“I cried towards the end of the play,” said Rui Shan. She felt sad that Mdm Kwa Geok Choo had made so many sacrifices as the wife of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and that she rarely had private time with him.
“When she got into her stroke phase, Mr Lee finally had some time to put aside for her because they are of that age already,” she said. “And it was [the] last phase in her life.”
Mdm Kwa suffered two strokes in 2008 before dying in her sleep in 2010. Although she had largely stayed out of the limelight, the Cambridge-educated lawyer was credited for advocating for women’s rights, drafting the People’s Action Party’s Constitution, and writing key clauses in the bilateral water agreements that ensured Singapore’s access to Johor’s water after the 1965 separation.
Kwa Geok Choo, a historical monologue by veteran playwright Ovidia Yu, is a tribute to Mdm Kwa, whose contributions have shaped the lives of generations of Singaporeans.
“[Mdm Kwa is] such an iconic public figure in Singapore and everybody respects her so much,” said Rui Shan, who landed the role after two rounds of interviews with Toy Factory Productions.
“I was very happy [when I got the role], but at the same time I went to the director and asked him: Are you sure?” she told The UrbanWire, adding that she thought the role would have gone to an older, more experienced actress.
But Rui Shan wasted no time and dived straight into her research on Mdm Kwa. It helped that she could turn to the show’s director and playwright for more information. “Odivia’s father knows Lee Kuan Yew and Mdm Kwa, so [it was] a lot of just listening to what other people say about her,” Rui Shan added.
With more rehearsals, Rui Shan started to overcome the stress and feel more confident about her role. She said her five years of theatre training at LASALLE College of the Arts has prepared her well.
Rui Shan didn’t have to make many changes to her physique for the role. She just needs to wear a wig that looks like Mdm Kwa’s signature hairstyle.
But embodying the character is just one part of Rui Shan’s job. Since Kwa Geok Choo is largely a one-woman monologue, she has to find the energy and motivation to hold the show on her own. “You don’t really have a co-actor to feed you lines and help you if you are stuck. So if you forget your lines, good luck to you,” quipped Rui Shan.
She added that she will be sharing the stage with three illustrators, who will do live drawings based on her lines.
Rui Shan hopes the audience will walk away with newfound appreciation for how Singapore has transformed from a third-world to a first-world country. “That is where I found myself after rehearsing the show and I hope they experience the same thing too,” she said.
More importantly, she said the audience will be able to “hear from the woman behind the powerful man”, the voice that is “usually overshadowed by everybody else’s”.
Kwa Geok Choo will be running from now to the end of July at Victoria Theatre.