RL: I’ve heard that you feel that you’ve lost Emily, that she’s no longer yours. Is that true?
SK: Well, the emphasis there has been shifted slightly, but, yes, I feel there is a danger that people are taking Emily away from me in that too often the papers print – this is really the newspapers’ fault as much as anybody else’s – print articles about Emily as if it belongs to the actor. For instance, they did a whole article about Ivan’s [Ivan Heng's] Emily and didn’t mention my name in the article. Or another time, they mentioned it in one line, “by Stella Kon”, and that was the end of it. And this is the press – they even called it “Ivan’s trademark piece”. It should not be his trademark piece. At most, I franchised it to him.
There are other ways in which various theatre companies used Emily as a character in their plays without asking my permission. So that was not proper behaviour. (Pause.) Oh, I just heard that somebody did a performance in Malacca of Emily of Emerald Hill, and I only heard about it from a member of the audience. So again, this is not right, this should not be done, and I shall have to go after them. I’ll get my lawyers to write to them.
RL: I’m curious then from what you just said: did Jonathan Lim approach you to ask for permission to use Emily in writing his very funny piece, “Emerald Hole”?
SK: No, he didn’t. I found out about it later.
RL: Did you see “Emerald Hole”?
SK: I don’t think I did. I was out of Singapore at the time. I mean, I would have given permission if they had asked. But it’s just correct procedure to ask.
RL: That’s my question actually – don’t they have to ask?
SK: Yes, definitely, they should. And if they don’t ask, they are out of their rights, and I wish to enforce my rights if possible.
RL: Returning to the subject of Emily and “Ivan Heng’s Emily”. You know Krishin Jit, don’t you?
SK: Yes, a very nice man. I’m very happy with his interpretation of the play, although it is difficult to know which is Krishin and which is Ivan. But I think Krishin is a very sensitive reader of the text.
RL: And are you happy with Ivan Heng’s work in the play?
SK: I’m very happy with his work as Emily, but I find there’s also a lot of Ivan as Ivan. The parts where Ivan comes down and interacts with the audience are almost... Let me say, he makes it a point to say “this is not part of the play.” So it’s a way of doing the play, but it’s not a way I’m totally happy about. I can’t say you mustn’t do this. But I think it tends to throw the balance of the play off.
RL: What about his interacting with the audience during the interval - which many people find charming and just wonderful?
SK: Okay, let me make two points. During those interactions with the audience, he is using the words of the script, but he is... let me say, he is building upon them by sheer repetition and comic emphasis. Why doesn’t he just generate some new words instead of caricaturing the existing ones. Why not put in some new ones?
Secondly, that’s Ivan, not Emily. Because the Emily that you later see on stage is a different character from the woman that Ivan is portraying in the interactions. For instance, the woman he’s portraying in the interactions would not have handled her husband’s infidelities in the same way as Emily does. He’s portraying a different kind of woman, a woman who is very... garang is the local word... fierce, peppery, very fiery. Whereas the Emily that you later see on stage reacts to her husband’s infidelities in not such a fiery way. In a more passive sort of way, though she is manipulative. But she doesn’t explode. Whereas the one that you saw coming down and interacting with the audience would not have held still for that kind of behaviour.
RL: Jumping ahead a few years – “Human Heart Fruit” [produced in June 2002] is, I believe, the first monologue you’ve written since Emily. Is there a reason for that – the fact that you haven’t written any monologues between those two?
SK: Oh, I sure wouldn’t want to repeat myself. Definitely, some people would compare it to Emily. Unless I found something which I thought actually tops Emily, I wouldn’t do it. But then, Action Theatre more or less commissioned a piece from me, so I went ahead.
RL: What was the commission?
SK: Yes, they said that it should be a monologue for a woman, and they said twenty minutes.
RL: And, of course, about fruits.
RL: We’ll get back to “Human Heart Fruit” specifically in a few minutes, but I wanted to take up one other relevant matter first. You seem to have had a lot of trouble getting plays produced in a way that was faithful to the text. Would you like to comment on that?
SK: Okay, I have been terribly passive, I have never actually tried to get things produced, short of sending manuscripts in to the directors - which never had any effect. In effect, I’ve just sat in my house in Ipoh and Edinburgh and somebody rings up and says, “You know, we’re going to produce your play” and I say “That’s fine.”
The case with Dragon’s Teeth Gate was a big mess-up actually. [This commissioned work was ultimately done in a “workshopped” version which bore little resemblance to the original text.] I was in Edinburgh, and the Singapore Arts Festival commissioned the script and then allocated a director to do it. So most of the time I had no idea what the director was doing. And when I did find out, it was like I didn’t feel in a position to do anything about it. Which may have been a misjudgement at the time. I could perhaps have called up some people in Singapore and made a fuss, but I didn’t.
So there have been these problems, and I have not positioned myself where I want to argue with directors and say, “I want it done this way.” But in that way, I have in effect left them to do it however they wanted to do it, even though I didn’t feel very happy with what happened. Some of the productions, I have been very happy with.
RL: Let’s return then to “Human Heart Fruit”. I read in The Straits Times that you were... what should we say?... rather upset with the production of “Human Heart Fruit”. I understand that in your script, the action is set in the kitchen and all the activities are centred around that kitchen. And then suddenly, in the Action Theatre production, we find ourselves in some strange soulscape with five toilet bowls standing about.
SK: (Laughs.) Yeah, a few things about “Human Heart Fruit”. First, it was meant to be a quickie. And because it was meant to be a quickie, one of six, it’s assumed that the audience doesn’t have that much processing power in their head. They’re being hit by so many plays, they’re not going to have very much critical ability left to them. So it was set as a kind of detective story. So it might actually not have been possible to do it the way I wanted to do it since they were making it a double bill.
The second thing is that it was crafted as a quickie detective story and one of the visual clues is the electric blanket, which is not available in the current production. So I believe [Low] Kee Hong’s idea was “never mind the detective story”, because it doesn’t suit the half-of-a-double-bill format. So he cut out all the visual clues which would make that work. So there’s a different emphasis, I would say.
Then, finally, Kee Hong is acting, he’s producing, in directors’ theatre. It’s a form of theatre in which the director has his vision, unlike the older form of theatre where the director’s role is to carry out the writer’s vision. So, all in all, I could say that I do not like what he did, but I don’t really have to like it. It’s okay with me that I don’t like it, in a sense. I would rather that it is not produced in directors’ theatre, but if it is, I’m not upset about it, because whether or not I like it, and how I saw it, are apparently not very relevant anyway. In the end, the script still exists, and perhaps in future, some school will put it on and we’ll see how it goes when it’s done as a detective story.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002