SINGAPORE – Playwright, director and actor Oliver Chong says last year (2018) was “the darkest period” of his life.
His father died of cancer, and Chong relinquished his full-time position at The Finger Players, which had been facing financial issues, to support its succession plan and reduce costs.
During those days, the 42-year-old’s thoughts took a philosophical turn, with him seeking “answers and solace” in texts by Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche and other writers.
“Existentialist and absurdist literature has always been something I’ve been very curious about – finding the meaning of the meaninglessness of life,” says Chong, who is a core member of The Finger Players, but like other former full-timers is no longer on the payroll.
The upshot of Chong’s reflection is A Fiend’s Diary, which is presented by The Finger Players and will run at the National Library’s Drama Centre Black Box from Thursday (Oct 24) to Sunday (Oct 27).
The one-man show, which is written, directed and acted by Chong, is told from the perspective of a man who has killed someone and is awaiting his execution in prison. It unfolds during the last 90 minutes of his life as he recounts the events of the past fortnight – such as his mother’s death and a court hearing.
“I’m using this production as therapy – sort of,” says Chong, who is drawing on the tradition of the diary form narrative seen in short stories such as Nikolai Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman (1835) and Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary (1918).
He admits that being his own director, playwright, set designer and the sole actor – he shapeshifts into about 10 different characters – has been a lonely enterprise.
In 2012, when he directed his award-winning one-man show Roots, he tried performing in front of a mirror and video-recording himself during rehearsals. However, he found both methods ineffective.
BOOK IT/ A FIEND’S DIARY
WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5, National Library building, 100 Victoria Street,
WHEN: Thurs (Oct 24) to Sun (Oct 27), 8pm (Thurs to Sat) and 3pm (weekends)
ADMISSION: From $25 at https://afiendsdiary.peatix.com
INFO: Performed in Chinese with English closed captions. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6738-6061
This time, he enlisted the help of an assistant “so I don’t go mad”.
He adds that “fiend” alludes to the value-judgments people place on offenders, even when they only know one side – or an incomplete version – of the story.
“There’s always news about someone murdering someone without a logical reason – like mass-killings in schools, or a son killing his father, wife or mother for reasons that could sound illogical or petty, but we don’t really know what’s happening. That’s why they are called ‘monsters’ or ‘fiends’.”
The protagonist, a man who is indifferent to life, is one of the most challenging characters Chong has played. “He’s almost an embodiment of life itself, which is indifferent. Whatever happens to anyone, the sun will still rise and set. Playing a character that is indifferent is almost the antithesis of acting.”
Next year, Chong will direct the play Contemplating Kopitiam And Kampong Wa’ Hassan, which features students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and will be staged at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January (2020).
Unlike Roots, A Fiend’s Diary does not break the fourth wall. Watching it will be “almost voyeuristic”, and people will be looking at a man who is essentially speaking to himself.
It will challenge theatre-goers.
“I don’t want the audience to sit back, relax and ‘enjoy’ the show. A Fiend’s Diary is not going to entertain anybody. It will force the audience to think.”