To paraphrase 18th-century political philosopher and journalist William Godwin, man does not know what he is capable of effecting until he encounters extraordinary circumstances. This proposition is put to the test in Theatresauce’s final production for its 2017/18 season, The Bee. Written collaboratively by Japanese and English playwrights Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan, the thriller is based on a 1970s short story by Yasutaka Tsutsui.
In a plot that bears resemblance to the Taken films — albeit a version that is Japanese, more manic, animated with a hint of slapstick and even musical at certain moments — it follows the journey of salaryman Ido, who arrives home from an ordinary day at work to find it barricaded, and his wife and son held hostage by an escaped prisoner.
Ido is played by Jon Chew, in his comeback role after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) with a Master’s in Classical Acting. With a laugh at the Taken reference, he says, “It would be sort of like a Liam Neeson that was a Japanese Brady Bunch family member, much nerdier and less proficient in hand-to-hand combat.”
The idea of being put in a situation where a man is forced to do something out of the ordinary piques the interest of Chew, who relishes the chance to play a character who experiences such a drastic shift. “The story ends in a stand-off between this salaryman and criminal as he tries and fails to get help from the police, or the media, or even the prisoner’s wife. It’s a very familiar scenario [in the context of today’s society]. So, the question of what one would do in that situation, how it affects him and everyone else from there, is really an interesting one to explore,” he says.
The actor, who has been abroad for the last four years, is known for his roles in local theatre productions such as Angels in America, The Last Five Years, Philadelphia, Here I Come and Broken Bridges. Possessing a distinctive stage presence that is at the same time earnest, vulnerable and inscrutable, Chew is a fitting cast for the role of someone going through such internal conflict as that of Ido.
“I remember a quote that says, ‘We are all a civil war’. There is always this thing going on within us — decisions between the things we want to do but don’t and the things we don’t want to do but actually do,” he observes of the duality and turmoil that the character contends with.
In a sense, it is a struggle that Chew knows intimately in his journey as an actor. Ever since he was young enough to dream about future occupations, he has been curious and passionate about stories and the people behind them, though it first burgeoned through the medium of films. Yet, it will be years before he boldly walked down the path of being a thespian.
There is always this thing going on within us — decisions between the things we want to do but don’t and the things we don’t want to do but actually do
Then, there is the writing — Chew is an experienced journalist and editor. In fact, he often finds his next opportunity through the crossroads of both careers, including his first acting class, which was offered by his then employer, Astro, in partnership with the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art. “I remember the teachers telling me that I should try to pursue acting. One of my friends then insisted I audition for a production. And I remember the first night after my first performance … I couldn’t sleep and I had a moment of catharsis — an awareness that this is something I could really love,” recalls Chew.
Before LAMDA in the UK, there was a two-year stint in New York where he took a master’s degree in Columbia University’s School of Journalism, focusing on business and economic writing. It was while working at Fortune magazine after that that he was reunited with director and founder of Theatresauce, Kelvin Wong.
“Kelvin had just finished his Master’s in Directing at DePaul University in Chicago and decided to move to New York for a year to work. So, we became roommates, along with [Tung] Jit Yang,” says Chew. The trio often talked about their plans and aspirations in theatre, which ultimately provided the push for Chew to head to the UK.
Returning to Malaysia and to the local theatre stage with The Bee is in some way coming full circle for Chew. “The timing was right when Kelvin asked if I was interested. I’m really excited to get back on stage here, especially to be directed by a friend like him. It’s nice to see my growth coming into this production, how I approach some things differently now. He too has grown a lot since we last worked together on Short and Sweet, so it’s exciting to see him at this point in his journey.”
Backed by a strong cast of some of KL’s most talented and versatile actors in what is promising to be a high-octane and fun, if macabre, thriller — The Bee rounds up what has been a strong year for Theatresauce (after its production of Antigone and the more recent sold-out run of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis).
For Chew, who will head back to London to debut in a major West End production in summer, the cherry on top, apart from being home here in Malaysia, is how things have worked out in real life, at least. “Interestingly enough, everything we talked about in New York — Kelvin to start his own theatre company, Jit wanting to come back and direct, work and create here ... and me finally deciding to pursue acting as a possible path. We have all done it straight out of the gate, which is quite amazing.”
The Bee will be staged from Feb 1 to 11 at indicine, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, Sentul. Tickets are priced at RM58. There is currently a promotional deal of “buy 3, free 1”. Visit www.klpac.org for details. This article first appeared on Jan 29, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.