For Better or Worse

Serene with Ivan Heng in rehearsal

What’s it like to be married to a Public Enemy? Serene Chen tells us about going through thick and thin with her idealistic husband, and reading in between the lines of the play to find her character.

Tell us about your character.

I play Katherine Chee, who is married to Thomas Chee – the Public Enemy of the play. Her husband is the idealist in the relationship – she’s more pragmatic and realistic about things. In any union, there’s always a balancing force, and Katherine is Thomas’ check and balance. Obviously, when she said, ‘I do’, it was for better or worse, through thick and thin. That’s why, even if she can ask him, ‘Are you sure?’, she ultimately supports her husband.

Katherine is a woman of relatively few words, and yet has such a powerful presence in the play. How did you find the character in the text?

There are people who express their thoughts with a great economy of words. We all know someone like that. They don’t say very much, but they may be experiencing oceans of emotion. From the little that they say, it gives you a little peek into what they really think.

I personally like text-based work very, very much. I think literature is sorely missing in the Singaporean psyche. So that’s very interesting for me: to discover the world that is not necessarily in the text. One of the things I do is look at the stage directions, because they give you an idea of what the playwright had intended. For instance, why would a line have ‘slightly embarrassed’ in front of it? Working through that helps me a lot.

Serene, as Katherine Chee, standing behind her husband

How did you prepare for the role?

We looked at a few different versions of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, including the Arthur Miller version from the 1950s. I read some commentaries on it as well, not just on the play, but pieces that explore the idea of what is good for the masses. We really dug into that ideological battle between what people consider as good and what is really good for the people.

What did you find to be particularly relevant about Ibsen’s play?

Its very premise still resonates, since it’s about the water supply in a country being poisoned. For me, the water is a metaphor for life. It’s something that permeates everybody’s senses and space. You literally can’t live without it! You can’t stay detached. You can’t be apathetic and say it’s not your problem. It cuts through class, race and everything else.

Amazingly, there isn’t even a black-and-white solution to the problem. The factories poison the water, but they are also a source of livelihood. You do need enterprise to continue, especially if you think about it in the context of Singapore. We don’t have land, we don’t have many natural resources. If you shut down the factories, then we might have water but we won’t have anything else. And yet, if you leave it, the water gets poisoned. It’s a catch-22!

Serene at the gala premiere of Public Enemy, with Ghafir Akbar and Gerald Chew

Tell us about working with Glen Goei, your director.

Glen is not a slipshod director! Even if your character doesn’t have that much stage time or that many lines, he will constantly question you about how you make your journey through the piece, and how you draw your narrative threads together. In one rehearsal, Glen really wanted to understand why my character would behave in a certain way. So he asked me, ‘Your character won’t give this to him, she would just put it on the table?’. That’s how specific he can get!

What has the process been like working with Glen and this cast?

This cast has been great. Everybody has a wealth of experience but, more important than anything, they’re very willing to share. In that way, we can learn to trust one another. When we talk about the script and the psyches of our characters as well, there’s a lot of that openness. We’re invested not just as actors or as our characters, but as citizens of the world – I think that’s especially apt for this play, which is so timely.

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