A fight scene is the same as a love scene. Both are terribly emotional, expressed in a physical manner. And there are certain lines you don’t cross, though you approach with as much passion as you can.’
Lim Yu Beng, 46, is describing his role in bringing the fisticuffs to this month’s W!ld Rice production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The fight choreographer certainly looks like he could handle himself in a real-life fracas – he turns up on his motorbike, all shaved head and lean muscle, looking every inch the Hollywood tough guy he has played at times (more on that later). Yet the husband and father is not just there to bring out brutishness in his characters.
‘The audience shouldn’t be thinking this is the fight section, or this is the love section,’ says Lim, who also appears in the play as Friar Laurence, the adviser to Romeo and Juliet. ‘They should be thinking that this is what’s happening between two people, whether we’re hitting each other or f**king each other.’
In other words, don’t expect a one-dimensional, kung-fu Romeo and Juliet. After all, Lim is about more than just punching: from directing to sound and lighting design to scriptwriting, he has pretty much done it all when it comes to theatre. ‘I’ll mount the floor, do the technicals, sweep the stage – whatever it takes to get the show up,’ he says.
Even non-theatregoers are likely to recognise him as the hyper-dedicated Sergeant Alan Leong from the ’90s Channel 5 police drama Triple Nine; as David Carradine’s boyhood friend-turned-nemesis in the American TV movie Kung Fu Killer (2008); or as the scar-faced rebel leader in the Malaysian-shot Hollywood biopic Anna and the King (1999), starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.
Locally, Lim has won numerous theatre awards and served as the poster boy for many top Singapore stage productions – a risqué photo of the actor appeared on the poster for Action Theatre’s Manhood in 2010, and that taut posterior on the poster for W!ld Rice’s acclaimed Animal Farm was his (though the pig’s tail wasn’t).
Surprisingly, Lim has never had formal combat training. He picked up his fighting skills on the job, starting with his work for local company TheatreWorks in the mid-’80s, after studying performance and technical theatre studies at Pepperdine University near Malibu, California. ‘Rehearsing at TheatreWorks, I encountered everything from Shaolin to kalaripayat [an Indian martial art]. Asian fighting is much more hips, qi, chakra [Hindu ‘force centres’] – even something peaceful like tai chi…with the swirling and deflecting, it’s a fighting art.’
His training led to stunt and combat opportunities on both stage and screen. ‘Working on Triple Nine, they called me “honorary stuntsman”, letting me do my own stunts because…well, they knew I wanted to,’ he says with a laugh. While shooting the 2001 American TV movie The Lost Empire, starring Thomas Gibson of TV’s Criminal Minds, Lim ‘punched him in the honker’ due to mutual mistiming. Lim was horrified but the injury to Gibson was minor.
Locally, Lim began helping to coordinate fights for productions when ‘there was no one to do it’. These days he’s one of Singapore’s go-to guys for fight choreography, with credits ranging from the stage version of Mee Pok Man to Toy Factory’s martial arts theatre piece East Side Story.
So what are his battle plans for Romeo and Juliet? ‘In Singapore, we have people who do mixed martial arts, kickboxing, shaolin etc. For the show, I’m going to mix things up a bit. We might characterise the two different houses by slightly different styles of fighting, but make it clear they have more in common than they realise.’
And what of the fact that the actors under Lim’s supervision in Romeo and Juliet aren’t,well, him? He harrumphs modestly: ‘That’s a good thing! I can’t even run; I have no knee left. The only exercise I get is doing shows. Plus fights aren’t all about vigorous posturing. Why is every scene with Christopher Walken and a gun terrifying? Because you know he will blow your head off, even if he’s just cleaning his ear. Very good actors have the ability to make you believe they can and will f**king kill you. That’s what people who don’t understand acting call presence.’
Romeo and Juliet is at the Drama Centre Theatre from 12-28 Apr.