What Pam Oei and Ivan Heng think audiences can take away from Wild Rice's Tartuffe: 'Who has the ear of the king?'

Ivan Heng says the play also looks at how power and authority is wielded.

Theatre thespians Ivan Heng (right) and Pam Oei (background) in Wild Rice's Tartuffe. PHOTO: Wild Rice
Theatre thespians Ivan Heng (right) and Pam Oei (background) in Wild Rice's Tartuffe. PHOTO: Wild Rice

It may not be set in Singapore, but Wild Rice’s re-staging of French playwright Moliere's satire Tartuffe: The Imposter has much food for thought for local audiences.

For the unfamiliar, Tartuffe: The Imposter is a dark comedy about a wealthy family who unravels under the machinations of a seductive con man Tartuffe. He masquerades as a man of faith who charms his way into the heart (home and bank account) of Orgon, the head of the household, despite the protestations of Orgon’s entire family.

One of the most “chilling” things near the ending stands out for professional thespian Pam Oei, who plays a dual role in the play - and it’s when he says he’s “just a concerned citizen”.

In an interview with Yahoo Southeast Asia on Wednesday (17 April), the 52-year-old said, “And we have a lot of concerned citizens, not just in Singapore, everywhere. Everyone has a f****** camera, right? Everyone can record everything. So it’s the people who complain.

“And because they’re so scared of the people who complain, the people in authority want to cover their own ass. So everyone just doesn't dare to do anything and everyone is afraid of the concerned citizen who complains. The complainer is very, very powerful in Singapore.”

Echoing a line the titular character says at the end, Oei added, “One Tartuffe, we can deal with, right? What happens when it’s many Tartuffes, an army of Tartuffes? Then it becomes a legion, right?”

Ivan Heng, founding artistic director of Wild Rice and a prolific name in local theatre, thinks that the play is very important in Singapore because “we kind of tend to privilege the faithful”.

The 60-year-old, who plays Orgon, explained that having a multi-religious society is seen as a sign of social harmony and “we are very glad and grateful for that”.

“But it feels almost like you privilege the faithful,” he added. “Once you have a faith, you actually have a moral compass. That you kind of don’t question things. Likewise, I think our relationship to authority is quite unquestioning.”

“That idea of how authority is wielded and power is wielded - that has really come up for me,” Heng said.

To illustrate the point, he pointed out the way Orgon wields his power in the household when he “runs roughshed over women’s viewpoints and treats them as just property to be married off, or just ignores them”.

To the undiscerning viewer, Orgon might just come off like someone who just does what he is told and follows the rules.

But, to Heng, it’s “more nuanced than that” as it’s a look at how people “weaponise religion in order to keep others down”.

He explained, “Case in point, I think Section 377A took 15 years to repeal and has the world ended? Have we suddenly gone down the path of Sodom and Gomorrah?... What has actually happened since then?

Oei added, “Now, it's a whole other fight on how do we ensure equality for the LGBTQ community - like real equality - and not just doing away with a law that couldn't be executed in the first place?

Having the “ear of the king” is something Tartuffe mentions at the end, when the family goes to see the King, hoping he can set things right.

We won’t spoil the ending, but the adaptation - written by Joel Tan - is different from Moliere’s version.

Director Glen Goei previously told The Straits Times in 2022 (when Tartuffe was first staged) that he believes it was “the final scene that Moliere wanted to write but wasn't allowed to put on”.

On the sobering ending, Heng said, “The question here we want to ask is, are the Tartuffes in jail? Or where are the Tartuffes? We know that the Tartuffes are among us today. I think that’s what is more powerful.

“What is so really delicious about it is that when you come to this production, it’s like a passion fruit macaron with a razor blade in it. It's delicious. It's sweet. It's candy coloured. It's amazing. You laugh and then you have to think about it. That's the best kind of theatre.”

He added, “Its themes about hypocrisy and deception, and the way we regard authority, is timeless. In fact, now more timely than ever. It’s timeless and more timely than ever.”

Oei shared that there are also themes of gender equality and feminism in the play, but “at the end, who has the ear of your king?”

“Who is whispering to him? And, you know, how do we manage our relationship with authority, as citizens? How do we view it? How do we manage it? How do we act upon it, or not act upon it? How do we vote? I think all these are kind of themes that are running inside the play that you can go home and slowly think about it,” she said with a chuckle.

Tartuffe: The Imposter ends on 28 April and you can book tickets here.

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