[The Singapore Trilogy] Secret chats between Dramaturg and Director

The year is 2019. It’s a late Monday night in the month of July. Somewhere in China, a bat flies. Here in Singapore, 2BCo’s dramaturg, Dominic Nah and director, Adeeb Fazah get on their xxth phone call to talk about The Singapore Trilogy, unbeknownst to the fact that things would change drastically in the coming months. In this conversation, The Singapore Trilogy is set to be staged in early 2020. *Dangit bat*

*The following is a real and uncensored conversation that took place over a Whatsapp call on 29 July 2019, 2200 – 0025 and provides a small peek into the process and considerations that took place in adapting The Singapore Trilogy.

Dom: Where does Trilogy fit in, given the present timing of 2BCo?

Adeeb: So i feel the Trilogy will be something like The Moon Is Less Bright but on the larger scale. Moon was an important work for its time because it basically brought forth one of our modus operandi, to explore a work that our generation of makers and audiences wouldn’t have encountered yet because people don’t really stage them. For me, that’s really important. For Trilogy, there is a valuable opportunity for us to do that again, to really shine a light on one part of our theatre history – what were playwrights of a younger Singapore thinking about? We are also working on a new staging that is cognizant of its time in history – how will our 2020 audiences respond to this? What about this writing lends itself relevant to the here and now? I feel like Robert Yeo as one of the pioneer writers in English Literature, it is a good time, to take stock and say hi, find out more about him and get to know our literary heritage. 

Dom: What is your sense now of the philosophy of adaptation you want to take with Trilogy?

Adeeb: I think a very big part of the end product, the final performance that we create, has to do with really dissecting the three works and finding out what Robert meant, when he wrote these characters and storylines, and the dialogue. But then also, once we have explored that, we can acknowledge that is what he meant, take the gist of that, and sort of reimagine it. I really feel like there is no- I don’t feel I need to stick very closely to it anymore. Why? Because I feel like because it is definitely an adaptation, I am not the original writer of the play. But I also don’t want to run so far away that it becomes a completely different piece.

Dom: There is a slight contradiction in what you just expressed. On the one hand, you are keen on discovering what you imagine to be the writer’s intention in its original, but at the same time, you are also opening up to the idea of radical interpretation from your point of view. 

Adeeb: I think radical interpretation, I guess in terms of staging convention. I think a lot of the storyline will probably remain the same. It is just a matter of how I guess we are presenting what Robert is trying to say – in terms of do all the scenes need to be performed before the audience? In what sequence? Do we need to keep to the same sequence? I do feel at times that there are better ways to draw focus to what is important and what is not. Also, to sort of package it for the current audience, who isn’t just here to sit down and listen to the words in the play, but rather they are waiting for them to discover, for them to be entertained, to be surprised, to be subverted. I think that’s the audience that we are dealing with. 

Dom: I do think you’re onto something with the sense of the contemporary 2019-2020 theatre-going audience, especially an English theatre-going audience. Going back to the point about the writer’s intention, what would you want to ask Robert in relation to that? Considering how it’s been at least 20 years since he wrote the last play in this trilogy?

Adeeb: I think what’s really important for me to find out from Robert is – what was the motivation to write the three plays? To write another one, and then another one. Secondly, what was the most important thing for all three plays? What was the most important thing that he was thinking about, that carried through the three plays?  I guess I am thinking about whether or not he wrote with the intention to entertain, to provoke? Whether he wanted to surprise, or criticise? I think those would be interesting to hear from him. Then the whole sense of him about him trolling. We can get a sense of whether the words he writes on the script can be taken on surface level, or there were layers that you have to look through in order to understand where he was coming from, the effects that he was going after.

Two years later. Photo taken 1 Feb 2021. Photo Credit: Denise Dolendo

Dom: I am interested in what his relationship with the plays are like now in 2019/20. Has anything changed for him? Does he have any regrets? Does he have any unfulfilled wishes for the plays? If so, how can we negotiate with him such that we honour his ownership of the plays, also bearing in mind how a playwright can never fully own the play either, because it is always not his when it is not staged. Not exactly in a favour sort of way for Robert, but I am thinking about the fact that he is entering his twilight years soon, and that this could be his last vision of seeing this entire Trilogy put together, because no one has actually done that. 

To what extent do you think the title of the final production should be The Singapore Trilogy, given the way it is published as a text?

Adeeb: So right now I am 80% sure that the title should remain The Singapore Trilogy, the other 20% is that The Singapore Trilogy should be the subtitle. I’m not going to close that door yet.

Dom: What is your sense of Robert’s hope for the production?

Adeeb: I think he felt there was an opportunity this year, that a 2019 of the play, the Trilogy would be sort of a timely look back at his body of work which involved this sort of discussion about nationhood and politics in Singapore. I think he was very interested in that. 

Jokes on us, it’s mid 2020 and The Singapore Trilogy has been postponed yet again. #tb to Circuit Breaker days.

Dom: Quick segue to present-day politics. Tan Cheng Bock and Lee Hsien Yang and Progress Singapore Party. I feel like a lot of the Trilogy’s currency will have to center around this new development. What is interesting though, is that Reginald is not like Tan Cheng Bock at all. Neither is Lee Hsien Yang. Do we need to map it onto the political landscape?

Adeeb: In terms of the developments, we must be keen on related things to happen. I think the idea of political dissent, that Fernandez is sort of this person is going up against the PAP basically, and what the PAP does in light of someone opposing them on such a public scale. Someone with I guess with dubious activity and dubious ties and what they do to sort of quash that. 

Dom: I think that not bending Robert’s work too much to the current landscape will work in our favour, because it leaves us open to very serendipitous developments, which can go back to prove your overall thrust about how theatre history can still be relevant in the present. It also allows us to escape censorship because this work is already published. So the signifiers are rooted in the past writing of Robert, but the signified is brought into the performance text by the audience who is live and living in the present political landscape. That would also have been apparent in Robert’s time of production as well for each of the plays in terms of what the audiences brought to the performance space. So in terms of adaptation, we are looking at creative reorganisation rather than a clear rewriting attempt. 

What have we covered? What else do we need to cover before we call for a cast and production team? 

Adeeb: In terms of what we covered, it is the list of things that we have done so far. Dividing the scenes into sub-scenes, looking at the main events in those parts, looking at possible ways of rearranging the scenes in terms of all 3 plays, going into the text and discovering the character’s importance, in terms of who are the lead characters and what are these characters about? Finding out what is missing from the characters in our eyes? For example, what is this whole backstory of Reginald that led him to become this person? I think we still have questions about Why is he like that? I mean I think we sort of have questions for someone like Chye, even for Hua. These are questions in terms of characters and relationships. 

Dom: We need to have a good sense of this, because the cast will be looking to you (Adeeb) for direction, for your take on this. 

Adeeb: Right now, I feel like there is still a very general lack of the most crucial thing for me is What is my overall reason for the restage? I think there are many reasons in terms of revisiting from the company’s point of view. What is the most important thing I want to say, I want to do, I want to honour, and sort of will dictate what my overall concept is? I think whatever we have done, will help to build towards that. I don’t think we have arrived at that.

Dom: I think the “Why” should come from you, Adeeb. I am here to tease it out of you, double-check and triple-check with you, and then to help ensure that this is confirm the reason that drives it, and then to help communicate and articulate it creatively and socially etc. 

Adeeb: I don’t think it’s a feeling. There have been entry points that have opened up. It is a matter of looking at the play from all different angles. But then deciding on my own entry point. So for now, I think i am interested – generally speaking – the kinds of stories I am thinking about are stories of people versus a big group like either an institution or an authority or a corporation. So this sort of David versus Goliath sort of thing, but also in terms of power play, how people will manipulate the rules or manipulate rules in order to gain power over other groups of people. I think I am interested in those things. I feel a sense of – I feel that these are the two things that will be intertwined or that one of them will come together in the process of finding my entry point for Singapore Trilogy.

Dom: This is new to me. 

Adeeb: Same, because I think it is a recent sort of observation for myself, in terms of the stories that I am gravitating to, the things i am sort of thinking about. Sort of a consolidation of what in a story I am drawn to. 

Dom: It sounds to me that you are increasingly politicised. Whatever that means. 

Adeeb: I think so in many ways. Why ah?

Dom: I think it’s because you are slowly being sure of yourself and your points of view. Being able to speak your point of view. There is a creeping sense of increasing politics over time. Would this work mark your political voice creatively?

Adeeb: I think it will, I have to make decisions on how the power dynamics play out on stage, how I present the different characters to each other, in that way it will. I think maybe it’s more of a clear indicator on my sense of assuredness that I am not scared about presenting power dynamics and politics on the stage.

Dom: I think this production can be about exploring how political you are as a director, because you have to make decisions and the staging decisions are what the production cannot do without. It is the core of the show, and through the practice and deliberation behind these artistic/political choices, you essentially will be discovering just how political you want to be as a director. So this is my guess at how the work can serve the development of your practice in a more intrinsic manner rather than extrinsic, looking-outward and showing/proving to people sort of way. That also allows you something personally specific of your own so that you can counterbalance against the need to revere theatre history because we are not sure what our criteria is for making decisions. 

Dom: If we were to summarise what we want to ask Robert, some things we want to find out will include:

  1. Questions about the 3 main characters: backstory (e.g. Reg and how he got so political), characters as distinct manifestations of ideologies, did he start from a different place and he became that? (For Reginald yes – the sense I get is that they are mouthpieces when Robert wants them to be, especially for Chye, because Chye feels like he is suddenly political in the second/third one, but the first one is like oh I am not very active.)    
  2. What is Robert’s take on us observing plot holes, especially since we are going to connect and reorganise the plays together? We are missing information about certain characters – certain story arcs are dropped significantly, others begin very abruptly. 
  3. What was the most important thing/s he was thinking about, that carried through the process of writing the 3 plays over the course of 3 decades? That was also what he felt would be what made the 3 plays. If he was taken in by a poetic/stage image for example, or by a question, or by a premise/theme? 
  4. His experiences with arts censorship and his changing opinions regarding political plays over time?
  5. His thoughts on reception to this work of his over the years? Dom needs to prepare some critical reading beforehand. 
  6. Question about how he worked with previous directors/cast/production teams in the staging of his plays – how involved would he like to be as part of this process? What is his position as a playwright to this production? What does this particular production of the Trilogy mean to him now in 2019/20, both personally and politically?
  7. Does he have any particular secret hopes for this production? Or regrets from past stagings?
  8. Were you a troll, Robert? Are you a troll, Robert that wrote the trilogy? 
  9. What does Robert think about the latest political developments in Singapore – how does he see the Trilogy relating to the current climate?
Robert’s Angels. Photo Credit: Denise Dolendo

Adeeb: When I think of Robert as a possible troll, I think that he is writing ironically. 

Dom: That he is for neither of them: Chye or Reg. 

Adeeb: I don’t think based on the way he writes the characters that he is for either.

Dom: Trilogy can be a place where you begin to crystallize your political style in directing. Any thoughts from the Nelson Chia workshop relevant to here?

Adeeb: Most pertinent takeaway for me was being able to articulate what the scene is about. We actually spent the first half just looking at two scripts, trying them out. Two people act, two people direct. What is the most important thing in this scene that we read, and how can we bring that out on stage? I think we were just discussing about where / when a director uses a lot of style and aesthetic, it can create certain effects but if they don’t answer the question of “what this scene is about” then it is all decoration, and it might not even be related. For example, an exchange of dialogue between two people can be staged as satire, or very dramatic, very tense, dark, dramatic, so it is about finding out what exactly is this scene about in the grand scheme of the whole play, and what is important about the whole scene? Just teasing out from there, putting your spin on it. I asked him the question of how much he prepares in terms of character work and how much he expects of the actor to already come prepared. He hesitated answering the question because for him he does very little preparation, because he is very experienced. It will come to him easily, but also his actors are very experienced. His advice is always – if the actor reads the play once, the director should have read the play ten times. 

Dom: Dramaturg also lah.

Adeeb: He left us with a quote at the end – “You direct one play now, but what are you working on next?” because I guess for him, in his experience – in order to know what is happening as a director, you have to try directing at least 10 plays

Dom: Which ones will you count?

Adeeb: Be fair and include everything from VJC SYF (x2), reconstruction of YTITWC, the 3 plays I directed in NTU, Family, Double Bill, Moon, Lemons Lemons Lemons, DWTB, Ox, Malay Sketches, Heather.

Dom: So about 10-20 then. 

The Singapore Trilogy is finally happening this coming March. Limited tickets are now available at thesingaporetrilogy.eventbrite.sg . Book yours today!

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