The King and Queen of Hearts

Emperor and Empress, husband and wife, young lovers, bickering married couple – Lim Kay Siu and Audrey Luo play out one of the wackiest and most surprisingly poignant love stories you’ll see on the Singapore stage this year. W!LD TIMES chats with them about finding the softer sides of their characters in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Audrey, tell us about Kay Siu’s character.

AUDREY: He’s self-absorbed and narcissistic – he loves himself so much, and has forgotten all about me. But he’s a very talented man. It’s just that, over the years, he changed and fell in love with himself.

Kay Siu, what can you say about the relationship between your Emperor and his Empress?

KAY SIU: I think they fell in love very young. Young love can evolve and go through a lot of changes. But, because he saved a whole country, it got to his head. He became so vain. So there’s actually a broken love story at the beginning of this panto, which can only heal when he realises that she always brought out the best in him.

That’s quite an interesting twist on the love story in a pantomime!

KAY SIU: Yes! It’s quite adult, actually, which is interesting. But I’ve been talking to the children backstage. They were saying, “Of course the Empress drinks! The Emperor has forgotten all about her!” So kids that age – eight-year-olds! – understand it.

AUDREY: So cute!

KAY SIU: I was very happy to hear that coming from the kids.

What’s it been like playing this relationship as actors?

KAY SIU: At first, we were just working on finding our own characters. Separately, we both went in very theatrical and quite cartoonish directions, because we thought it was a panto.

AUDREY: [laughs] Actually, this version also quite panto what.

KAY SIU: But now it’s more Disney, and we were more stark. More ugly, I think, in some ways.

AUDREY: Ya, and I was very angsty. I was angry with him. We were practically biting each other’s heads off before! Instinctively, I think that was what we got from the script. When we read our lines, we felt that was the way to do it.

KAY SIU: There was a lot of anger in both characters. If they’re so angry with each other, the love story may not work at the end. So we had to soften everything. Two weeks before the show opened, Ivan popped into rehearsals and told us that we were too mean and evil. We worked quite hard with Pam, our director, to bring that down and become more child-friendly. My vanity, for instance, has become more benign.

How did that challenge you as actors?

KAY SIU: There’s a certain charm to the Emperor that has to be there. Even though he’s done some terrible things, like imprisoning people who are against him, the challenge was to make this monster charming: so that people can like and forgive him when he makes his self-discovery at the end. If they hate him, it’s not going to work. That’s quite a difficult thing to do, actually. I was certainly on the wrong track: I played him more severely, in the vein of Lee Kuan Yew, and I needed help from Pam and Ivan to find this more benevolent, charming character. The love story is interesting, too, because it softens the man. They have domestic arguments, but they’re not evil to each other.

AUDREY: I’m still fine-tuning my character too. Over these past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find the correct way to pitch Jeanette How – to not make her too barky, too fierce, too over-the-top or too gentle. Getting direction from Pam on how to pitch the character was very good. It challenged me to think, and I realised that another way of playing the character could work. It started to fall into place when the show opened, and we tried out different things with audiences to see what works.

Tell us about the music in this show.

KAY SIU: Oh, I love the music. I’ve done a few pantos, and I don’t want to compare and say which is better and which is worse. But I’m really in love with the music! Julian has a lot of classical references and different styles, like disco-funk, in his writing, and I love that.

AUDREY: I’ve always been a fan of Julian’s music. It moves me and I love everything about it.

What’s it been like working together?

AUDREY: This is my first panto and the journey has been really wonderful. I’m learning a lot from everyone. I’m learning a lot from Kay Siu! He’s a theatre veteran that I’ve always looked up to. And I’m finally in a show with him. He plays my husband some more!

KAY SIU: We’re getting to know each other too, which has been fun.

Kay Siu and Audrey get the Royal Treatment
at the gala premiere of The Emperor’s New Clothes!

Kay Siu, you’ve been in four pantos. What’s different about The Emperor’s New Clothes?

KAY SIU: The biggest thing, of course, is that everybody plays an instrument. That’s huge, technically, but also talent-wise. The band is so small, because the rest of the actors play instruments – I think that’s wonderful.

AUDREY: I get it easier than him – my instrument-playing is not as siong. Some of the actors really have a lot to do!

You’re a panto newbie, Audrey. Is it quite different from other plays and musicals you’ve performed in?

AUDREY: I am really very much enjoying being in a panto – it’s so festive and happy, and such a fun way to end off the year. Interacting with the kids is nice. This is the first time I’ve been on stage with so many kids at the same time. I’ve done children’s theatre, but that’s adults acting for children. Here, the kids are our fellow actors. That’s very exciting. And they’re brilliant, you know! They’re really amazing.

KAY SIU: Some of the kids are veterans!

AUDREY: Ya, they’ve been in more pantos than me! [laughs]

What’s it been like working with this cast?

KAY SIU: Everyone is amazingly talented! When we have nothing to do, we jam. It’s fantastic. We’ve also realised that the girls love the humour and the guys are very philosophical in this pantomime. When asked about their favourite line in the show, the guys all came out with very cheem answers. Mine is: ‘Oh my people, how long has it been since we spoke?’

AUDREY: That is a wonderful line. But the girls all like the lame lines. My favourite line is, ‘Is your mother a graduate?’ [laughs] I love it! And Candice de Rozario’s favourite is ‘When the boat reaches the harbour, automatic self-adjustment to straight’!

The Emperor’s New Clothes has been playing for just over a week. What can audiences expect when they come to the show?

KAY SIU: I think they’ll be very entertained, and that they’ll love the music. I find all the tunes very hummable. My favourite song keeps changing, because the music is so good. The story’s actually quite a simple one, but I think we’ve managed to make it engaging. The moral of the story is quite emotional. I’ve not come across a pantomime that comes with such an uncontrollable release of emotion. In one of the final scenes, set to the song Open Up, we all still cry!

AUDREY: I’m still feeling it, with every performance. When Kay Siu goes into his solo, we are sometimes weeping so badly that we can hardly sing! Over the years, I’ve been a panto audience member myself. I hope that the audience will find that it’s slightly different this year. They’ll find that it’s very touching, and that the pantomime has evolved a bit over the years. It’s very refreshing.

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