The play Purple walks the tricky territory between starkly sincere and super-spectacular. The story of ‘Singapore’s most famous transsexual’ Maggie Lai (played by Shane Mardjuki), it features both aerial acrobatics and a devastatingly detailed scene reenacting Maggie’s bloody sex-change operation.
See also: Sex and dating tips from Maggie Lai (played by Shane Mardjuki)
As if all this weren’t sensational enough, Purple has Maggie’s tale told by three beautiful but bloodthirsty nurses. Maidemoisella, Verinimolisa and Prisercillia – played by Matilda Chua, Elizabeth Loh and Rebecca Spykerman, respectively – are the nurses entrusted with Maggie’s operation. None of the actresses can quite remember their characters’ names during our interview. ‘Please don’t ask me to spell it. Or pronounce it,’ laughs the boisterous Loh, while the charming Spykerman confesses: ‘Good Lord, hold on. I have to check her name.’ What they do know is that their characters are as outrageous as their names.
Spykerman explains: ‘The nurses are really a heightened reflection of how society acts towards Maggie. They’re the unkindness Maggie and other transgenders grow up with because of their preference.’ The petite, contemplative Chua adds: ‘They don’t actually tend to Maggie. In fact, I think of them as voices in Maggie’s head, creatures formed from the prejudices and opinions of Singaporean society as a whole. Maidemoisella comes across as quite affable at first, but then Maggie comes along and it’s like a switch goes off in her head. She calls Maggie a creature, she obviously doesn’t treat her as a human being. I can’t imagine myself treating another person like that in real life.’
Unfortunately, real life is worse. Researching sunny Singapore’s attitude to transsexuals, Spykerman was shocked to discover some prominent clubs bar entry to transgenders. Chua even found a petition to have them banned on buses, along with animals. But arguably, the greatest cruelty comes from transgenders themselves. ‘We saw a video of the operation where they change their sex. It’s very gruesome,’ says Loh. ‘I don’t know how they can do that. They dissect the penis, tuck it in, make it a vagina. There’s a detailed scene in Purple about that. The video is on YouTube for anyone to watch, so you can go check it out. I don’t think we’ll actually play it during the show, or we can probably forget about performing after that.’
Rest assured that the show’s spectacles aren’t all bloody. In fact, audiences will see some stunning circus stunts. ‘We’ve been going to Circus Swingapore for lessons,’ says Chua. ‘We’ve been learning the aerial silks, trapeze and lyra,’ she says, the latter referring to a hoop dangling in mid-air that performers thread themselves through. ‘I don’t find it too diffi cult. It’s actually a lot of fun!’ Her fellow nurses are slightly less thrilled. Spykerman deadpans: ‘I’m like a whale and a monkey [combined] at the moment. Hopefully I’ll be a graceful whale-monkey by show time.’
For Loh there’s an added challenge to overcome: ‘I’m afraid of heights. I didn’t know that till now. And there won’t be a mat or a net for the show.’ Aerial stunts aren’t the only thing they have to master. With the exception of Loh, who feels at home speaking Singlish – a habit actors are typically required to kick before performing in a play – Spykerman and Chua have had to brush up on the local lingo.
Chua left Singapore with her family at the age of six and was educated in the United Kingdom, while Spykerman is of Dutch, Portuguese and Indian lineage and attended an American school. ‘I don’t always get the musicality of Singlish right,’ Chua admits. There aren’t many people they can consult on the ‘proper Singlish’ in Purple, as their director is an Australian, Rayann Condy, and star Shane Mardjuki is a US-accented Indonesian who had to study Chinese dialects (as well as pole dancing) to play his role.
Nonetheless, all the actors agree the hard work is worth it because it allows them to deliver the play’s powerful message. ‘It’s already so hard for girls growing into women,’ says Spykerman. ‘Transgenders in soul feel they are women, but are stuck in a man’s body. They go through a huge process to change physically, then still have to deal with society’s acceptance. We can only bring awareness of this issue to the public. They might or might not receive it. I hope they do.’
Purple is at Joyden Hall, Bugis+ from 2-18 Aug.