Interview with Oliver Chong

The Spirits Play

The Spirits Play. Photo: Tuckys Photography.

Centred on five Japanese ghosts – of a mother, a general, a girl, a man, and a poet – from the World War II period, Kuo Pao Kun’s anti-war classic The Spirits Play was first staged by The Theatre Practice in 1998, and last staged by The Finger Players (TFP) in 2015. Two years later, the piece is returning as part of The Finger Players’ Contemporary Classics season together with Chong Tze Chien’s 2010 play, Poop!.

The Spirits Play is once again directed by the company’s resident director, Oliver Chong, and the cast and crew is the same as the 2015 staging, except this time it will be performed at Victoria Theatre instead of the Drama Centre Black Box. Oliver insists, however, that this production is more than just adapting the 2015 piece to a larger venue. We catch up with himto find out more about the work before the team begins rehearsals at Centre 42 for the first few weeks of October.

When did you first encounter The Spirits Play, and what drew you to the work?
The very first staging of The Spirits Play in 1998. The script was what drew me to the work because of the controversy it raised and Kuo Pao Kun was criticised for “speaking up for the aggressor”. We often hear the oppressed lamenting the cruelties of war and naturally rebuff all cries from the aggressors because their sufferings are just desserts for inflicting pain on others. Hearing the ghosts of the aggressors speak of the atrocities of war provided a bigger lens that look past hatred and discrimination to look at the human conditions of greed, anger and ignorance. The exploration of these human conditions in The Spirits Play is and will always be relevant. The play allows audiences to deeper examine and ruminate upon these conditions magnified under the cruel circumstances of war. That said, I am not sure if I will be able maintain this clarity of mind to direct it if I have lived through a war.

The Spirits Play was last staged by TFP in 2015 – why did the company decide to bring it back two years later?
Because our work was not yet finished in 2015. It was the completion of a phase of work but not fully completed. Yes I know, as of all previous works too. So I want to carry on working on it when it is still relatively fresh and move on to the next phase. And so, this restaging will not see the work repeated as of its last staging or just cosmetically adapted to a bigger stage. The Spirits Play also seems especially imperative now with recent news of imminent wars and nuclear threats all over the media. And also because the previous staging was well received that we have the chance to carry on working on it.

Oliver Chong

Oliver Chong. Photo: Tuckys Photography.

And why did TFP decide to stage The Spirits Play and Poop! as part of a Contemporary Classics season, rather as two standalone works? How does The Spirits Play‘s “classic” relate to Poop!‘s “contemporary”?
We decided to brand the Poop!/The Spirits Play season as “contemporary classic” as a preamble to a regular theme in our back to back plays by myself and Tze Chien from this point onwards. Our practice, and by extension the company’s, often draws its inspirations and methodologies from traditions and classics; we tend to modernise stage conventions and traditions/myths, making them our own while adhering to old-school principles and staging devices/styles/training methods.

On a literal level, in the branding “contemporary classic, the “classic” refers to The Spirits Play, and “contemporary” is a direct reference to Poop! as a modern counterpart. But of course contemporary classics could also be applied to both plays (one being a KPK classic and the other a TFP classic).

We hope to create a regular following of this back to back feature, which will return in June next year, and you’ll see how Tze Chien and myself respond to this theme “contemporary classics” with new works, with both original plays citing history and myths as inspiration.

What is the process of restaging a relatively recent piece like?
Re-familiarising with the work and re-visiting our previous staging is the first step. This is so that we can carry on working from where we left off as opposed to starting from scratch. The work that we have done up to the previous staging is invaluable and we are going to develop it further. The research and exploration work that we have done will be excavated further and deeper in characterisation. Actors’ training and exploration of Suzuki and Noh and finding a movement and voice vocabulary for this staging is underway.

Your team will be holding rehearsals at Centre 42 for the two weeks leading up to the performance. How do you plan to structure your time here?
Full runs, actors getting used to the actual size of the space and the texture of the floor that they will be walking on, notes, adjusts, repeat. Because TFP rehearsal studio does not have the actual depth and the entire floor on stage will be covered with garments and clothes.

By Gwen Pew
Published on 12 October 2017

The Spirits Play will be performed at Victoria Theatre from 27 to 29 October 2017. Tickets are available from Sistic.