The Straits Times, Life! May 12, 2011
A landmark piece of Singapore theatre is being restaged by one of its original cast members as part of this year’s Singapore Arts Festival.
The Conference Of The Birds, staged in 1991 by the late theatre pioneer William Teo, will be reprised by director Jeremiah Choy next month.
The Sufi story of birds searching for truth and wisdom originally took place in a disused Merbau Road warehouse, and was groundbreaking for its multicultural and multi-disciplinary approach.
While such productions have become common in the two decades since, it made waves then for its use of different Asian art forms, such as Indian classical dance, Chinese opera and ethnic instruments such as angklung and veena.
Choy, who was one of 14 cast members in Teo’s production, hopes that his commemorative version will give younger audiences a chance to see Teo’s work, tying in with the festival’s theme of I Want To Remember.
He says it will not be a ‘Psycho remake’, referring to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 frame-for-frame reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller film. Instead it will be ‘in the spirit of William’s production’.
On why he chose to restage the piece, Choy says: ‘It was one of the first pieces I performed in. It was also at the turning point of William’s theatre philosophy, when he investigated Asian theatre forms such as Kathakali dance and Chinese wayang.’
Choy was a young lawyer moonlighting as an actor when he was involved in the first production 20 years ago. Now 49 and the owner of events company OrangeDot, he hopes to give younger actors a chance to experience the late director’s unique style of rehearsing.
Teo, who died of tuberculosis in 2001 at the age of 41, did not assign characters to actors immediately when he cast them. He let the cast try out different roles during rehearsals before matching them to roles.
He was very open to using non-professional performers. ‘Anyone interested in theatre could come along and be part of his show,’ says Choy.
In the same spirit, he will be using a motley crew of 17 actors from seasoned players to newcomers.
Veteran performers such as Christian Sergeant and Rama Prasad, who played the original hoopoe, a colourful bird that leads a group of birds on their journey, will perform next to new actors such as Tan Shou Chen.
Based on a 12th-century Persian poem, the 1970 script by English director Peter Brook and French writer- actor Jean-Claude Carriere tells of a flock of birds crossing seven valleys to look for their king, Simorgh.
Audiences can expect the lush visual style that was Teo’s trademark. The hairdresser-turned-theatre director was obsessed with beauty and his shows featured lavish make-up, costumes and sets.
Working with photographs of that 1991 show and his memories, Choy and costume designer Lai Chan will create beautiful sarongs and saris for the cast. They will also source for Balinese and Chinese masks to give the production a pan-Asian feel.
That old warehouse, however, has since become home to the Singapore Repertory Theatre. So the show will be held at the Festival Village, an outdoor theatre specially constructed for the arts festival at Esplanade Park. The change in venue means that smaller, intimate moments will have to be scaled up into bigger tableaux.
The director feels that he is not restricted by his predecessor’s vision, although he is ‘trying his best to be as close to it as possible’.
He says: ‘William was very open as a director. If an actor had a better idea for a scene, he would take it.
‘In this sense, I feel I have been given a blank cheque. I can change the production as and when I see fit.’