A House Without Walls

High drama within the “walls” of Chee Wai's stylised Peranakan mansion

Wong Chee Wai started out in the theatre industry as a graphic designer. Now, he has made a name for himself with his beautifully-designed sets. Earlier this month, he won a Life! Theatre Award for Best Set Design for his work on Nine Years Theatre’s Twelve Angry Men. He takes us into The House Of Bernarda Alba, a Peranakan mansion without walls.

How did you come up with the concept for the set?

After Cook A Pot Of Curry last year, Glen Goei talked to me about The House Of Bernarda Alba. We bounced ideas off each other for a little bit. We looked at other productions of the play, and found that most stagings of this script always have walls closing in the characters.

Both Glen and I knew we wanted to try and get away from that. So we talked about opening up the space: to create a set that was more stylised and didn’t necessarily feel like a set. Eventually, we found the language of invisible walls much more powerful than actual physical walls. Because, in a way, the walls are in their minds.

To achieve the effect you wanted, what elements did you focus on in designing the set?

We did wonder whether it would look oppressive enough without walls. I proposed to Glen that we could achieve the oppressiveness and trapped-in-ness by emphasising the huge doors. The moment they’re shut, you’re shut inside the house.

Our idea was also to suggest that, even if you get out of the house, you’ll still trapped within the larger environment – the village, as we call it, or the community. Even if you step out of your own house, there’s no escaping anything.

What was your philosophy in designing the set?

We decided that we wanted a stylised feel without losing the suggestion of the Peranakan mansion. We didn’t want to go the whole nine yards of building everything in an ornate way, because it doesn’t work. The story is more about the humans than the house; the house is just a symbol of entrapment. So we tried to strip everything down as much as possible. The chairs, too, have the sense of those old Peranakan chairs with the rattan backing. But we kept the lines as clean as we can.

Did you work closely with lighting designer Lim Yu-beng to create that atmosphere?

Yes! The original lighting designer was supposed to be James Tan, who couldn’t do the project at the last minute. Yu-beng stepped in, and we worked on what James and I had discussed. We wanted the motif of the window to be repeated around the house. Even if there’s no physical window there, we wanted to create them through lights or shadows – such that we always see these human shadows behind bars. The windows are supposed to look pretty, of course, but things looking pretty doesn’t mean you’re happy or that you’re not trapped.

Chee Wai’s arresting set for last year’s Cook A Pot Of Curry

How did you get into the set design line?

I’m not trained in set design! In the earlier days, I volunteered with Drama Box, and designed their publicity materials. Kok Heng Leun, their Artistic Director, suggested that I try something less boring. It’s not an easy transition – the first few times, when you imagine something and draw it on paper, you realise that it can be completely different when you build it and add lights and so on. But, that being said, it’s actually not that big a change. The same design philosophy and principles apply to both graphic and set design.

I learn in every production, and I’m always grateful to my contractors. For all these years, they’ve taught me little tricks and told me what is workable and what is not. We still try to push those boundaries, of course, with safety as the main concern!

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