
A major theme of The Importance of Being Earnest is its satire on marriage and other institutions, and on the moralities of the Victorian era, which is when the play is set. As a director taking this play into this century, is this satire still relevant to audiences today?
The play is about the superficialities and hypocrisy of the middle classes, which is as relevant in 21st century Singapore as it was in 19th century Britain. Parents in Singapore are still as prejudiced and discriminatory about the race, religion and class of the person their child is marrying. We all still wear masks to hide our true identities and to present to society what we think they deem as acceptable.
Furthermore, this production is also a tribute to Oscar Wilde, who went to prison because of what he stood for and what he believed in. Here in Singapore, because of an archaic law we inherited from the Victorians known as 377A, homosexuals are still denied the right to live with dignity and to love whomever they choose.
Are you yourself in a committed romantic partnership right now? What are your thoughts about marriage in this day and age? Is it necessary? Is it trivial or a serious matter today?
A “committed romantic partnership”??? Heaven forbid! That would be SO BORING! Why just stick to one person when you can have many more? Does this answer your second question about marriage too? Marriage is a hetero-construct of men to keep their wives in order so they can continue fooling around.
How did you choose the cast for this play?
Oscar Wilde’s language is not easy to handle. That was my first prerequisite in casting. I still had to cast in Kuala Lumpur for the role of Cecily, played by Gavin Yap.
The basic premise of the play is based on lies and deception. Have you ever engaged in any form of deception yourself?
Oh! All the time! I constantly live in a make-believe world to survive the harsh reality of living in Singapore!
By the end of the play, of course truth and honesty prevail. How much of a premium do you place on honesty and truth in your life and in your relationships?
None at all. Why should one be truthful when it is so much more fun not being so? The truth is always so boring. Playing different characters makes the world your stage. And isn’t the theatre a great place to escape to?
You rose to fame after appearing opposite Anthony Hopkins on stage in M. Butterfly. What was that experience like? And have you stayed in touch with Mr. Hopkins?
The experience was unforgettable and never to be repeated in one’s lifetime. The opportunity was bestowed upon me and I am grateful. Hopkins was a kind and gentle man and he taught me humility and generosity, on stage and off.
Why did you eventually leave the UK, after establishing Mu-Lan Arts there?
I was having a midlife crisis, having lived the first 20 years of my life in Singapore and the second 20 years in the UK. So I felt half Singaporean and half British. So I decided to take a year off and spend the eve of the millennium in Asia to reconnect with my roots.
Returning to Singapore to work in the theatre, I felt that what I had to say as an artist had much more relevance and urgency than had I remained in London; so I ended up staying.
Did you ever try making it in Hollywood?
I had a three-picture/five-year contract with Miramax Pictures who had bought the rights to my first film Forever Fever. As it was a writing job, I could do it from wherever I chose to live. So I didn’t have to base myself in Hollywood. I wrote and developed a couple of scripts for them but they were never produced. I left them at the end of my contract to pursue my own independent filmmaking.
You’ve also directed two films, Forever Fever and The Blue Mansion. How different is it directing a movie from theatre?
The only difference to me is [that] in the theatre, you work very intensely with the actors in rehearsal so you have the ‘luxury’ of working through things.
In film, you don’t have that luxury, so as the director, you have to know exactly what you want out of your actors before you start shooting. In that sense, it is far more stressful making films than theatre directing. Time and money is always on your back.
Forever Fever was picked up by Miramax, leading you to ink a three-movie deal with them. Why were those three films not made?
I don’t know exactly why except that I was one of hundreds of other writer/directors they are constantly in development with so I guess my scripts just didn’t make the cut!
Your next film was 11 years later in 2009 with The Blue Mansion. Why did it take such a long time for you to make your second film?
Making films is a labour of love. Particularly in Singapore where it is difficult to find writers, producers and especially financiers.
More importantly, because it is a labour of love, the film has to say something important which is intensely personal. It took me 10 years, returning to a ‘new’ Singapore I had not grown up with, to observe and distill the thoughts and feelings of the people around me before I came up with The Blue Mansion.
You sold your property to make The Blue Mansion. Did you make back what you put in? If not, then do you have regrets in personally funding this film?
No regrets whatsoever. What is money if you cannot use it to buy your paints and canvasses?
When and what’s your next film going to be?
My next film is called Yellow Flowers (named after a song my old friend, Pam Oei, wrote). It’s about a middle-aged single mother who sacrifices her life for her son.
You’ve acted and directed (and even written and produced). Of all your vocations, which has been the easiest, and which is the most favoured?
None of it is easy but all of it is FUN! Writing is particularly difficult for someone who has AADHD (adult attention deficiency hyperactive disorder) and producing is impossible for an artist who has no understanding of sticking to a budget. Acting is a lot of baring of one’s soul in front of an audience and I’m far too self-conscious for that. So that’s why directing is probably my favoured vocation.
What’s in store for you personally and professionally in the foreseeable future?
My next production is a new one which audiences will get to see sometime in July. Keep a lookout for that! I will also be co-directing our year-end pantomime, Jack and The Bean Sprout, with Ivan Heng.
Lastly – what do you hope audiences will take away from this year’s The Importance of Being Earnest?
The courage to be who you truly are!
Why did Wild Rice decide to stage The Importance of Being Ernest after having staged it pretty recently in 2009?
We want this critically acclaimed award-winning work to be enjoyed by a bigger audience. Four years is a long time, since we are always reaching out and building new audiences.
Audiences are great teachers and we learnt a great deal from the first run. In the case of a comedy like Earnest, the company will be honing different aspects such as pace, timing, delivery, texture and tone. Personally, a little older and wiser, I’ve also discovered many aspects of Wilde’s text which I did not understand or see the first time round. So, these ‘restagings’ are extended runs, and the public will be watching this show at its best.
Last but not least, for those who have seen the show, it is an opportunity to enjoy their favourite moments again, to discover new meanings and appreciate subtleties, and to glory in Oscar Wilde’s words and witticisms.
How different is this year’s production from the 2009 version?
Lim Kay Siu, one of Singapore finest actors, will be playing the role of Reverend Chasuble. Audiences will be able to discover a young, exciting string quartet called The Ensemble Dimension players. This quartet has been mentored by the T’ang Quartet, as part of a mentoring programme of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, and they will be making their debut.
I see you’ve also doubled up as set designer for this play. What can we expect to see in terms of sets and props?
In Earnest, I eschewed a literal interpretation for a more metaphorical space. In effect, this enables the performers and audience to connect in their shared experience of time and place, both real and imaginary. The objects you will see are those essential to the story, and they are carefully chosen for their beauty, style and meaning.
I chose a black and white palette to reflect the black and white nature of Victorian society – where everything had to be proper and correct. In my research regarding visual artists of the time, I was very drawn to the works of Aubrey Beardsley, who like Oscar Wilde was a leading figure of the Aesthetic movement. Beardsley had an obsession with masked figures and harlequins, and this seemed perfectly suited for a play about the ‘shallow mask of manners’. As beautiful as they are grotesque and sinister, they hint at secrets and the soft underbelly of society at which Wilde was pricking. If you look carefully, you will see that one of these clowns has removed his mask.
Motifs like the rose garden seemed apt for a play about love and marriage, and a hall of mirrors pad was used to dramatic effect, as a tribute to Wilde’s creed of individualism and tolerance
You’re playing Lady Bracknell, who’s the epitome of Victorian rigidity. Is it difficult to get yourself into such a role?
You’re right about Victorian starchiness – Lady Bracknell speaks with a huge ‘kantang’ (potato) in her mouth, and wears a very tight imaginary corset. Playing her as a man in a suit is very provocative, and very politically charged.
What do you think personally about the Victorian morality and way of life during that time?
Oscar Wilde wrote Earnest as a social satire and comedy of manners. As a play, it’s peopled with desperately trivial characters, manipulating and coping with a stifling, hollow system of rules to maintain their class distinction and privileges.
Both John Worthing and his best friend Algernon have to invent alter egos to escape this hell and pursue their dreams of love and romance.
Through parody, irony and verbal paradox, Wilde reveals the hypocrisy and prejudice that prevailed in a society obsessed with appearance and propriety – one that was divided by class, money, gender and generation. Arguably, he was holding up a mirror to a society not very different from ours today.
This play examines marriage and relationships. Are you in a committed romantic partnership with anyone? Do you think marriage deserves a trivial or a serious place in today’s world?
Oscar Wilde famously said, ‘One should always be in love; that is the reason one should never marry’. I have been in a committed relationship with Tony, my partner in life and work, for more than 16 years. We’re ‘romantic’ in that we still have date nights, go for dinner and watch dance and theatre together, and there’re always chocolates, flowers and champagne on special occasions. Life is short. All human beings need to love and be loved, and we should all be so lucky to find a special someone.
At one point, you settled in the UK. How was it performing in the UK compared to Singapore? Why did you leave the UK eventually and re-settle in Singapore?
After graduating from Drama School, I lived and worked in London for five years. It was wonderful to be working in a very competitive and professional environment. But when the excitement wore off, like many Asian actors, I found the roles to be largely stereotypical and demeaning. So I started writing my own stuff and the work toured widely through Europe.
I came home because I felt I could really make a difference and contribute to a nascent arts scene. I derive great satisfaction making theatre in Singapore, a place I care deeply about and which I now consider home. Theatre has always pushed the boundaries in terms of what’s possible socially, culturally and politically. It’s been wonderful to feel society mature and open up, and to be a part of the change.
You also had a bit of a stint in Hollywood in the movie Fifth Element. What was the Hollywood experience like?
Gosh, that was so long ago. What can I say? I liked Luc Besson and Gary Oldman. It was good work. And I was very well paid for those few moments of screen time.
Why did you not move to Hollywood after that?
I was not convinced that there would be a career for me beyond playing stereotypes. I’m glad I didn’t.
There always seems to be a tussle between the arts and the government here in Singapore – be it about funding or censorship, etc. What are your thoughts about this? Has it gotten worse or better over the decades?
To give credit where it’s due, the government has made quite a significant contribution in helping the arts grow to what it is today. The scene here is diverse, burgeoning, exciting and maturing in confidence and sopshistication. We have theatre artists that rank up there with the best in the world in every aspect of the artform.
However, there’s much work to do as far as developing both the authorities and audiences’ level of engagement and appreciation of the role of art in society. Now that we have much of the infrastructure in place, we need to trust that the theatre provides a safe place for us to reflect on the challenging or risky issues of the day.
There is more censorship, more controls and restrictions at every level of the bureaucracy today. Besides the MDA and restrictions on funding, the fact that the Government controls every single performance space has serious implications for freedom of expression. This goes to the very core of creativity. In the long run, this will affect the diversity of Sinagpore, curtail originality of vision and thinking, and impact the quality of artistic work. Singaporeans are clamouring for greater transparency, openness, and a pluracy of views, and our arts policy should better reflect the aspirations and expectations of the people.
You’ve done it all – television, films, Hollywood, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Youth Olympic Games, theatre – tell me, what has been the best job of them all?
Theatre. Nothing quite beats the experience of being in a rehearsal room with actors, playwrights, directors, designers and crew, and breathing life into a script, and finally, performing the play before a live audience. The adrenaline rush is unbeatable. The essence of theatre is that a group of people comes together to enrich the experience of being human. I think that’s precious and worthwhile.
What is in the future for you, both personally and professionally?
We are in the process of putting together our season for 2013, and I shall be acting, directing, designing and being an Artistic Director. We’ll be staging Jack and the Bean-Sprout at the end of the year. I’m looking forward to playing Jack’s mother, Lucy – Singapore’s oldest (and sexiest) Tiger beer aunty.
Lastly – Why should audiences come to watch The Importance of Being Earnest?
When asked what one could expect from The Importance of Being Earnest, Mr. Oscar Wilde said, “It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy… that we treat all the trivial
things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
You’ll laugh out loud, you’ll improve your English, and you’ll see one of the very best productions of one of the world’s favourite comedies.