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Just as with the questions Dr. Chee faces in the play, do you stand up for what's right when the cost is so large? Is there a limit to how much cost you will bear? Will the limit be jail time, or harm to your family?

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Public Enemy,’ Wild Rice’s Adaptation of Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’

Wild Rice’s Public Enemy is running at the Victoria Theatre from April 9th to 25th 2015.

Photo credit: W!LD RICE, by Albert Lim KS
Photo credit: W!LD RICE, by Albert Lim KS

This Glen Goei-directed play is a localized version of David Harrower’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ever-endearing and timeless 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. It tells the story of Dr. Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng) who discovers there’s bacteria flooding the water supply that feeds the famous spas for which (in this version) Singapore is known.

Risking a dramatic drop in tourism to the island, as well as billions of dollars to clean up the water supply, Chee soon finds himself fighting to report the truth publicly and do what’s right, against his politician brother Peter Chee (Lim Kay Siu), a journalist (Ghafir Akbar) and a publisher (Gerald Chew), and even his family, including his wife (Serene Chen), who all have pragmatic reasons to keep his discovery a secret.

Heng throws himself fully into the role, and whilst his gestures and tics as the tame, mannered Chee are at times overdone and distracting, and without enough variety of emotional expressions, Heng manages to capture the essence of a man who’s determined to stand for what’s right – at all costs.

Lim, who plays Chee’s brother, could have done so with more edge and more angst. It felt as if he were holding back. On the other hand, Kee Thuan Chye, who plays Mrs Chee’s stepfather, was too loud, yelling out his dialogue unnaturally, and should have given a more contained performance.

The acting aside, the set is as beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Wild Rice’s productions. With glass panels and doors, and minimalist furnishings by set designer Wong Chee Wai, the set transforms easily to show the different locations of the story.

The costumes are in palates of grey, black and white courtesy of costumer Lai Chan, and are symbolic of Ibsen’s play, which is meant to make you think and doesn’t present any real answers.

Therein lies the power of Public Enemy: beyond the acting, sets, costumes, and yes even the stage, Ibsen’s play challenges the audience to think, and maybe, for some, to even change. This is a play whose reach extends beyond your leaving the theatre.

Both this version and the original Enemy of the People are about the theme of democracy and battling the majority, but in today’s world, this easily translates into a study about popular opinion and human behaviour.

In today’s Singapore, this play cannot be more timely or more apt. Only recently, Singaporeans were divided over the right way and time to mourn over the controversial late Lee Kuan Yew. And at this very moment, arguments erupt online every day over the infamous 16-year-old Amos Yee and whether a child can really be a threat to people and a nation, or are the heinous and absolutely sickening violent threats against this child Yee worse?

Just as with this provocative play, there are different popular opinions. And you have to ask yourself, where does your opinion lie? Are you siding with what’s right, or with what’s easy? Are you merely going with popular thought because you’re afraid to appear less likable?

And just as with the questions Dr. Chee faces in the play, do you stand up for what’s right when the cost is so large? Is there a limit to how much cost you will bear? Will the limit be jail time, or harm to your family?

All of us should know ourselves well enough to answer these questions for ourselves – and be able to look at ourselves in the mirror afterwards.

In the end, a good play makes you think, but a great play changes you. Dr. Chee comes to a realisation in the end. The audience is left to ponder: are you prepared to stand for what’s right even if that means you’re left standing alone?

Therefore above all else, kudos to Wild Rice for staging such a powerful play that hopefully, as we approach Singapore’s 50th birthday, will make more people think.

And maybe even change.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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