The Point of Madness

Due in no small part to her iconic performance in Channel 5 drama Masters Of The Sea, everyone expects veteran actor Margaret Chan to be imposing and imperious. In person, she is anything but. Warm, effusive and refreshingly free of actorly airs, Margaret chats with us about finding method in the madness of her character in The House Of Bernarda Alba.

Tell us about your character, Maria Josefa.

She’s Bernarda’s mother, and grandmother to the five younger women in the house. She is mad – the bloody woman is bloody mad! And in society, at that time, they really contained the mad, who were put in ships and put out to sea. That was literally the first voyage to nowhere! Or they were locked up in Dickensian jails. And so, Bernarda’s not going to let this stupid woman run out in the village, because she’d be the unwashed madwoman of the village. She’s not going to let her mother disgrace her in that way. So Bernarda has to lock up Maria Josefa, who’s stirring up a lot of s*** and saying all kinds of things.

But there’s method – or at least wisdom – in Maria Josefa’s madness…

Oh, absolutely. Maria Josefa epitomises the longings and yearnings of the younger women in the house, including Bernarda. She symbolises all their pain and articulates their pain. In the house, they all want to escape. But only the old woman is free in her madness, because nothing controls her, including civilisation.

Michel Foucault says that the best way to control somebody is to give them a narrative, and they will police themselves. It’s all in the head: there’s nothing that really holds you down more than the social conventions that you adhere to! And so we police ourselves, control ourselves. When a person is mad, they don’t do that: instead, they do things that disrupt the societal order and that’s why society does not tolerate mad people. But, in an atmosphere of total oppression, the madman is the wise man, because he can say the things that others want to say but just can’t.

What challenges have you encountered in bringing this character to life?

What I needed to do very much in this particular play was to get rid of the idea of understanding the character, of asking, ‘Why did I do this? Why did I do that?’. Because there’s nothing to understand. It was difficult to abandon that process of seeking the underlying motivation in an action.

The other characters have subtext that can be built upon to create full, complex human beings. Martirio is jealous of Adela, and she’s frustrated and lonely because she’s never had someone, and she’s ugly and past her heyday compared to the beautiful Adela. And Bernarda, desperately holding onto her little crumbling household, which is more in danger than they ever know, because they have no money. The characters are rich and full.

For Maria Josefa, there is a past, both happy and dark, but I feel that I should not plumb too deeply into that. Because she’s mad, and always in the present. Her mind is like a TV screen, on which plays sudden bursts of flashbacks from the past, fragmentary and unconnected, and moments of a lucidity that sees the present truth which the others don’t see, for they don’t want to see. You play the subtext, you’ve lost her. The challenge is to present these discrete fragments as a whole. The fragmentation is the character – Maria Josefa has no narrative unto herself, but there is a narrative that you hope the audience will discover when they put together the pieces of the jigsaw.

How do you get into character?

Glen helped a great deal. He kept reminding me of people with Alzheimer’s – people who are living in the past, suddenly having glimpses of this or that. That helps. In the analogy of the jigsaw, we can’t hide the joins. The joins are there and we want them to be there. I started off feeling the space, feeling my body move in the space, hearing my voice, trying to find the old woman in my body. I think she’s coming through; now I am going to work on making the fragments sharp like shards. That’s the task I am embarking on now. You take what the director tells you, lodge that in your head and allow it to seep into the thinking body to become what he wants – which is what you make the character want.

You last worked with Glen in a production of Blithe Spirit back in 2000. What’s it been like reuniting with him and W!LD RICE?

Oh, I’ve always had the greatest pleasure – of all the directors I’ve worked with, Glen has always been my favourite. Because he’s such a sweetie pie and he’d be so indulgent! I met a different Glen on this show, he cracks the whip! [laughs]

What’s it been like to work with this incredible cast?

Fantastic. There’s this incredible frisson – the giving and the sharing. For example, when Claire gives me her eyes, I will immediately respond to her. The energy is just bouncing up and down, up and down. That’s just fun. It’s our game – like playing tennis, you know?

How about working with the younger actors in the cast?

I don’t get a chance, unfortunately, to work enough with the youngest of them all, Glory. It would be nice to work with the younger ones and push them! [laughs]

I remember this little girl – ten years old, never done acting – who I worked with in Anak Metropolitan on the Suria Channel, MediaCorp, and the director wanted her to cry at a certain point in a quarrel with me. She couldn’t cry just like that! She was so bewildered. So I just went into such a bloody rage, I became worse than Maleficent and the dragon put together. I shouted in the poor child’s face, and she was so frightened she just cried like mad. I overacted and it was exhausting – but the little girl gave the director what he wanted.

You’ve been in the business of acting in Singapore theatre for so many years. What was it like when you first started out as an actress?

When I first came on the scene, there were only two theatre clubs – but they were essentially the same people. None of us got any money; we came out with money of our own, in fact. I remember once, in a press interview I did with Kuo Pao Kun, I said, “I guess I’m a professional actress now; it’s the first time I can call myself that since it’s the first time I got money.” And Kuo jumped on that, to say yes, how could we commit to a life of art, if we had a family to feed? Even now, as actors – if you don’t have a part, you don’t have money. There was one year when I earned all of $140 per month, after I divided it across the year. As a responsible parent, I had to seek full-time employment.

Has that changed, from then to now?

To this day, I still have to do theatre in the interstices of my life. So when I did agree to do Bernarda Alba, it’s because the part is small. I told Glen that he’s just got to understand that I can only come for so many rehearsals, and I’ll be coming from my full-time job at SMU. So I fly in and out. I have not the pleasure of being able to focus purely as an actress; I guess I’ve never really had that. Even when I was doing television, the children – while they were growing up – came first. But I am not about feeling sorry for myself; I’ve had a chance to have the cake and eat it too, thanks to supportive friends.

Yes, I’ve been lucky. Many of the directors – Glen, Ong Ken Sen and Jeremiah Choy – have been very kind to me. They’ve understood and been very patient, and accepted me in my multitude of roles. For example, in Beauty World, Michael Chiang very kindly wrote a small scene for my daughter Cara because my husband John was performing the role of the cabaret boss in the play. And because husband and wife were onstage, we were worried about our daughter being left alone at home.

I will never forget and not be thankful for kind friends who allowed my children to grow up in theatre. Keng Sen allowed my son Jonathan, who was then aged 8, to be present at every rehearsal for Lao Jiu. We would work until the wee hours of the morning, and my son would sleep on the floor to the side of the rehearsal room. In Beauty World, he fell totally in love with Christina Ong. When he first saw her in that glittering gown, he literally went, “Auntie! Pretty pretty!” He was two or three years old at the time. So funny. I’m very grateful for the kindness of the people. Because if they had demanded strict professionalism, as they had the right to, then I would be nowhere!

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