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Ivan Heng’s 2003 restaging of George Orwell’s classic is wonderfully thought-provoking

IT’S BEEN AGES since I last read Animal Farm, undoubtedly one of George Orwell’s best-known works. So it was a pleasure indeed to be reacquainted with this timeless allegory – “A Fairy Story,” Orwell called it – through Wild Rice’s production of Ian Wooldridge’s faithful stage adaptation, for an appreciative Singapore audience in September 2003.


Singaporean theater prodigy Ivan Heng

Directed by the immensely gifted Ivan Heng, Animal Farm impressed with the caliber of the performers, the quirkiness of the set, the artful make-up, and Philip Tan’s animated live music (a performance in itself). Heng opted for an unexpectedly sober and only slightly zany dramatization of the plot.  

Relying largely on stylized movements and a very disciplined cast, Heng’s directorial vision was reminiscent of the “3D effect” of computer-generated animation (e.g., the Dreamworks production of A Bug’s Life in which the characterizations blur all boundaries between cartoon and realism). With well-defined physical mannerisms, the actors effectively created vivid animal personas that somehow made them human without anthropomorphizing them.

AF3Lim Yu-Beng and Selena Tan were convincingly horsey as Boxer and Mollie, steadfast but a bit slow on the uptake. Ivan Heng, Gene Sha Rudyn, and Pam Oei were pricelessly piggish as Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer. As the ruthlessly ousted deputy, Sha Rudyn’s Anwarish goatee harked back to Leon Trotsky – and he was equally brilliant as Benjamin the literate but phlegmatic donkey, and cockily comical as the resident rooster. Michael Ian Corbidge’s Farmer Jones was a John Bullish political cartoon down to his Union Jack underpants, and he also doubled as Pilkington – a cross between Uncle Sam and a redneck evangelist entrepreneur. The casting of ruddy-faced angmoh Corbidge as Jones was an oblique allusion to our colonial past – a political subtext that wasn’t lost on the audience. When Napoleon harangues the animals and asks querulously if they want Farmer Jones to return and reclaim Manor Farm, it sounds like the sort of dire warning against the dangers of globalization you might hear at any Umno General Assembly.

Ivan Heng’s Napoleon was a masterful study of a charismatic leader’s steady metamorphosis into demiurgic despotism. The political scapegoating of his erstwhile deputy into Public Enemy No. 1, leading to inquisitorial witch-hunts and party purges to divert attention from gross mismanagement, were chillingly, goosebumpily real – as Heng pigged out completely on his juicy rôle without ever succumbing to the temptation to “ham” it up.


As agitprop chief Squealer, Pam Oei’s high-pitched stridency evoked eerie memories of China’s cultural revolution when party cadres in Mao suits brandished copies of the little Red book at all potential dissidents and heretics. But hysterical Squealers are found in every ministry of “information.”

animal-farm-wild-riceAudience participation consisted of our being invited to recite the post-colonial doctrine of “Four legs good, two legs baaaaaaaaaaaad!” in appropriately sheeplike tones. Indeed, since the only farm animals not represented on stage were the sheep, it fell to the audience to take on that rôle like good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. For our valiant efforts we were paid off in sponsored pre-election apples.

But with changing realities – and lucrative joint ventures signed between the porcine farm management and Pilkington the American corporate representative – leaflets had to be dropped from the rafters in four languages (English, Tamil, Malay and Chinese) proclaiming the new-era ideology of four-legs-good-two-legs-better. Another “Farm Development Project” to serve the needs of progressive animals, brought to us by Napoleon, the fine upstanding porker in a well-cut dark suit and red tie – standard uniform of the nefarious Illuminati World Management Team sported by NWO executives and their political proxies on all important occasions.

animal farm 2010

What Ivan Heng has achieved through this hip and savvy re-staging of Animal Farm with a distinctly ASEAN flavor is a revitalization of Orwell’s classic study of the neo-feudal mechanics of political power, giving it a fresh, contemporary sheen, rich in local color.

AF4The somber theme of bad times getting worse is dynamically offset by very physical performances, and the insertion of a garish, carnivalesque grand finale – abetted throughout by the vigorous live music – mostly percussive – provided by an enormously exuberant and talented Philip Tan: he performs offstage for the most part, though visibly, but occasionally leaps onstage and contributes to the surrealistic mayhem. Air-conditioning ducts feature prominently as multi-purpose stage props, representing the pseudo-mystical fascination of newfangled technology – as well as the animal butcher’s van in which Boxer is carted off for slaughter when he outlives his usefulness to the System.

In short, Wild Rice’s Animal Farm was a totally credible – and more than creditable – tribute to George Orwell’s acute insight into the ploys and pitfalls of political power, and his dystopian view of the human condition. The production has been invited to tour New Zealand in early 2004 – and, hopefully, Malaysian audiences will get to see it soon after that.  [Note: Ivan Heng’s Animal Farm was successfully staged in New Zealand, Tasmania, Hong Kong, and restaged in Singapore – but it still hasn’t happened in Malaysia, although in August 2017 a Malay version titled Kandang, directed by Omar Ali, is to be staged at KLPAC]. 


Ivan Heng’s first staging of Animal Farm in 2002 earned him the DBS-Life Theatre Award for Best Director. In his director’s notes for the souped-up 2003 version, Heng states: “This production was a gut reaction to the ‘War against Terror’ in Iraq. I remember sitting in front of the television on March 20th, feeling sick to the core as I watched the first bombs on Iraq fall. If there is one thing I’m learning, it is how Governments can become so separate from the very people who vote them into power. Watching the news made me think about how the media has the power to distort and manipulate the truth. It made me think about my responsibility as an artist. If only to understand my personal response to the events of the world, I was searching for a way of expressing my confusion and disappointment.”

“In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what’s really going on.” – Margaret Atwood



George Orwell @ Eric Blair

BORN ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR on June 25, 1903 in Bengal, George Orwell’s centennial in 2003 stirred up some controversy about the validity of his status as a literary icon, with leftwing critics bristling over the fact that Animal Farm had been co-opted as an antisocialist tract by rightwing interests.

His detractors have remarked on Orwell-Blair’s long history of hobnobbing with the secret police – as a police officer in Burma, BBC propagandist for India and Southeast Asia, and British Intelligence consultant on anti-communist strategies during the early days of the Cold War. Whose side was he on? Was he in truth the maverick Winston Smith or master manipulator O’Brien (two key characters in 1984) – or was he perhaps both?

Some of the sharpest minds are recruited for psyops (psychological warfare) and Eric Blair just happened to have an acute literary flair – and a profound loathing for the cynical mass-control mechanisms installed by the ruling elite to perpetuate its feudalistic stranglehold on the human imagination. Upon leaving Burma he embraced anarchism with a vengeance, and then swung to the extreme left, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Then he got disenchanted by the communist movement and chose the life of a penniless vagabond for several years – an experience that spawned his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and later The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

tony-blairThe soul’s yearning for freedom is doomed to futility in Orwell’s universe, and one gets the sense that he finally gives up fighting the Status Quo because he can see no way out: it’s a task he finds morally repugnant, but he will serve the Dark Lords of the Matrix by inserting himself into 10 Downing Street as a future prime minister – not as an Orwell, of course, but as a Blair – in any case, as someone supremely fluent in Doublethink and Newspeak.

Therein lies the poignant irony of Orwell’s dark, visionary novels – especially 1984 (written in 1948) which is a perfect prescription for a Big Brother power elite ruling through sloganeering, disinformation and public relations – and when all that fails, ruthless police brutality. Precisely the sort of world we find ourselves living in today, where war is peace and might is right, and history an infinitely rewritable cut-and-paste business.

Winston Smith, the chief protagonist of 1984, is turned around by the mind control experts in Room 101 where, confronted by his deepest, darkest fears, his rebellious individualism is broken – and the novel concludes bleakly with the socially rehabilitated citizen Smith drinking Victory gin at the local and watching Big Brother on the boob tube along with all the other faceless plebes – while the chorus of a popular ditty echoes in his brain: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me.”

But Orwell’s intellectual integrity and his extraordinary skill as a writer more than redeem his own internal conflicts – and his readers are left with the onus to seek, and ultimately find, a non-polarized resolution beyond the dire straits of divide-and-rule dualism.

25 November 2003


Chowee Leow stars in a 2006 movie ‘Cut Sleeve Boys’

Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow – co-creators of this highly acclaimed one-person play describe it as “an intercultural horticultural wandering in a Wonderbra.”

I would call it a homecoming party for an exquisitely gifted, Malacca-born performer (who has spent a significant part of his life in the UK) – and a sociocultural manifesto for those exotic creatures who dwell in the phantasmagoric realm of hermaphrodite fantasies; and who wend their curvaceous way along the fine line dividing male from female; whose very presence provokes snide sniggers from the sexually unambiguous and horny hoots from hooligans.  Those Ah Quahs, Mak Nyahs and pondans, (crossdressers, transvestites and transsexuals) who have always been a part of, and yet existed apart from, society.

An Occasional Orchid, premièred in Malaysia by Dramalab in May 2004, is seeing its second run in Kuala Lumpur at the K.R. Soma Auditorium.  If you missed it the first time around like I did, be sure to catch it before it closes.  It’s a superb production on every level.  The effervescent, witty script evokes a poignant sense of tragicomedy while providing some privileged insights into the rarely discussed subject of transsexuality; the lovingly plotted lighting design (by native Singaporean Ivan Heng, last seen in KL as the indomitable Emily of Emerald Hill) accentuates and complements Chowee’s every mood, every move; the provocative props, consisting of imitation Barbies and original Jimmy Choo stiletto shoes, serve most charmingly as orchids and telephones; the slickly edited sound effects and music add dramatic texture to the never-boring monologue; and Chowee’s alluring wardrobe keeps changing before your very eyes (though it stops short of being a strip-tease, but only just!)


Chowee (extreme right) with theater mates in Singapore

Chowee Leow is phenomenally articulate and charismatic as herself as well as himself.  No red-blooded male in the audience would turn down an invitation for babi pong teh and coffee at her place (unless they’re strictly into halal food, of course).  A fetching figure in a tight-fitting gown and ever-so-squeezable Wonderbra – get yourself an aisle seat in the front rows if you want a cheap thrill! – Chowee’s soul- (and bottom-) baring on stage gives beautiful voice to the highs and the lows of a sensitive, gender-blurred psyche.

Most of the queens I’ve encountered have invariably been sex-obsessed and tiresomely self-centered.  But here’s one whose candor, intelligence and self-awareness facilitate access into the intricacies of his/her private reality on a down-to-earth human level.  It doesn’t take long for one to feel comfortable with the fact that life isn’t quite so straightforward.  Indeed, it’s remarkably easy to accept the fact of Chowee’s confident and sensuous femaleness.  One can fully empathize with the hardships he must have endured as a diffident, doll-loving boy growing up in a less-than-harmonious home.  After years of independent living so far from home, Chowee (or at least his alter ego) has erupted voluptuously into a full-fledged she-male.  But how to break the earth-shaking news to Mama?  The last line of the play is a real knock-out.  No, I won’t reveal it here – but it’s certainly among the most effective closing lines I’ve ever heard, guaranteed to trigger unreserved applause.

Fear of Father and emulation of Mother often establishes the behavioral patterns of those feminine souls inhabiting masculine bodies unhappily born into a patriarchal society.  Chowee takes us on a fascinating guided tour of a transsexual’s lovelife – which, ultimately, doesn’t differ all that much from that of heterosexual couples except that a she-male has to try harder to hang on to a man, or so it seems.

The admonitory voice of Chowee’s conservative father, warning him against marrying a foreign girl while he’s studying abroad, is powerfully ironic.  I’m reminded of another she-male I know whose daddy happens to be a retired army general.  You can imagine the problems that inevitably arise between father and “son.”


Chowee (left) with actress buddy Neo Swee Lin & her dad

Chowee Leow is one of those rare flowers whose artistic talent would never have blossomed if he had just stayed on in Malaysia.  I recall our very first meeting a few months ago at a friend’s birthday party: we had exchanged only a few words when I was prompted to remark that he must have been a famous Chinese opera diva in a previous life – at which his entire countenance lighted up with pleasure.  After watching Chowee in action in An Occasional Orchid, that initial impression is further reinforced.

In a fun-negating and punitive society where stern Fathers frown at “artistic frivolity” and religiously deride  “sexual deviants” – will Chowee Leow be welcomed as a returning hero?

Will he be forced to forever call England home?  Or perhaps Singapore – where more than a few extremely talented former Malaysians reside? If such were to be allowed to happen again, our loss would truly be their gain.

31 May 2004

A Truly Ballsy Emily of Emerald Hill


Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in a 2011 restaging of Stella Kon’s classic monologue

I’d forgotten what it was about families and society in general that made me rebel as a teenager. Stella Kon’s classic study of a Nyonya matriarch in postwar Singapore – the highly acclaimed Emily of Emerald Hill – brought it all home to me. For hours, no, for days after seeing Emily for the third time (each time with a different Emily), I was awash in an ocean of memories and long-forgotten feelings. Such is the power and scope of Stella Kon’s 1983 masterpiece that it holds up admirably to repeated scrutiny, regardless of who’s playing Emily Gan. In this particular instance, it was a remarkably talented bloke named Ivan Heng – but more about Ivan later.


Doing Emily in drag… twice!

The subject matter of the monologue is complex indeed – and far too rich for any short essay or review to do it justice. Doctoral dissertations can be (or ought to be) written about Emily of Emerald Hill. But in the final analysis, it’s all about life… and control issues… and thwarted love, deformed by ambition.

As a dramatic text, Emily of Emerald Hill deserves the highest accolades. Rarely does a playwright hit on such a mother lode of inspiration and succeed in crafting it into such an unforgettable theater experience.

The first Emily Gan I saw was played to perfection by Leow Puay Tin. Her transcendental performance permanently imprinted the aesthetic pleasure of witnessing an excellent monologue brilliantly realized for the stage. For me, Emily Gan will always look like Leow Puay Tin – just as the Professor Higgins I know bears a striking resemblance to Rex Harrison.

True, I never saw Margaret Chan’s interpretation of Emily Gan – and thus must beg her pardon for my unreasonable bias. However, I caught the revival of Emily starring Pearlly Chua – whose meticulous portrayal was impressive, but a touch too soap operatic for my taste.

So how did Ivan Heng fare as the latest incarnation of Emily Gan? First of all, anyone who saw Ivan in Ovidia Yu’s Woman in a Tree on a Hill or in his autobiographical Journey West is probably an ardent fan of this ebullient theatrical prodigy from Singapore. Ivan Heng is incredibly talented and always watchable – even when he’s having a little fun at his own and the audience’s expense. In other words, Ivan’s pretty damn good even when he’s plain showing off.


Ivan Heng with a model of his new Emily of Emerald Hill set

With Krishen Jit as dramaturgical catalyst and sounding board, Ivan created a savvy and sophisticated Emily Gan. Or, as an astute reviewer put it, Ivan’s Emily had balls. His flamboyance got almost burlesque at moments, but the strength of Stella Kon’s text grounded the action in the human dimension at all times.

The jazzy and staccato lighting by Mac Chan was adventurous and actually worked very well – except at moments when the audience was blinded by the irritatingly intrusive glare of a “chandelier” in the Gan mansion and the house lights would come on, compelling audience participation (that’s a little too in-your-face if you ask me). An elaborate art deco set by Raja Maliq appeared quite redundant after a while. It was extremely tasteful nevertheless, never mind the visual incongruity of the giant framed screens upon which colors and images occasionally played. That’s Krishen Jit’s signature motif, the wayang kulit screen.


Emily of Emerald Hill reloaded

For any accomplished actress (or actor), playing Emily Gan is the equivalent of a solo Channel crossing for a championship swimmer. Ivan Heng, I’m happy to report, made it to the opposite shore (he couldn’t possibly have failed, such is his reserve of sheer prowess). but whenever I hear the name “Emily Gan” I can’t help but see someone who looks like Leow Puay Tin. It’s hard to improve on perfection. I only hope Puay Tin will do Emily one more time – and let herself be filmed for posterity.

15 October 1999

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