Beng Oh is a Melbourne-based director who has staged a wide range of productions including new Australian plays, comedies, experimental works and opera.

Recently nominated for a Green Room Award for his production of Porcelain at LaMama, Beng is currently directing Tom Fool by Franz Xaver Kroetz, one of the most controversial and most produced German dramatists of his time.

Beng spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening

Beng OhYou’re a qualified solicitor with experience in commercial litigation and personal injury law. So what’s the connection with theatre? When did you first get involved? Has the legal training come in handy in your work as a theatre director?
I first became involved in theatre whilst studying law at Monash University. For awhile the careers ran in parallel until I finally gave up the law. The legal training has been of some use in the production aspects of directing – reading contracts, insurance and liability questions etc.  There hasn’t been a direct connection otherwise.

You went back to study, completing post-grad qualifications in Directing from the VCA in 1997. What did you gain from your time at VCA?

Richard Murphet’s mentorship was an important part of my time at the VCA. He has a fantastic ability to look at a piece of theatre and tell you what’s good about it and what works (we knew ourselves what didn’t work). The course also introduced me to a body of non-narrative texts which became important later on, particularly the plays of Gertrude Stein. The biggest gain from the VCA though was the way it helped me look at my own work, to place it in context and, in a sense, to take myself seriously as a theatre practitioner. It was a process of professionalization, if you like. 

As a director you’ve worked on a wide range of material, from new Australian plays, comedies, experimental works and opera. Do you have a preference for working in a particular genre/style?
Not that I’m aware of. I’ve got a personal aesthetic but not necessarily a preference for a particular genre or style. Good writing is attractive and the new and unusual always interests me. I abhor sentimentality.

You’ve directed a number of contemporary classics from writers such as John Patrick Shanley, Peter Handke, Heiner Müller, Frank Wedekind, Howard Barker and more. All of these writers have a reputation for experimenting with or pushing the boundaries of the theatrical form. Is that something that interests you?
Good theatre pushes the boundaries in both form and content and is exhilarating. Naturalism has pretty well been taken over by TV and film and brings with it a stultifying set of expectations so working in new, theatrical ways is essential.

You were also artistic director of the Gertrude Stein Project - an experimental group concentrating on non-narrative texts. What were the aims of the project? What did you discover?
After the VCA I had a fascination with Stein’s plays. She was trying to develop a new way of looking and the texts were agrammatical, seemingly fractured and teasing in its narrative strands. I set up the project as a means of engaging with these plays and other similarly “difficult” texts, to see what I could do with them and to see how audiences would react. As a director it forces you to look outside the narrative box and find different ways of rehearsing, exploring and creating performance. It was indeed difficult but also a whole lot of fun.
{xtypo_quote_right}Naturalism has pretty well been taken over by TV and film and brings with it a stultifying set of expectations...{/xtypo_quote_right}
You were recently nominated for a Green Room Award for your work on Porcelain by Chay Yew. How did you get involved in that project?
Porcelain was first suggested to me as a text many years ago by Kim Durban. I then directed a reading of it for Out Cast Theatre in 1996. I was surprised by how well it worked in performance. It’s an early, heartfelt work by a young playwright and there’s a certain awkwardness about it on paper which is transcended in the playing of it. It’s a very personal play and I think over time it became personal to me. The casting of the central part of John Lee was crucial of course and I think on some level I was always on the lookout for the right actor, who finally came along in the shape of Keith Brockett. I showed the script to Keith who in turn showed it to Liz Jones who agreed to produce it at La Mama.

You are currently directing Tom Fool for Melbourne independent theatre company, Hoy Polloy. Can you tell us a bit about the play. What attracted you to it?
Tom Fool was brought to my attention by my friend the Sydney playwright Barry Lowe. Barry is extremely well-read and well-travelled. On one of his many trips overseas he saw the UK revival of the play by the Glasgow Citizens Theatre directed by Clare Lizzimore and drew my attention to it. It’s a funny, tragic, beautiful, surprising and challenging play and it came up in discussions with Hoy Polloy regarding their 2009 season.

Why is it relevant to modern audiences?
We’ve come full circle in the 30-odd years since the play was written and events have conspired to make the play relevant again. Everything from the economic crisis to layoffs at car plants and royal weddings etc make Tom Fool feel like it was written in response to today’s events.

How have you approached this new production for Hoy Polloy?
I’ve cast very carefully and it has been a joy working with Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn Van Oosterom. Over and above that though I’ve sought to capture the very particular rhythms required by Kroetz’s writing. Time moves differently in his plays and he doesn’t always deal with simple dramatic tension in the space. He utilises a form of hyper-realism that is miles away from the boring real-time theatrical experiments I’m sure we’ve all encountered and from the mind-numbingness of Big Brother. His script is composed of a series of moments in time and there’s a very light and throw-away quality about a lot of the text that somehow makes it seem more real.

So what’s next for you?
A production of Meet the Darlings a black comedy by Amedeo Asterino that’s on at La Mama in June.

Hoy Polloy's production of Tom Fool opens May 2. Further details»

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