The Fairfax-est Of Them All

Four years ago, Chua Enlai threw on a tux, slicked back his hair and emerged onstage as the Hon. Gwendolyn Fairfax – a beautiful young lady who has dreamed her entire life of being married to a man named Ernest. His performance in W!LD RICE’s The Importance Of Being Earnest was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, garnering him the honour of Best Supporting Actor in the 2010 Life! Theatre Awards.

We spoke to Enlai two days before the first preview of our 2013 production of Earnest, perhaps the busiest time in the entire run of a show. Technical rehearsals are underway to ensure that the lighting and sound effects are in place, and costumes are busily being re-fitted and overhauled for the next day’s full-dress rehearsals.

While waiting for the finishing touches to his costume, Enlai watches in consternation as – one by one – his fellow cast-mates finish up and get ready to leave for the night. “You also can go back?” he laments. “Everybody can go back except me! Wah lau – am I the last one?”

He’s joking, of course, and is in fact more than happy to talk with us about becoming Gwendolyn again for his tenth production with W!LD RICE.

What was your first reaction to the idea of doing an all-male version of Earnest?

I thought it was very exciting. I’ve always loved the piece. I read it when I was much younger; it was one of the first pieces I read in drama class, I think. I haven’t seen it staged before… I was very thrilled.

How did the part of Gwendolyn come to you?

I remember we did reads in different combinations at [director Glen Goei’s] house. We all read several characters, I think, and then it was a manner of determining who fits where.

How do you approach playing this part?

To a certain degree, there are the technicalities – the accent, the period, your body and all that. But the language is so well-written that it tells the story for you. The humour is in it, you don’t have to force it. The story is in it, and the intentions are very clear. It’s up to us to make it even clearer, to make that leap from page to stage and communicate it to the audience. But a lot of it is already done for you because it’s so well-written.

In revisiting the part after four years, have you discovered anything new?

I had forgotten all my lines – I couldn’t believe how little of it I remembered! But then we started Earnest rehearsals in earnest, and at times, I found that I was doing things that perhaps I had done already, in almost exactly the same way – ’cause it’s like muscle memory, you know?

So what’s interesting this time is trying to do something different. I did find that, at times, there were things I got a bit stuck in, because I was trying to remember how it was last time. But it’s interesting to have the foundation there, and have the ability to decide whether to deviate from it or push it. Glen’s giving us the freedom to explore that. In terms of characterisation, he’s definitely very open.

I’ve been in a re-staged production before – when the shows were a month apart. I found that a very enriching experience. My lines were still there, so you don’t go through that battle of relearning, but I felt that everything was a bit deeper. Hopefully, this time round, from everyone who’s done it before, we’ve got a deeper understanding of the characters and the situation and the whole play.

What’s your favourite moment in the play?

My favourite moment is the tea scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily – that’s also the most frightening scene [to do] ever, it’s really scary. I have heart palpitations before I go on! It’s really, really scary because it’s so snappy and it’s so sharp. But it’s quite phenomenal – it’s like playing Olympic-grade table-tennis!

What has working on Earnest with W!LD RICE meant to you?

I’m very honoured and very flattered to be called back to do the show again. I think this is my tenth show with W!LD RICE, which is a nice number. I’ve played many different roles in past W!LD RICE shows; it’s very meaningful to me because it’s such a wonderful show. It’s a wonderful play in itself, and the W!LD RICE production just made it so special. That’s why I’m really happy to come back and do it.

What do you hope the audience takes away with them after watching Earnest?

I hope they go home with a stomach and sore throats that are hurting from laughing too much. But, apart from that, I hope people don’t go back just thinking ‘Oh what a funny night”, but also think that it was more meaningful than that.

I’m not one to want to force any message down anyone’s throats, but there are themes in this play about keeping up appearances, as well as the very striking decision to cast all men in this show. There are many layers and many meanings you can derive from the production. And I do hope that people go back with an understanding or an appreciation of some of these themes. It could be exciting, it could be disturbing, it could be – whatever, but it’s not meant to just be, it’s a statement.

You’ve done everything – television, theatre and movies.

They’re all very, very different. When it comes to performance, and getting there, it’s completely, completely different. The performance mode is very different. Whether I’m in the studio shooting The Noose or doing a cameo in Taxi! Taxi! or trying to get blown up in Cambodia [in Judgment Day], it’s all so varied. I think Singaporean actors are very lucky to be in that situation where they can do all three.

What I miss when I do television or films is the rehearsal process. You don’t get that emotional journey – that through-line that you get in theatre, since you rarely shoot in sequence for the screen, unless you’re talking about variety shows, which is its own mode of performance.

Do you actually have a preference for any of these mediums?

I started out onstage and it is my first love. It’s that energy that is very electric. Sometimes, on television, it feels like it’s just me in front of the lens, and the performance has to be magnetic enough to transcend the lens. But you’re not reaching out to the audience, so to speak. For the screen, a lot of the process happens without the actor. It happens in post-production, or in editing. There, an actor does not have as much power.

Theatre involves the actors a lot more; it’s more holistic for the actors. In theatre, actors are the ones directly interacting with the audience. It’s two-way traffic. Onstage, even with the fourth wall, there are techniques you have to engage to connect and engage with the audience. That’s a great challenge but it’s also really amazing.

In terms of censorship, there’s a lot more freedom in the theatre in terms of being able to say things and in terms of ideas either being more esoteric or more daring – there are greater opportunities there. In terms of writing, I think you also get more opportunities to deal with better texts onstage.

What do you think about the local theatre industry? How has it changed since you started out here as an actor?

It’s really blossomed. There are now so many voices in theatre, different points of view, different styles, different ways that people execute things, different issues. That makes it all very exciting. It’s a great deal more diverse, and there’s a lot more support now than there was just a few years ago.

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