not so airy-fairy tales

Published on 6 January 2015

Childhood favourites are being reimagined and spun around faster than you can say “fee-fi-fo-fum”.


Fairy tales over the centuries have done more harm than good to people’s psyches,” declares Glen Goei, associate artistic director of W!ld Rice and celebrated stage and screen director. “It makes them grow up with expectations of a Prince Charming or a Fairy Godmother and certainly, a ‘happy ever after’. But of course, that’s not the case.”

This philosophy was what drew Goei to direct Into the Woods twice. The first in 1994 starred Lea Salonga and Kit Chan; the second in 2011 featured West End leading-lady Ria Jones. Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical, depicts how various fairy-tale characters — Cinderella, Jack (of the Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and so on — get their magical happily-ever-afters… in the first act. The second act shows what comes after. And it’s certainly not sunshine and rainbows.

If you missed Goei’s productions, check out the current film version by Rob Marshall that stars Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp. While the story may still disturb with its more realistic interpretation of our childhood heroes’ final fates, less fantastical and more down-to-earth versions of fairy tales are no longer new to Singaporeans.

Goei himself has written an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. Titled Little Red in the Hood, it is part of a series of three books by local celebrities, that also includes Hansel and Girl Girl and Goh Bee Lock and the Three Boars. Little Red in the Hood features the HDB adventures of a girl in a scarlet hoodie and her gutsy grandmother who takes up kickboxing at the Community Club.

Says Goei, “We wanted to make fairy tales local and accessible. Because of all the Western fairy tales we grow up with, a lot of children and even adults, picture heroes and heroines as royalty with blonde hair and blue eyes. Why can’t we recognise we have our own heroes in Singapore right in front of us? The man on the street, our friends, our neighbours? Also, there are no clear heroes or villains, only shades of grey.”

Readers will also note the absence of the saviour Woodcutter in Goei’s book. “It’s important to address the imbalance towards women and minorities. Fairy tales are often written from a privileged man’s point of view and can stereotype everybody else. If I’m involved in presenting a fairy tale, the women won’t be passive creatures waiting to be rescued. They stand up for themselves,” stresses Goei, who has also directed several instalments of W!ld Rice’s popular annual pantomime, which transplants well-known fables into Singapore or Malaysia, or suspiciously similar unnamed cities, with can-do everymen and everywomen
as protagonists.

Joining him in fighting fairy-tale flaws is Esan Sivalingam, artistic director of production company Hoods Inc, and an executive producer of legendary local sitcom Under One Roof. Sivalingam is currently working on TV series, Fableicious, for MediaCorp’s Okto channel, updating and localising old Western tales. “We cast very ‘Singaporean’ Singaporeans like Suhaimi Yusof or Pat Mok,” he cackles. “We also put in local elements like fairies getting annoyed whenever they fly under Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries.

“While many often expect fairy tales to have a moral, ours are not the predictable ones of ‘be nice and wait for a godmother to appear’. For our Beauty and the Beast adaptation, we tried to subtly tackle xenophobia and racism. We created a world where there was a clan of beauties and a clan of beasts who lived in peace until they received a mirror and realised they looked very different from each other. And for no reason, they started having segregation and intolerance.”

Sivalingam does, however, admit to being fond of ye olde fairy tales. “They provide a shared history between people of all ages because everybody grows up with them. But they are also great to adapt and change because they are set in make-believe worlds. And since people don’t take fantasy so seriously, when you adapt them to include Singaporean frustrations like ERPs, people learn to laugh at their own problems.”

Ivan Heng, artistic director of W!ld Rice and founder of the W!ld Rice pantomime, agrees. “Fairy tales are universal, they open the door to a world of imagination and wonder, of gingerbread houses, heroines, witches and trolls. My own experience of playing a rat in Sleeping Beauty at drama school reminded me how fairy tales onstage excited both kids and adults because they appeal to the child in every one of us. The fact that these tales are told in a local idiom make the productions very relatable and extra enjoyable. You feel special because it is created specifically for you.”

Goei adds, “While some Singaporeans might still want to see blond heroes frontlining fairy tales, many also want to hear stories about themselves, have their own voice represented through stage, screen or the written word. It’s a sign of a maturity as a society that while we’re better travelled, we also hanker for a soul of our own.”

But while we may be mature enough to see our own countryfolk as heroes and heroines, are our little ones mature enough to handle the absence of happy endings in shows like Into the Woods? “I think so,” says Goei philosophically. “We shouldn’t grow up with rose-tinted glasses or imagining things are black and white. Human beings are much more complex. As we get older, our needs and desires change, so no one can stay happy forever.”

UNDER GURMIT’S SPELL Gurmit Singh, one of the unabashedly local stars of Fableicious Season 1, played a host of fairy-tale characters with modern touches, including one with a yen for iPads.
Fairy, Fairy Quite Contrary A mix of animation and live action means actors in Fableicious get to play fantasy creatures in a range of locations, including New Pork City.

Into the Woods opens in cinemas 15 Jan. Little Red in the Hood and the other Singaporean fairy-tale books, can be purchased online at Fableicious Season 2 will be telecast on Okto in March.

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