The Pros of Playing A Con

Benjamin Chow chats with us about the challenges of playing Tartuffe, the ultimate con artist, and shares his favourite thing about Wild Rice’s new adaptation of Molière’s satirical masterpiece.

Tell us more about your character of Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is a cunning con artist who worms his way into the household of this rich family led by Orgon (Ivan Heng). He pretends to be a holy man, and who knows what trouble he’s going to get up to?

What kind of research did you do for the role?

I actually did a lot of research into real holy men – priests and pastors – to observe how they carry themselves. I even watched quite a few videos of people speaking in tongues, as well as videos of people teaching other people how to speak in tongues. Interestingly, there’s a lot of emphasis on Ts and Ps and Ls! I definitely drew from all of these references and put them into my performance.

How else have you been preparing for your role?

When Molière first wrote this play back in the 17th century, he drew quite liberally from the style of commedia dell’arte – an Italian Renaissance improvisational art form that relied heavily on stock characters such as foolish old men or devious servants.

With this mind, Glen Goei, our director, invited Alvin Chiam to act as the movement director for Tartuffe. Alvin worked under French master clown Philippe Gaulier, and he came to our rehearsals and taught us many things that we found very useful in creating our roles.

For example, Tartuffe is based on the stock character of ‘Scaramouche’, who has characteristics of the ‘capitano’ or captain. He’s full of pride, so he would lead with his chest, like a peacock. Scaramouche can be sneaky as well, so there’s an element of a fox to him too. At one point in the play, Tartuffe is also described as a “chimpanzee of a man”. So I’ve taken all of these references as tells, as markers from which I can draw and slowly craft a wily, charming, dark and brooding character.

What is the most challenging thing about playing Tartuffe?

Apart from finding the truth inside the very heightened world of this production of Tartuffe, the most challenging thing for me is delivering a performance that constantly turns on a dime. Tartuffe is a man of many faces. He can appear charming and beguiling, and then, suddenly, he’s dark and lecherous, and then, seemingly holy and full of penitence and prayer. It’s tricky to get right, but I love having the opportunity to play a character with so many colours.

What’s it been like working with Glen on Tartuffe?

It’s been great. It’s my first time working with him, and he’s a wonderful director. He’s so gentle in the room, but his vision is very strong and clear. Every time we work on a scene, he lifts it by giving it his sense of drama, his experience, his knowledge of theatre and what makes something theatrical.

What is your favourite thing about the show?

My favourite thing about the show is easily Joel Tan’s script. The text is delicious, and it’s such a good adaptation of Molière’s play. Joel has done a wonderful job. Every word, every syllable, is so finely crafted, because Joel is naturally a poet and, like Tartuffe himself, the text turns on a dime. One moment, there’s comedy, hilarity and witty banter, and in the very next moment, there’s something real and honest and heartbreaking happening. The text is truly wonderful to have and to serve.

Is there anything that has surprised you about this play?

Honestly, the fact that it is still so relevant today – not just in modern times, but right here in Singapore, where it is often difficult to talk about sensitive topics like religious hypocrisy. What Molière has done is show us how faith and religion can be manipulated for nefarious purposes – something a lot of people find hard to look squarely at, to think and talk about.

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