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Public Enemy

April 14, 2015

PublicEnemyWildRice1(Photo Credit: W!LD RICE, by Albert Lim KS)

Event: “Public Enemy” presented by W!ld Rice
Venue: Victoria Theatre
Run: 9th – 25th Apr 2015

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved

It is the start of probably one of the busiest theatre seasons Singapore has ever seen, what with the commencement of The Esplanade’s monumental “The Studios: fifty” project and a few other separate theatre productions all at around the same time.

One can be forgiven for starting to confuse one production with another, especially if you’ve (like me) been watching four productions the past four evenings.

There was Adrian Pang’s rendition of “The Weight of Silk on Skin” a few days back, which starred Ivan Heng in the original production in 2011, who is now taking on the main role of Dr Thomas Chee in an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play “An Enemy of the People”, now known as “Public Enemy” in an adaptation by David Harrower.

Incidentally, “An Enemy of the People” was also staged by Nine Years Theatre early last year, while “The Weight of Silk on Skin” was originally staged by W!ld Rice in collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre, who is currently staging the play “Normal” at the Drama Centre Black Box.

You see what I mean.

“Public Enemy” is a sleeker and tauter version of the original which tells of a doctor who discovers a deadly secret that the supply of water that is to go towards a brand new world-class resort spa his city is intending to build is in fact ridden with harmful bacteria.

He then faces the dilemma of whether to go public with the evidence and campaign for the resort spa plans to either be scrapped or at least temporarily halted for a couple of years, or to just keep mum “for the greater good”.

What appears to be staunch support from his circle of close friends ultimately leads to Dr Chee fighting a lone battle against the powers that be, including his own Minister brother Peter Chee (played by Lim Kay Siu), who happens to have a huge stake in the fruition and success of the resort spa.

Eventually, Dr Chee is branded a “public enemy” and faces banishment from his own country, having been stripped of his post as medical director, and with his family not being spared by the ruthless system either.

The set by Wong Chee Wai is both modern and industrial looking, with both sets and costumes all invariably being in shades of grey and black, giving the entire production a sleek yet cold feel, mirroring the detached, soulless efficiency of present day Singapore.

Never one to disappoint, Ivan Heng puts in a mesmerising performance as the slightly awkward, naive and ungainly Dr Chee with the greying centre-parted hair, and commands the audience’s attention the moment he comes on.

He toggles between moments of deep anguish and impassioned arguments brilliantly, fully portraying the immense sense of conflict he faces throughout the play.

It’s hard to imagine this is the same actor who played both Emily in “Emily of Emerald Hill” and John Au Yong in “The Weight of Silk on Skin”, because of the way he completely inhabits the character he plays.

And while Ivan’s majestic performance largely overshadows the efforts of the rest of the cast, other notable performances include Serene Chen, who plays his faithful wife Katherine who prefers to toe the line for the sake of the family’s well-being, and his daughter Patricia, played by a plucky Yap Yi Kai who, unlike her mother, is a chip off the old block and wants to stand up for what she believes is right, the way her father does.

It is undeniable that we are going through a period of heightened political and social sensitivity in recent weeks, especially in the light of the recent passing of our founding father, and thus it was inevitable that the references and nuances in the play were all the more resonant, especially so since it was adapted into a Singapore context.

I doubt it escaped anyone’s notice that the friends of Dr Chee’s somehow included one of each of the major race groups in Singapore, while the choice of the protagonist’s surname itself needs no further exposition as far as our recent political history is concerned.

Many of the poignant moments in the play, most notably in the scene where Dr Chee tries to engage with the audience in the lecture hall, rang loud and clear, especially when we witness how those armed with the truth can so easily be muzzled by the powers that be and have public opinion turned on them on a dime, and it is amazing how a play written more than a century ago can still be so utterly relevant in this day and age.

“Public Enemy” is a thoroughly well-executed and expertly-calibrated production by W!ld Rice, giving the classic 1882 Ibsen play a local treatment which, ironically or not, does not seem the slightest bit out of place in a present-day Singapore context.

It is blessed with an incredibly magnetic performance from Ivan Heng, and showcases W!ld Rice at its politically-charged best, challenging us to question our roles as citizens of a democratic nation, especially when faced with truths which run contrary to popular opinion held by the majority.

And in what is likely to be a politically-engaging SG50 year like this, it is probably just what the doctor ordered.

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