“There will always be the [preachers] who think their way is the only way”: Interview with Neo Swee Lin from the House of Bernarda Alba

This play is touted to be one of the best this year. Tell us more about it.
Well, that’s because I’m in it. (laughs) The play boasts an amazing cast of women. We are working with a chorus of 30 women, so you can expect plenty of power on stage. It’s going to be exciting with all that feminine energy in one place. 

Do you think you have suppressed desires yourself? 
No, I don’t think so. Or if I do, I’m not going to tell…

The plot’s cleverly transposed into Peranakan society. Was it the best fit for the tale?
Yes, I think it works. I feel there are a lot of similarities between Peranakan culture and the world in Lorca’s play. The religious aspect works, and the idea of how things “look” (so important to Bernarda) or what we call “face” is really the same thing. Bernarda’s snobbery, that none of the men in the village are of the right class for her daughters, reminds me of stories told about the old Peranakan families that would not allow marriage with a non-Peranakan. Costume-wise, I think the use of lace is prominent in both cultures.

If director Garcia Lorca was still alive today, what do you think he would say? 
I hope that he would be happy that his play is still relevant and being staged in a land so far. This adaptation/translation of the play is by one of our finest playwrights Chay Yew. His words are pure poetry and an absolute joy to learn.

People see you in a variety of genres on stage and television, notably comedy. How difficult is it for you to play all these different characters?
I feel very lucky to be working in a job that I enjoy so much. Some jobs are easier than others, but they are all good. I long for more work, as I am happiest when I am working. Recently though, it feels like the parts are fewer and less forthcoming. So, anyone reading this who can cast me, please do.

In a 2010 interview with I-S magazine, you mentioned that you’d repeal Section 377A if you were Prime Minister for a week. What are your thoughts about the level of openness and tolerance to homosexuality in Singapore these days?
I’d like to think that we are more tolerant and [better] these days. Of course, there will always be the [preachers] who think their way is the only way. The recent controversy about the Health Promotion Board FAQ was a great and wonderful thing. Just the fact it’s present is a sign of the times. It’s only a matter of time before people realize it is purely equality.

What’s the meaning of life for an artist like you and what keeps you grounded?
Love, living my life with love. Remembering to be grateful for what I have. 

Many artists have looked overseas for opportunities. What do you have to say to them for plying their trade elsewhere?
Yes, go, by all means, go. Artists cannot be confined by borders. The world is a stage. I hope they come back though, like I did, when the time is right.

If there’s one thing you’d have done differently when you first started out, what would it be?
Ok, this has nothing to do with performing. I trained as a lawyer in NUS before I studied acting. I was always looking to go back to law at some point but it just never happened. I would have liked to be called up to the bar and working as a litigator at some point. Maybe it’s not too late?

If you woke up as a man and stayed that way for a week, what would you do?
I cannot think of a single thing that a man can do in this day and age that a woman cannot. What a wonderful world we live in. Except maybe for one thing—pee standing.

Neo Swee Lin performs in The House of Bernarda Alba at the  Drama Centre Theatre, National Library. March 12-29. $45-75 from Sistic.