Photos by Shiva Bharathi Gupta for RICE Media, unless otherwise stated.
The weight on Timothy Koh’s shoulders is heavy.
It could be the subject matter of ‘Doubt: A Parable’, where he brings to life the critically-acclaimed 2004 play by John Patrick Shanley. It’s set to take stage under theatre company Pangdemonium this June.
‘Doubt’, which received an Oscar-nominated film adaptation in 2008, deals with the thorny politics of organized religion, along with the unraveling of power dynamics once distrust is sowed, and the perennial search for truth.
It’s not the kind of play to offer easy answers, nor is it a tightly-wound lesson in morality. Like many effective dramatic plays, it forces audiences to sit with its ambiguity. If you’re new to theatre, it’s an uncomfortable proposition. But you might just leave the venue with questions that beg further probing.
So, it would be easy to guess that the 29-year-old himself faces the large job of directing this play. It’s not just wrangling with the story and its complexities, but also staging it under the Pangdemonium house banner as a director.
While most of their productions have been under the direction of co-founder and theatre veteran Tracie Pang, ‘Doubt’ marks Timothy’s second play with them after last year’s dinner-table riot ‘Muswell Hill’. There’s certainly a lot of trust, and confidence, placed on Timothy to deliver once again. What is new this time is having to collaborate with another veteran: Neo Swee Lin.
We know her as Ah Ma. The theatre world–and, as I would later discover, her Twitch audience–knows her as an unrelenting workhorse.
Pangdemonium’s Adopted Son
But, hell, let’s introduce the (relatively) new character in this story first.
Timothy feels at home on the big stage, despite his age. There are, of course, many young people involved in theatre full-time, but not many who can command the role of a director at 29.
After a brief internship a decade ago at Pangdemonium, Timothy went on to further his studies at New York University, after which he worked on three off-Broadway productions–all before COVID struck.
He returned to Singapore, where he got a surprise message from Tracie about working at Pangdemonium. “I was very lucky that, right out of uni, I didn’t have to take up a second job to continue working in theatre,” he admits over a Zoom call.
The opportunity helped steer the momentum he built in New York that was briefly stifled by the pandemic. He joined Pangdemonium as Associate Director, working intimately with Tracie, who has been the company’s Artistic Director since its inception.
Now, as the main director for their latest play, Timothy is afforded freedom despite the assumed pressure of the company’s prestige. Thankfully, he says, “the way they understand theatre [aligns with] how I understand theatre.”
He brings to their latest season a play that has stuck with him for over a decade. ‘Doubt: A Parable’, which is also set in New York–a place clearly held dear by him–is a masterclass of dialogue that deals with conflict within a particularly tricky hierarchy: religion.
“We didn’t change any of the words [from the original script],” Tim notes. “The script is so well-crafted,” Swee Lin adds. “It’s very, very compact.”
That, understandably, gives Timothy the lofty responsibility of living up to Pangdemonium’s reputation and bringing to life a carefully-constructed script. He has the credentials, sure, but it also requires special skills to deal with actors who are professionals but, also, human.
“I come from a school of thought which requires me to build the “playground” and then let the actors play within it,” he explains. “And then, it’s being able to communicate with them effectively and clearly.”
Swee Lin agrees. To her, the job requires her listening to the director. But Tim has also created an environment where he’s eager to listen to them just as much.
Singapore’s Adopted Matriarch
As the decade passed after Swee Lin knew Tim as an intern, she now faces him as her stage maestro. “He was an intern when I first knew him, and now he’s my boss!” she says, laughing. “I like to joke with him by saying, ‘I’m so glad I was nice to you then!’”
Swee Lin deserves a feature all on her own, just based on her breathtaking body of work on stage and screen. It has included, of course, playing the loving Ah Ma on Phua Chu Kang, one who chided the title character as much as she tolerated his antics.
Here, the spotlight is on ‘Doubt’, where she’s cast as the stern and fiercely protective Sister Aloysius.
“Swee Lin has made a life out of performing,” Timothy praises his colleague, seated on his right. “It’s such a gift that not many people can do.” Swee Lin, blushing, is also quick to call Tim “clever,” before adding with a wink: “He does have a BFA!”
Academic qualifications in the theatre world don’t matter as much as, say, finance, but Swee Lin recognizes, as did Tracie and Adrian Pang, the intelligence that Tim carries on and off the stage. To Tim, however, what’s most important is orchestrating a welcoming atmosphere for his cast and crew: “If it’s not a room that’s fun, then I don’t think we should be doing it,” he says.
Swee Lin herself can’t find a working environment as fun as ‘Doubt’, despite, you know, its story.
At the centre of the play’s conflict is a 12-year-old boy at a Catholic school, its first-ever Black student. He quickly ends up in suspiciously close orbit with its priest Father Flynn, played by Jason Godfrey.
Their relationship immediately attracts the attention of Swee Lin’s Sister Aloysius, whose fear of inappropriate behaviour on Father Flynn’s part evolves into a web of mistrust that entangles the younger Sister James, played by Ching Shu Yi. In the production–as it was in the original stage play–the boy is only discussed by its central characters, never seen by the audience.
This mainly leaves the spotlight on Swee Lin and Jason, who will perform with the rest of the cast on a stage surrounded by the audience, known by those in the industry as a “theatre-in-the-round”.
It’s a big deal, Swee Lin tells me. “I don’t think I’ve done a play staged like this for, like, 40 years,” she says, referring to a production of Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘Mama Looking for Her Cat’ at the Singapore Conference Hall in 1988–a landmark production of its own, being the country’s first multilingual play.
And, despite Swee Lin’s experience, it took some adjusting while performing rehearsals for ‘Doubt’. “I would be acting my heart out, and then I would realize Tim has moved to a different part of the room,” she recounts. “For the last five minutes, he was only seeing my backside!”
She’s still, in every sense of the word, stoked–the whispers and hushed tension of the play, both Swee Lin and Tim realized, demand microphones to amplify every nuance of each performer. “He fought hard for us to have microphones,” she says.
“Sometimes, in theatre, when people can’t see you, they think they can’t hear you. The fact that we’re all going to be heard over speakers is a huge relief.”
She adds that, being “vertically-challenged”, she has the task of asserting her character beside, and–depending on where you’ll be seated–in front of Jason, who’s “a good two heads taller” than her.
‘Doubt’ ultimately presents new challenges for someone game for a challenge–Swee Lin professes she’s an actor who will “never retire”. She and her husband, the equally-venerable Lim Kay Siu, busy themselves with work–having no children, they continue their craft freely.
Swee Lin has been a constant in Singapore theatre since the late-80s, but it’s undeniable that audiences have changed–not just in age range, but in tastes, sensibilities, outlook. This doesn’t faze Swee Lin, someone who, nonetheless, embraces change.
On a tangent, she speaks on broader cultural shifts, bringing up a younger generation’s relationship with gender and its complexities. She speaks with conviction–it’s no surprise to some who know her not just as an artist, but an advocate for progressive political causes.
She admits she’s adjusting and learning, but emphatically adds it’s something “we have to get in line with”.
Doubt and Its Interpretations
Swee Lin’s political beliefs were moulded long after she was proudly “politically-apathetic” in her 20s. They are, ultimately, driven by a moral compass that–learning from her opinions about the death penalty, for one–professes compassion and mercy above all.
When it came to participating in ‘Doubt’, the idea of one’s moral compass is entwined with the story’s many conflicts.
“To me, the strongest interpretation of [‘Doubt’] is under the assumption that all four characters are doing the best job that they can with the moral compasses they are provided,” Tim shares. “And the conflict arises because their moral compasses do not agree with each other. There’s just no villain in this story.”
‘Doubt’ has stuck with Tim since he first discovered it. For Swee Lin, having known the play before she was cast, she immediately gravitated to the role of Sister Aloysius, who was also portrayed in its 2008 film adaptation by Meryl Streep.
The play’s trajectory sees Sister Aloysius slowly unravel as distrust casts its spell on her once-unwavering confidence. Swee Lin compares her character to Minister K. Shanmugam–in the way he commands authority and unyielding belief in the law during his speeches.
Her character is forged in fire and brimstone, guided by the belief that “fear is the heart of love”–something she credits indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie’s song ‘I Will Follow You into the Dark’ for inspiring.
I ask if there was a generational gap between her and Tim–in the way they approach theatre and the story of ‘Doubt’. She mentions they first bonded over the band. That’s all I needed to know.
The Certainty of Craft
That gap, if not tightened by unbridled passion for what they do, is still noticeable by the fact that one is much more terminally online than the other. And it’s not the 29-year-old.
When asked about her plans beyond ‘Doubt’, Swee Lin mentions an upcoming two-person play which she’ll perform alongside her husband Lim Kay Siu, who’s back in Singapore after production for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ wrapped.
They’re also planning a trip to Las Vegas later in the year for TwitchCon–both actively engage with viewers on their Twitch channel, where they riff with regular conversation and perform ukulele covers of well-known songs. Their audience comprise regular viewers beyond local ones, and they’re planning to meet the ones who also plan to congregate at the event. She’s also crossing her fingers that the premiere of Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ will happen around the same time.
Tim shares equal excitement for his upcoming work, which includes being assistant director for Pangdemonium’s next production–the classic musical ‘Into the Woods’–along with a play that he’s keeping mum about.
“It’s… an American piece,” he hints. Swee Lin laughs alongside his hesitance. Whether or not she knows what he’s holding back, the two radiate such comfort in each other’s presence that there’s no uncertainty their chemistry will lead to something special come June. Just be sure to find the right seat.