Any Singapore art afficionado will know of the local husband-and-wife theatre superteam of Kuo Pao Kun and Goh Lay Kuan: both Cultural Medallion winners, put-upon arts activists and co-founders of highly-respected company The Theatre Practice (TTP). Following his passing in 2002, Kuo has been appropriately lionised – among his many contributions is the establishment of The Substation, as well as the writing of numerous plays that are now part of the local theatre canon.
This year, marking the tenth anniversary of his passing, has seen numerous stagings of his works (from a major festival by TTP to an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore); among the offerings is an original play depicting Kuo’s personal life, which also focuses on his wife Goh, herself a local dance icon – and one still making contributions to the present scene.
Certainly, the question that immediately comes to mind is whether the performers selected – award-winning actors Lim Kay Tong and Karen Tan – would be able to do justice to these legendary local heroes on stage.
Tan, portraying the still-living Goh, has perhaps the trickier of the two roles, made even more nerve-wracking with Goh’s presence in the audience. ‘Let’s face it: Madam Goh’s very much alive, in the same country and she’s even seen the show a few times,’ says Tan, 45. ‘No point trying to be like the real thing – she’s right there!’
There are also plenty of physical differences between the two: ‘Madam Goh usually has a long ponytail, a ramrod straight body and is a trained ballerina. Me – none of the above,’ the bright and bespectacled Tan says with a laugh. ‘I’m not Meryl Streep doing Margaret Thatcher. In theatre, we can take liberties with how we portray people, and who I’m playing is simply a character. I’ve never worked with Madam Goh or Kuo, so I was able to approach this project with no baggage.’
Produced by local theatre company Theatreworks, the play has been developed over several years, first performed as a staged reading in 2010 (at the time called The Red Ballerina – Goh’s name from the press in 1976 when she was made to confess to Communism). To commemorate the anniversary of Kuo’s passing, a limited theatrical run has been scheduled for for select weekends (approximately once a month) in conjunction with the National Museum’s five-month-long ‘A Life of Practice – Kuo Pao Kun’ exhibition, which ends in February.
Goh’s personal story has scant need for embellishment: a teenager in love with dance against her mother’s wishes, she saved money on a teacher’s salary for formal training in Australia, where she became the principal dancer of Ballet Victoria until the racism she experienced there drove her back to Singapore. She married Kuo and they founded the pioneering Practise Performing Arts School, producing daring, thought-provoking plays – ones that unfortunately didn’t toe the government line.
In 1976, the couple were imprisoned without trial during Singapore’s leftist purge. Goh was finally released after ‘confessing’ to communism on television, but Kuo remained imprisoned for four and a half years. During that time, Goh raised her daughters and ran the drama and dance school alone – poor, partnerless and sustained only by her husband’s letters.
The script for Goh & Kuo was painstakingly assembled from Goh and Kuo’s actual letters during that period, as well as additional writings and interview transcripts from the National Archives. ‘My heart breaks when I speak her words to the Internal Security Department (ISD) officer, about going home first to “settle the children”,’ says Tan. ‘Here is this woman – a mother – detained for four months, released in exchange for a televised confession, and she is still teaching, still fiery, still clear, still herself. Her words are almost light-hearted, not destroyed, bitter or hateful towards the country. And in fact, she did go on to create works about – and for – Singapore.’
Indeed, after Kuo’s release in 1980, Goh worked with her husband to cofound the internationally-acclaimed TTP. She continued to travel the world, studying and researching dance and choreographed seminal dance pieces for Singapore, including the country’s first full-length modern dance production, Nu Wa.
Now aged 74, she still plays an advisory role at TTP, teaching dance and enjoying theatre, and has been ever-present throughout the process of bringing Goh & Kuo to the stage. Since the initial readings of the play two years ago, Tan met her larger-than-life character subject for a few get-to-know-each-other sessions rehearsals intensified this year, Goh began attending and watching the practices herself – as well as the first performances in September. But even that didn’t faze Tan: ‘I just have to remember to be as honest with her story as I can. Her grandaughter Olivia came one day, and I actually thought it was very special that she learnt things about her grandparents.’
Reviews of the first few shows have come in, and Tan shrugs off the fact that people seem to think she does a good Goh impression. ‘I get compliments like “Oh, you really channelled her” – but I have no idea what that means,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I stare at her photo or listen to her voice. Perhaps because I’m saying real words spoken by an actual person, people are moved, or remember the past, or say, I could hear her say those lines. I’m really not doing anything special at all.’
As for Madame Goh’s reaction to her take? ‘She’s never told me how she felt about Goh & Kuo,’ smiles Tan. ‘It must be so strange for her to hear someone else speaking her words. But for the rest of us, hers is the life, passion and intensity that some of us dream of. As long as she’s still here, we must learn to live some of that sort of life and create fearlessly.’
Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun is at the National Museum of Singapore on 10 & 11 Jan and 21 & 22 Feb.