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Trying to think back on Natalie Hennedige’s work is like willing yourself back into a fever dream. The images that surface feel like snatches of hallucinations—a nurse’s white skirt rimmed in red, as if neatly dipped in cartoon blood; candy-coloured clouds of synthetic curls crowning unruly women; a stage carved into tiers, characters moving like dancers at a rave held in a frieze; a looming colossus, tragic and terrible. Fraught words bloom, turning visceral — fate, abjection, catharsis.
It’s all too much. It’s supposed to be. But let’s put a pin in that; we’ll come back to the meticulous construction of overwhelming otherworlds. First, a dose of reality. After all, there’s no one without the other.
“We were not an artistic family. We didn't go to the theatre,” says Natalie. Her Sinhalese father was a dentist, her Peranakan mother ran a dental supplies company.
She was the eldest of five daughters, prone to flights of fancy as a child. In primary school, she enjoyed directing assembly skits. But by the time she was a teenager, she was opting for the science stream in Victoria Junior College, with a hazy but parent-approved goal of medical school in mind.
Then, she discovered Theatre Studies. Something clicked immediately. “I got it. I realised I was wired that way. Real life was strange and difficult to navigate, but I understood this imaginary world innately. I knew I could do this.”
It was as a Theatre Studies student that she first encountered Greek tragedy, in the form of Sophocles’ Antigone.
The play begins with death: Two brothers have died while vying for the throne of Thebes. The new ruler, their uncle Creon, deems one brother, Polyneices, a rebel, and declares that his body will lie unburied. Antigone, the boys’ sister, defies Creon, with devastating consequences. The story resonated deeply with Natalie. “Antigone was young, my age at the time,” she says.
The fact that young people die in this play because of the decisions made by adults in power also spoke to her. “That breaks my heart. There was an oppressiveness about Thebes, a place that choked the life out of people. As a 19-year-old, I understood this oppressiveness in the places where I existed.”
In class, she was asked to imagine how she would direct the piece, and even sketched costumes for the characters. But, much like Greek tragedy, real life is tethered to its own intractable momentum.
The junior college years came to an end; since theatre was still the only thing that made sense to her, Natalie enrolled in Lasalle College of the Arts, graduating with a bachelor's degree in drama.
She freelanced as a theatre practitioner before becoming an associate artist, then resident director, at The Necessary Stage. “Antigone stayed in my mind, but I put her away. I didn't know where I was going to encounter her again.” Put another pin in that.
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In 2005, Natalie decided she was ready to take an artistic leap. She launched Cake Theatrical Productions to develop experimental theatre, “as a way of injecting vigour and diversity into Singapore’s artistic landscape”, as she put it in the 2012 edition of the journal Performance Paradigm. The new company’s goal was clearly defined: to constantly explore new ground. “I knew I wanted to engage with the classics at some point, but I didn't want to do that at the beginning,” she tells us. “I had to create first, and find stories and a language that were original.”
Animal Vegetable Mineral (2005), Queen Ping (2006) and Cheek (2006), all written and directed by her, swiftly established the new company’s distinctive ethos. The themes that had gripped Natalie as a teenager re-surfaced in these productions, which were populated by characters estranged from their constricting contexts, and haunted by death, both literally and metaphorically.
By the time Nothing came around in 2007, she had crystallised her motif. In this play, she writes in Performance Paradigm, “more directly than before in earlier productions, we were homing in on a type of Singapore and the deathly soullessness that follows a skewed value system”.
As a playwright, she toyed with structure. In a Flying Inkpot review of Desire at the Melancholic String Concert (2011), critic Matthew Lyon analysed her methods:
"In Queen Ping the narrative snowballs: the central family's dysfunctions remain the same, but each time we revisit them, they have attained more mass. In Nothing the narrative is kaleidoscopic: its fragments shift until we belatedly realise they have formed a vivid picture of love and loss. In Temple the narrative implodes: seemingly disparate entities rush together to form a white-hot core of protest. Each of these approaches demands patience from the audience as it can take some time to perceive that the work is not merely repetitious or random, but is operating according to its own structural logic."
A highly stylised aesthetic is another hallmark of her work, and her plays are often seeded through images as much as text. For Temple (2008), she envisioned costumes that were entirely in black and white; for Illogic (2013), the set was inspired by the mathematically-inflected art of M.C. Escher. Her wide-ranging artistic influences also include popular culture, dance theatre, arthouse cinema and contemporary opera. “I’m drawn to things that go beyond text, these obscure, strange modes and heightened forms.”
Fundamentally, she aspires to what she describes as “hyper eclecticism”. Casting is a big part of that. In Nothing, for instance, Chinese theatre veterans Goh Guat Kian and Peter Sau shared the stage with performance artist and band frontman Rizman Putra. In Illogic , she cast Noorlinah Mohamed and Edith Podesta as lovers because “they had very different ways of expressing themselves, and I knew that would make the work spark in a certain way”, she explains.
Combining physicality and language is another passion. Because she works with casts with “diverse energies”, she has developed a set of exercises over the years that serve as a sort of common foundation for all the performers. For example, she might ask them to speak while never ceasing to move very, very slowly. “It’s very unnatural, and you become very aware of your breath, your posture. Suddenly, there’s a heightened quality. What I’m doing is displacing them. Because they have to really focus, it forces them to anchor.”
In recent years, having developed an inimitable artistic language of her own, Natalie has finally returned to her first love – the classics. Ophelia (2016), Electra (2016), and Medea (2017) reimagine iconic female characters who are too much – too wracked with unruly grief and rage, too intent on ripping the seams of the worlds that try to annihilate them.
Which brings us, finally, back to Antigone, the first of the many transgressive women who have fascinated Natalie. The character was part of Cake’s early years — Cheek was an episodic riff on Antigone’s story. In March 2019, though, she will return in fuller flesh, in Rubber Girl on the loose at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. This re-imagining of Antigone germinated in 2018, when Natalie met Berlin-based musician Matthias Engler and West Papuan dancer Darlane Litaay through a Goethe-Institut initiative. Inspired by their energies, she started to imagine what a collaboration might look like.
An image came to her: Creon lording over the stage in an elevated seat, able to speak but frozen in place. Then: What if the tyrant was tripartite? She pictured Matthias as a percussive Creon, using drums as his language; and Darlane as a moving Creon, expressing himself through dance.
The work started to take shape. For the role of Antigone, she decided to take an even bigger chance. She had gotten to know Danielle Micich, the artistic director of Australian dance theatre company Force Majeure, who had a similar interest in working with both physicality and language. Natalie asked Danielle for recommendations, and the latter suggested Sarah Chaffey, a young Australian dancer. A flight to Singapore and a six-hour audition later, Sarah got the part.
In terms of the variety of artistic disciplines and cultural backgrounds, Rubber Girl on the loose features the most diverse collection of energies she has assembled yet. “But if I just recall how different the energies were in Nothing, in Temple, I remember that I’ve been doing this all along,” Natalie reckons. “It’s just a new level. I can do it. It’s a good challenge for me and for the work. It’s an exciting artistic risk.”
Does she feel any differently about Antigone now? “Artistically, I’m approaching it after 20 years of building a performance language,” she replies. “But the characters and conflicts still speak to me in the same way. The way authority and conformity chokes the air out of a space…. I just have to talk about it and those feelings of pain and anger are still there... That tells me something about story. The powerful ones stay with you.”
Even when not engaging explicitly with mythic narratives, her work often has an intense larger-than-life quality, a mythic register if you will. Transplanted to the present day, that old conception of a pantheon of gods driving the action on earth essentially boils down to one question, Natalie believes, “Are there things that are beyond our control?”
Stories that thrum with an attraction to that unknowability captivate her, as do modes that reach for something far beyond the mundane. “I experience daily life — you read the newspaper, you fall sick, you get promoted. In the theatre, something else has to happen,” she says emphatically, brimming with conviction.
“So these extreme characters and the strange choices they make appeal to me, because they lift off from the every day.”