Master of the House

Glen Goei invites us into Bernarda Alba’s household, where we’ll meet a Peranakan family simmering with bitter rivalries and repressed sexuality. He tells us about transposing Federico Garcia Lorca’s play to Singapore, and bringing The House Of Bernarda Alba to life with a stunning cast featuring many of Singapore’s finest actresses.
Director Glen Goei and the cast at the first script reading

Why The House Of Bernarda Alba?

I’ve been wanting to do it for over ten years now. Chay Yew wrote his adaptation in 2002. I’ve been working with Chay Yew since 1990, when he stayed with me in London and he wrote his first successful plays called Porcelain and Language Of Their Own. We’d been talking about The House Of Bernarda Alba for over twenty years. I read his translation, and have been thinking about it ever since.

The themes of the play resonate with me, and I think they have parallels here in Singapore. It all goes back to the themes which keep returning to me in my work, like patriarchy, control, oppression, suppression and repression: whether from the government, religion, family or education.

What finally prompted you to stage the play now?

I think it clicked for me after Cook A Pot Of Curry. As I was doing it, and hearing the response to it, I felt that the general mood of the audience was right – it was finally time to pay a long-overdue visit to the Alba household. It’s a reflection of how I gauge the people, community and society around me, whether by reading the papers or going to the MRT station.

How do you think the play will resonate with Singapore audiences?

A lot of these plays written almost a hundred years ago still resonate, because they’re dealing with themes that are universal and still relevant today, especially in Asia. I saw a production of The House Of Bernarda Alba by the National Theatre in London about four years ago and it felt like a museum piece. The themes just don’t resonate in England.

But here, in Singapore – well, it asks a lot of questions to which we’re still looking for answers. The play is about what happens when the old man dies, quite literally. It’s about the system that’s left behind, and how we might have become complicit in it – whether knowingly or unknowingly. It’s all tied up with ideas of repression and societal obligation: that we’re doing things not because we have to, but because we believe we have to. I mean, Bernarda decides that her entire household will go into mourning for eight years! It’s the notion that oppression still exists but, a lot of the time, we also repress our own emotions and desires because we think that’s what we should do.

I think that’s why theatre is powerful in Singapore. It still says a lot of things that need to be said.

You’ve transposed this Spanish play into a Peranakan setting…

That was the entry point for me into Lorca’s world, and what I thought would make it accessible to the audience too. So much of the Peranakan – and Singaporean – community is about class, religion and morality. The disparity in wealth between the haves and haves-not in society is very topical at the moment.

For Bernarda, it’s all about keeping up appearances. It’s about being able to stake out this high moral ground – something which I feel happens a lot in Singapore. It’s everywhere in our society: which church you go to, what car you drive. It’s very moralistic and judgemental in that sense.

It’s really a very dark, intense play.

It is – but, in a sense, I don’t want to over-intellectualise it. I’ll confess: there’s a part of me that loves the drama of it. It’s women fighting onstage! I actually think that’s so much more interesting. Seeing two men fight onstage is no fun lah, with all the testosterone and ego. Two women fighting onstage, on the other hand, just makes for better theatre, I think. It’s more fun – more subtle, more bitchy, with more irony. They use words, language, eyes, looks, fans – not fisticuffs. It’s so much more layered.

Four Titans of Theatre (clockwise from top left):
costume designer Ivan Heng; director Glen Goei; hair designer Ashley Lim; actress Margaret Chan

Let’s talk about the incredible cast.

I feel I’ve cast my dream team! I see it as a celebration of where we’re at in Singapore’s theatre history. I grew up watching Margaret Chan onstage. When I was 12 or 13, I’d go to the theatre on my own and watch her perform. As I grew up with theatre, I grew up with her. So it’s wonderful to have her.

I’ve grown up and worked with the second generation of actors like Neo Swee Lin, Claire Wong, Karen Tan and Noorlinah Mohamed. And I’ve not worked with Jo Kukathas before! She’s one of my closest friends and she was supposed to be in Curry – but then Ivan choped her first for Asian Boys Vol 1. We’ve been thinking about working together for a long time. Poncia [Bernarda’s servant] is an amazing role and it’s very layered, with lots of subtext.

That’s a lot for the two youngest members of the cast to live up to…

I’ve not worked with the two younger actresses, Glory Ngim and Sharda Harrison. It’ll be a challenge since I can’t take any shortcuts with them, as I can with actors I’ve collaborated with frequently. But I think they’ll rise to the occasion.

With Glory, it’s interesting because she came from young & W!LD. I’ve seen her grow from a young student, to young & W!LD, to now. That will be really really fun, working with somebody we’ve literally nurtured and trained, and is now given the opportunity to act with all these other actresses.

It’ll be interesting to watch the dynamics within this ensemble…

What I’m excited about is that all the family have worked together. They have a long and natural history with one another. Claire and Swee Lin, for example, have known each other since NUS Law! We’re talking about 32 years – that’s longer than most families have been together.

It’s quite nice too that Glory plays Adela, the youngest sister in the family who’s strikingly different from her elder sisters. Glory’s only 24, which makes her much younger than everyone else, and she’s not worked with all the other actors. It’s a dynamic that actually mirrors the one in the play.

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