The (Almost) 40-Year-Old Virgin

Neo Swee Lin is no stranger to playing mothers, aunties and grandmothers. She tells us why it’s a treat for her to play Angustias, the (almost) 40-year-old virgin in The House Of Bernarda Alba.

Tell us about your character, Angustias.

Angustias is a 39-year-old virgin spinster who has only recently discovered her sexuality, because she’s in love with a young stallion called Pepe el Romano – who’s 25 years old! She’s lived in a repressed house where she’s not allowed to go out much. Apart from that, she’s also not very attractive lah! The only reason she’s now got a handsome young suitor is because she’s got her inheritance from her father – which came to her when her stepfather passed away. So that’s why all the men are swooping in: for her money!

Were you aware of this play before you were cast in this version?

Ya, I’ve performed in it before! In the 1980s, there was a version done by William Teo, who had this company called the Asian Theatre Research Circus. I played Poncia – which is a very nice role. Of course, when I was playing it, I was only in my early twenties, so I wasn’t really equipped to know it the way I do now.

But, even though it’s twenty years down the road and we’re doing a different version, I do recognise some of the words and passages. I remember Bernarda, of course, and Poncia, and Adela and Martirio. I don’t remember Angustias at all from that production! [laughs]

The play was written almost 80 years ago. How do you think it remains relevant today?

I think Lorca intended for the house to be an allegory for Fascist Spain, where the people were being oppressed by the regime at the time. And that still rings true today – as long as you have a situation where oppression exists, it will always be relevant. I think that’s what makes it a classic, because it’s universal and the themes apply to many different societies, whether it be Spain or Singapore.

What’s it been like working with this cast?

It’s wonderful! We’ve got so many experienced actresses and most of them are my good friends. So it’s really nice that I have a chance to work with them in a different way. I find that, usually, I play the mother, the auntie or the grandmother… it’s nice to be a sister! It’s nice to play a role younger than I am. I’ve not worked with Margaret since the last Blithe Spirit in 2001, and I’ve not worked with Sharon Lim for much longer than that, since perhaps the 90s. So it’s a really nice reunion. It’s wonderful to have so much female energy around.

This play is very much about women – but not in the sense that it empowers them. Can you talk a little about that theme in the play?

I was thinking about it on our way in to doing a radio interview the other day. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this play is really written by a man, about women living in a world without men – but yet, the world is ruled by the rules of man.’

So I made a comparison to how it’s all women onstage in this production, but backstage, all the designers are men. For instance, we have to wear all these heels and tight corsets – that’s Ivan’s fault! And we have to struggle with these steps on this stage in this beautiful wide set – and that’s Chee Wai’s fault! The entire play is Glen’s fault! So, in the same way, we’re being ruled by men! [laughs]

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