Playing the Martyr

In person, Noorlinah Mohamed is a pint-sized dynamo bursting with energy and passion. She tells us what it’s like to rein herself in to play the repressed Martirio in The House Of Bernarda Alba.

Tell us about your character, Martirio.

Martirio is the second youngest in the Alba family – a few years older than Glory Ngim’s character, Adela. Like Angustias, she’s sickly and there’s a sense of foreboding and depression about her. By her name, Martirio is a martyr: she feels she bears the cross to try and address and redress injustices, like Adela having designs on Angustias’ suitor. In the same situation, Martirio would sacrifice her own happiness despite the pain of it. She thinks that sacrifice is necessary.

What challenges did you face in finding this character?

One of the greatest challenges is the fact that I’m physically very strong and my posture is naturally upright. Martirio is the opposite. She’s supposed to be the ugliest girl in the family, and it’s mentioned in the play that I have to take medicine. But, in this production, I won’t have a hunchback or a wart or something physical to indicate that I am unwell. My challenge is to find that physicality in myself: to hunch a little bit in the performance, to be smaller and also thinner, so I look more sickly. I even walk differently in character: I stride, Martirio minces.

Did you know The House Of Bernarda Alba before you were cast in this production?

I know Lorca pretty well because I’ve taught his work to students. He’s a very famous writer of the early twentieth century, modernist period. When you talk about symbolism, you have to touch on Lorca. His use of symbolism is so much part of the beauty of Lorca’s text. When you’re saying his lines, you think it’s one thing, on the surface. But, as the play goes on, it makes a different kind of sense. Like the notion of the four walls of Bernarda Alba’s house: they literally trap the characters, and it’s symbolically significant that Adela is the only one who breaks through them when she goes to see Pepe el Romano.

That must be quite a challenge, to communicate that level of symbolism to audiences.

When we’re teaching Lorca, we never just go for the text. We go for the society, the context in which Lorca lived and wrote. Every part of the play needs unpacking, because it has such symbolic weight to it. Weight that reverberates beyond this family, to us here in Singapore and our personal lives and our choices and values. Even for me and my fellow actresses, we’ve dug so much into the play in rehearsals but we still keep discovering the power and meta-text of Lorca’s lines. That’s the mark of his genius: that, in these short, brief lines, he talks about something much bigger.

It could be hard, for the audience, to figure it all out in just two hours. They might end up just seeing, on the surface, a bunch of nyonyas screaming, shouting and hissing at one another. That’s my worry about the play: if we’re not careful, it could play like a big catfight from Minute 20 to Minute 120.

Take a bow, Noorlinah!

What was the rehearsal process like?

It’s been very intensive, hard work – which is not at all a bad thing, because I was very fortunate to work with familiar friends who are also responsive as actresses and are verbal and vocal about the characters and themes. It all adds to the collaborative process. It’s like a puzzle that all of us trapped in the rehearsal room are trying to solve! We’re all gunning for the solution, and we are all problem-solving actresses. When someone calibrates one line, there’s a domino effect on the rest of us. The text, through the craft of the performers, moves on to new heights.

So it changes all the time – it’s so dynamic!

That’s the beauty of stage acting – the business is always to find new things to deepen the work and the character. It deepens and deepens and deepens until it lands… although I don’t think it ever lands. In that sense, the text is different and living, every night. It’s always in the process of growing and developing.

That’s the beauty of doing this play with W!LD RICE: it has three weeks to live, and that’s such a generous run for an actor. Boy, are we fortunate! I really appreciate these long runs we have with W!LD RICE, because it’s such a rare thing here in Singapore. It takes that much time for a text like this to mature, beyond rehearsals and onto the stage.

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