‘It’s almost impossible to root for the feeble and highly self-destructive protagonist’
Staged during our nation’s golden jubilee and ahead of our next general election, Wild Rice’s take on Public Enemy – first written by Henrik Ibsen over a century ago, adapted by David Harrower in 2013 and now relocated to a fictionalised Singapore – promises to get us talking about difficult things. We went into the theatre ready to be confronted by a series of uncomfortable truths about a society bound by a selfish majority, and yet, despite this being a visually stunning production, we’re not convinced that its ambitious goal was achieved.
The plot revolves around Dr Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng), the medical director of the country’s well-renowned natural spas, who is hell-bent on exposing the toxic state of its waters. While he has his initial supporters, including members of the press and the business community, he soon gets tangled in a web of social, governmental and personal interests. Ultimately, he is thrown under the bus by a political system headed by his influential brother, the mayor Peter Chee (Lim Kay Siu).
The point of Ibsen’s iconic work is to critique the perils of a complacent society, whose inability to think for itself allows those in power to manipulate situations and sentiments in order to satisfy their own agenda. But the production doesn’t get this across, as Thomas quickly loses sight of his noble goal of bringing the truth to light once the tides and ‘solid majority’ turn against him. He declares that he loves his country in his rambling speech at the climax of the play – which was hurled at the audience with the house lights turned on – but he never shows that love in action. He declares that he is dedicated to his family, but he’s willing to put them all in danger because of his own ego. He declares that he is after the truth – but we’re not even sure whether the findings in the report are accurate. (We’re reminded by Peter that Thomas didn’t try to get a second opinion on them.) And when he declares at the end that he’s remaining in town after being branded a public enemy, he’s no longer fighting for the truth – he is, instead, fighting against his brother and the people who don’t agree with his views.
There are indeed many powerful themes and issues that the production could play with – from sibling rivalry and the responsibility of the media to a man’s duty to himself, his family and his nation – and while all of them are lightly touched upon, they are never explored to their full extent. The characters are also introduced without context, which makes it difficult for us to empathise with them. But most importantly, it’s almost impossible to root for the feeble and highly self-destructive protagonist, even though he is portrayed as a hero right until the final scene. So while we’re troubled by the fact that the nation is wrought by political and social back-scratching, we’re left at a loss about the play’s central message. The combination of these elements results in a piece that feels clumsy, convoluted, and diluted.
That said, as a theatrical performance, it’s aesthetically very attractive. Wong Chee Wai’s sleek, grey set, when paired with Lai Chan’s impeccable outfits and the cinematic lighting and sound effects, provides a very slick backdrop for the story. The cast is also composed of able actors: Heng channels the rash, frumpy and impassionate doctor compellingly; Serene Chen supports him well as his poor, loyal wife, Katherine; while Ghafir Akbar makes for a suitably slimy and fickle editor of the local newspaper. The rest of his family and acquaintances are likewise competently played, but Lim deserves special mention for filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence as the mayor, even when he’s merely glowering silently in the corner.
Overall, this is a performance that unfortunately has more style than substance. The fantastic set and good acting make for two straight hours of decent entertainment, but strip the visual appeal away and what we’re left with is a weak adapted script that never quite delivers the sting that it threatened to.