Do you recall your own first encounter with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?
It was one of the earliest books I read. These days, it’s remembered as a Christmas classic. But I’m half-Scrooge myself, so I didn’t pick it up because of the Christmas theme. I sought it out because it’s a ghost story. In fact, it’s one of the icons of the classic Victorian ghost story!
What was your main goal in adapting Dickens’ iconic tale into A $ingapore Carol?
I wanted my version to move away from the classic, old-school version that everyone knows. I wanted to create something that’s relevant and alive and contemporary. So I really thought hard about what it means to bring this story into 2018. And, finally, it struck me: I had to reinvent the concept of the miser for the world in which we live. Societal attitudes and concepts of wealth have shifted since Dickens’ time. The stereotypical miser – who’s a grouch and a Grinch and thoroughly unlikable – like Shylock and Scrooge – just doesn’t exist anymore. These days, you’ve got to have a lot of charm and seductiveness to succeed in the board room. You’re charming on the outside, but completely closed in your soul. Once I cracked that, the other pieces of the puzzle started sliding into place quite nicely.
That sounds kind of familiar – like a certain American president, perhaps?
Well, to some extent, yes. Donald Trump doesn’t give a damn about you as a human being – he just wants to be able to buy and sell you. But he’s also pathetic because he’s quite desperate to be liked. Scrooge, as I envision him, has no such pretensions. He’ll charm you to get his way, but he doesn’t care about being liked. So take the twisted soul of Trump, add the hard shell and blunt charisma of Lee Kuan Yew, and maybe a dash of Kim Jong Un. [laughs]
How are you bringing this very British story closer to home?
The original intention of A Christmas Carol is to wake its readers up – if any part of you is like Scrooge, you’re supposed to take the story as a warning to shake that off. But I don’t think a Scrooge in the classic style would connect with Singapore audiences. If I gave you a miserly grouch, I’d reach nobody. Everyone would just say: “That’s not me.”
So, in reinventing Scrooge, I also had to find the different spices to add to the mix that would make this Scrooge more relatable to Singaporeans from different cultures and religions and with different perspectives on life. For me, that link comes in the way we’ve all been trained for success in Singapore. We’re always told to keep our eyes on the prize, to switch off parts of ourselves, to sacrifice parts of our souls to achieve success. That happens to pretty much all Singaporeans, without even thinking about it. We can so easily become Scrooge. And I think that will be relevant for everyone in the audience.
Sebastian Tan will be playing Scrooge. Is that exciting for you?
Yes, because I feel like we’ll be reinventing Sebastian too – we’re taking the Broadway and the Beng away from Broadway Beng! Sebastian’s charm as an actor is that he’s so warm and open and generous. What would it be like when he plays someone so cold and twisted and sociopathic? For Scrooge, Sebastian will have to turn the tap on his famous charisma and let it flow – but for it to run cold instead of warm! What’s fascinating to me is that I can’t predict how he will play the part. And that kind of uncharted territory is tremendously exciting for me as a playwright and an audience member!
What’s it been like working with your director, Hossan Leong?
Hossan and I go back such a long way. We met in the cast of Gurmit’s World – a TV sketch comedy show that gave birth to Phua Chua Kang way back when. And he was my Chestnuts partner for a few years. So I know how he works, and I also know he understands my writing. That means I get to really focus on developing the characters on the page. I’m not afraid to write more complexity into the script, because I know Hossan will enjoy it. I’m confident he will add flash and bang and colour to the show without losing the thread of what’s going on at a deeper level.
It’s been almost ten years since you’ve written a W!LD RICE pantomime. What are you hoping to bring with you to A $ingapore Carol this year?
It might sound strange coming from half a humbug like myself, but I have missed the element of Christmas in W!LD RICE’s recent pantomimes. Over the past few years, the company has really experimented with adapting non-traditional stories as pantomimes, which is great. But, since we’re tackling such an iconic Christmas story this year, I’m glad I have the opportunity to infuse the pantomime with Christmas again!
To be clear, I don’t mean turkey and mistletoe and all of that. It’s not about what Christmas looks like, but what it feels like. It’s that sense of communal spirit that you also get at festive occasions like Diwali, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. It’s about huddling up together and sharing something – an experience, a story that we tell ourselves about what it means to be us. So I’m hoping that the show will be fun and snarky and a little bitchy, but that you’ll also feel warm, fuzzy and maybe cry a tear or two of joy at the end!
A $ingapore Carol plays at Victoria Theatre from 23 November to 15 December 2018! Find out more here!