Shadow of a Doubt

Following her triumphant turn as the goddess in last year’s Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1, Jo Kukathas returns to the Singapore stage to play Poncia – the senior domestic helper in The House Of Bernarda Alba. She talks to us about the (very Greek) tragedy of playing a character who’s so much a shadow within the world in which she lives.

Tell us about your character, Poncia.

I’m still figuring her out – she’s so complicated! Poncia has been with the family for thirty years, so she’s brought up all of these girls, most of them since the time they were born. She’s been their nanny, maid, servant: treated like family, but not family. Her feelings for Bernarda are so complex, because she’s been with them for so long. She’s not equal to them but she’s become dependent on them. It’s always going to be an unequal relationship, and sometimes Poncia forgets – and then Bernarda or one of the girls will remind her.

How do you think Poncia fits into Lorca’s play, which is intensely symbolical?

If you make comparisons to the state, if the house is this country, then Poncia doesn’t belong to the upper echelons of power. In some ways, she’s like most people in a state: seeing what’s going on, but quite powerless to do much about it.

She’s trying to make the best of things. She’s a survivor. So she still always tries to do something about it – because she doesn’t want it to fall to pieces. If it does, where would she go? She has no other home, this is the only home she has. So, she needs it. At one point, she says, ‘Something monstrous is festering’. She can see it coming, but there’s so little she can do about it. That also makes her frustrated because she’s powerless, and she has very limited choices in life.

What are the challenges you’ve faced in playing Poncia?

You know, that Shakespearean line? Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. Poncia’s a walking shadow. She’s even more of a shadow because she’s always watching what’s going on. She’s not a strong agent of what’s happening. I think that’s the challenge: to play that person who is reactive to situations. She cannot dominate the scene; she must always be underneath the scene. It’s tricky to play, because it’s about watching.

Did anything come up while you were researching the play/role that particularly resonated with you?

I read this very interesting article that analysed the idea of seeing and blindness in The House Of Bernarda Alba. That was very useful for me in thinking about Poncia’s character, because Poncia says to Bernarda, ‘You’re blind! You don’t want to see what’s going on!’ So I was talking to Glen about how, in Greek tragedy, Poncia is like Tiresias: a blind prophet and seer who could see when others, with sight, could not, but could not influence the outcome of events. Similarly, in this house, where everyone else is blind, Poncia is the seeing person: she can see but she can’t do anything about it.

It’s fascinating, because the play has the same structure as classical Greek tragedy, in the sense that things are inevitable not just because of your character, but because of the power structures that exist in society.

Tell us about working with the rest of the cast.

Most of my scenes are with Claire or the two younger actors, Sharda Harrison and Glory Ngim.

I’ve known Claire a really long time, but we’ve only worked really closely when we did Occupation. I really enjoyed that experience working with her, and I really enjoy it this time as well. I think we have very similar approaches to things. With Claire and myself, we know where each of us is coming from, and we know that we like to work in very similar ways: we like to work spatially, we like to work physically.

With the younger actors, it’s about trying to share a little bit of this way of working with them. It’s good – they’re both really open.

Jo and Glen in rehearsal

You’ve been friends with Glen for years, but this is the first time you’ve worked together. What’s that been like?

I love working with Glen! He’s such a lovely person, and he’s a very kind director. He really has a very strong visual sense of where he wants things to be and how he wants things to unfold.

I think, for me, the fact that he’s doing this play because he feels very strongly about what this country is going through – I really like that I’m on the same page as him in that way, because I also feel very strongly about those things. I’m Malaysian, and I feel that we – Malaysia and Singapore – are in the same situation at the moment, in terms of the old guard: when they go, they still seem to be following us. The past informs the present and the future so much. I can see that happening in Singapore and I can see that happening in Malaysia. Working with Glen, where essentially I feel we share the same concerns, makes me feel like it’s not just play. It makes me feel very strongly about what this play is trying to say.

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