Interview: Loretta Chen

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By: Valerie Oliveiro

We check in with director Loretta Chen about Zebra Crossing’s upcoming production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler saw. “I am happy if the audience even walks away questioning! But to be precise, I hope they will begin to question ideas of authority, morality and sanity in that order (if that ever can be dictated!) but also walk away appreciating family and life as we know it,” says Loretta.


How did you come across Orton’s play?

I was first acquainted with Joe Orton when I was reading my ‘S’ paper in Literature at ‘A’ levels. The rest of the class picked safer bets like the late Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard whilst I immediately gravitated towards the wicked, dark and cheeky style of writing that has since become known as the Ortonesque.

What did you like about it and why did you choose it for the Singaporean audience?

Orton’s sense of precision in comic timing, humour and intrinsic pulse for artistic anarchy and revolution is infectious, even inspiring. In the tumultuous times we are living now, it is not unwise to say we are living in a revolution, an anarchy, a financial turmoil writ large. The world watches helplessly as the Lehman Brothers fall; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapse and oil prices plummet to all-time lows, but one suspects Orton had predicted all of this and has a witty line to account for all the insanity.

He did warn us in What the Butler Saw that one “can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational”. It is precisely Orton’s way of laughing in spite of himself that makes him an antidote for this Great Depression. After all, there is some truth to the old cliché, “laughter is the best medicine”.

Loretta shares more about Orton as a writer:

Orton is primarily an anarchist, a satirist. He is keenly aware of the power of words. Throughout his life, Orton has always flirted and challenged authority, pushing the boundaries of acceptance and acceptability- this is something he premised in Butler. The characters put on their bourgeois best only to be torn to shreds by Orton’s cheeky manipulation. He also makes clear that not all in power are discerning so always be discerning of all in power.

Orton also challenges the boundaries of morality and what is to be accepted. In fact, in Orton’s initial script, there are far more comprising acts of indecency! I have deftly and delicately changed the nuances to reflect more PG sensibilities! However, far from being a pervert, what Orton was really doing was pushing the extremities of moral decency, to take it so far beyond what is acceptable so as to make a statement.

I however had to make an executive and directorial decision to downplay the playwright’s intent as I did not want Singaporeans to walk away simply thinking he was a pervert and allow his cheekiness to get in the way of what is brilliant writing.

Orton also spent a lot of time meditating on notions of sanity and insanity and came up with the conclusion that those who were usually deemed insane were those that were largely most in touch with their inner emotions and demons and were ironically freed from the trappings of civility and “sanity”. I would argue that he would place artists in the category of insane-hence-sane too.

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How have the rehearsals been so far?

Sheer joy. I am blessed to be working with a fabulous team – cast, creative, crew. I may not have the typical 5Cs that Singaporeans hanker after but I definitely have the 3Cs!

The cast… is amazing- Gerald is a very nuanced actor and gets the stiff upper lip British humor pat. Vernetta is the original Funny Lady- she is so confident as a person and is not afraid to look silly or “unglam”. Her comic timing is precise and that woman has a knack with improvisations and is able to get a lines down with the drop of a hat! Shane is THE most under-rated actor- are you listening Singapore? He comes to rehearsals prepared, all his lines down and is so directable. He makes every moment on stage count. Bliss! Elizabeth is also top on my list – we work very well together and even though she is relatively new on the scene. She is definitely a face to look out for as she is articulate, confident and oh-so funny! Timothy is a very charming and intuitive actor. In What the Butler saw, he sheds all his inhibitions and his crisp English to play a lisping (and even limping) Ah Beng policeman! And Vadi Vadi, what can I say, he is damn funny! Juggling a meaty leading man role and lecturing in RJC no less in no mean feat! But he is such a warm gentleman and brings joy to everyone whenever he is around. And my creative team and a whole host of wonderful people. So what more can I say? It has been FABULOUS!

What are some of the challenges you have faced while preparing for the production?

SCHEDULE – it is the number one problem. All my actors are so busy with a 1000 projects as they are highly sought after so getting the schedule down is a daily chore and headache for the Stage Manager. But they are worth every bit of the headache.

You’ve included local references in the play. Whaty are some of the parts you’ve changed?

There is a subplot involving Sir Winston Churchill. I changed that to our most famous ang moh in tights – Sir Stamford Raffles. Once that was changed, the rest of the metaphors, icons, references fell into place. References to key incidents in British history were changed to reflect our Singaporean sensibilities – the racial riots of 1969, the placement of the Raffles statue in 1972 (you need to watch to see how I wove this subplot/reference in), references to flora were changed to the Vanda Miss Joaquim. Places and things mentioned in a Brit context were Singaporeanised – NTUC, racial diversity and harmony and our dear Minister Mentor – but all in good tastes and very tongue in cheek – not the typical angry Government-bashing rhetoric – but rather celebrating our nation’s progress whilst being able to laugh at ourselves, which is key in such tumultuous times. Watch it to know.

** Look out for ArtZine’s interviews with the cast of What the Butler Saw. [COMING SOON]

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What the Butler Saw by Zebra Crossing Productions
Starring:
Gerald Chew, Vernetta Lopez, Elizabeth Tan, Shane Mardjuki, Timothy Nga and Vadi PVSS.
Performance Dates :
7 to 22 February 2009
No performance on Monday and Sunday evening
Performance Times :
8:00pm – Tuesday to Saturday
3:00pm – Saturday and Sunday only
Venue :
Drama Centre Theatre @ Level 3, National Library Building
Ticket Prices :
:00pm Performance on Saturday and Sunday – $34, $44, $54, $60
8:00pm Performance from Tuesday to Saturday – $39, $49, $59, $65

Tickets from SISTIC.

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