After years of staging well-known fairy tales, we were inspired to look East for our latest pantomime. Our resident playwright, Alfian Sa’at, chats with us about the challenges he encountered in putting a local twist on a Chinese literary classic.
What was your inspiration for Monkey Goes West?
The original Journey To The West story was written in China, obviously, and tells the story of Tang Sheng, a monk who journeys to India to collect some holy scriptures. What we do in Monkey Goes West, as we do with all our pantomimes, is bring it within a Singapore context. So the starting point for our story is a Singaporean boy, Ah Tang, who has some issues at home with his adoptive parents – his uncle and aunt – and his cousin. He runs away from home, only to find himself in a magical dreamscape in which he has to undertake his own Journey to the West.
Through this journey, he experiences self-discovery and enlightenment – which I think is one of the messages of Journey To The West itself. The various adventures, the discovery of different lands and overcoming obstacles in the novel, is really about the discovery of the self. That goes for our version of the story too. Our protagonist doesn’t experience enlightenment in theological terms, but he does reach a point of epiphany and gains new knowledge of himself and his relationships with other people.
How familiar were you with Journey before you embarked on this project?
I would say I was quite familiar with it even though I don’t come from a Chinese background. You can’t escape it lah. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, we’d switch on the television at home and there were always these TV dramas imported from Hong Kong and China. You couldn’t run away from it. It’s become part of Singapore’s cultural DNA, along with other epics like the Ramayana and the Malay Annals.
What research did you do in the process of writing Monkey Goes West?
I went back to the original English translation of the Ming-dynasty novel – the first one that made it to the West and made this epic known to non-Chinese speakers. I read it from cover to cover and tried to understand the spirit of the text. It was interesting to me how certain things have been sanitised along the way. It’s like the original Grimms’ fairy tales, which can get quite gory and violent sometimes!
Did you discover anything that surprised you in the process?
In a lot of TV adaptations, the Monkey character is hammy – he’s played comically and laughing all the time. But I discovered that Monkey is actually a darker and very unpredictable character. There were moments when Monkey really wanted to kill Tang Sheng: he was so pissed off because this task is such a major demotion for him; he had considered himself the Sage Equal To Heaven, and here he was having to serve a monk!
What were some of the challenges you faced in adapting the epic novel for the stage?
Previously, with the other fairy tales I’ve adapted, it was actually about expanding the material. I was creating new characters, like Nicki Minah in Hansel & Gretel.
With Monkey, on the other hand, I was really spoilt for choice. There’s just a sheer volume of incidents in the story. It’s an epic; they travelled for years, and encountered so many things! If you’re going to include every single character who appears, you’d have a cast of 1,000 people. It’d have to be a drama series! So I had to re-tune my brain: flip that switch inside my head from filling things in to taking stuff out. The challenge for me was to parse down the epic that is Journey To The West and pick just a few of the incidents in the novel.
Sebastian Tan has memorably brought many of your panto characters to life, like the Evil Queen in Snow White. This time round, he’ll be directing Monkey Goes West. What’s it been like working with him in this capacity?
I’ve worked with many directors because of the W!LD RICE pantomime. It was the same with Hossan Leong and Pam Oei and now, Sebastian. They have all performed in pantos themselves – they were actors who graduated to become directors. Because of this, we all have the shared sensibility of what a pantomime is. It’s great working with Sebastian – we’ve worked together on two pantomimes, and I think we’re all on the same page. And, of course, there will be cheeky satirical bits thrown in because it’s something I’ve never been able to resist.
You’re working with Elaine Chan again on the music for this pantomime. Can you tell us a little about the score of the show this time around?
We were thinking of going for something more Oriental-influenced. And then we realised it’s actually not so easy to transplant! For instance, the stresses in the English lyrics don’t match the timescale of the more Oriental-type tunes. It so easily becomes Oriental kitsch, which is fine if that’s the intent for one song or scene – but you can’t do that for the whole musical! We didn’t want to wander into the realm of bad fusion music. So we had to work out what worked for our show. The musical score for Monkey has a Chinese influence, but we’ve also gone for tunefulness and emotion.
You’ve written three pantomimes now. What have you learnt about the tradition in the process?
When I was first asked to write a pantomime, I was very excited. But, as a writer who has to wrestle with something that already has a tradition behind it, you want to break the rules. You don’t want to just write a panto, but to re-write the panto! I wanted to deconstruct it and write a meta-panto! It was the writer’s ego speaking.
So, at first, I wanted to write for the adults in the children, who I thought could be very sophisticated. But there was this very important thing that Ivan taught me: he said, “You’re trying very hard to write for the adults in the kids. How about writing for the kids in the adults?”
That’s when I realised that traditions do exist for a reason. It’s not that I’m trying to be conservative about it, but sometimes, it’s about engaging within the tradition rather than putting yourself out of it and trying to re-sculpt it. With so many of these fairy tales, there is a certain pleasure that comes with the improbable twist that makes everything work out in the end: the happy ending. Where the pantomime is concerned, it really is about entering that world for that period of time and setting aside whatever cynicism you might have.