Charismatic actress and director Claire Wong shines on stage and behind the scenes

Charismatic actress and director Claire Wong shines on stage and behind the scenes

It is storming outside; sheets of torrential monsoon rain streak the windowpanes. But in her warm, earth-toned living room, Claire Wong is bringing a spot of colour to an otherwise gloomy day.

"I'm so sorry about the rain," she says, wide-eyed and genuinely apologetic, even though she can hardly be faulted for the bad weather.

It is this compulsion to put others ahead of herself that permeates this interview with the actress and director, 50, the joint artistic director of Checkpoint Theatre, which she runs with her husband, playwright Huzir Sulaiman.

Their quiet, breezy condominium in the west is an oasis of art and literature. A hefty bookcase, with spines sorted by colour, takes up one wall. Numerous paintings adorn the others. The couple's Malaysian roots (they are Singapore permanent residents) quickly come to light as Wong proudly points out several works by Malaysian artists, including Wong Hoy Cheong and Yee I-Lann.

Charismatic and confident on stage, Wong has slipped into the shoes of many a leading lady, from Mao Zedong's steely and ambitious wife Jiang Qing (Madame Mao's Memories, 1991) to the wracked Desdemona (2000) in Ong Keng Sen's provocative and polarising production.

She has been nominated for Best Actress at the Life! Theatre Awards twice, for playing more than a dozen characters in Huzir's Atomic Jaya (2003), a rollicking satire imagining what might happen if Malaysia decided to build an atomic bomb, and Occupation (2002), a tender ode to Huzir's grandmother, pioneering feminist Mrs Mohamed Siraj.

But she is also a leading lady behind the scenes, as a director who has put together numerous well-received plays, many of them her husband's. In 2004, she received another nomination for helming playwright Eleanor Wong's Invitation To Treat trilogy, one of lesbian relationships and legal entanglements. She is currently directing The Way We Go, a meditative work about love and friendships by Joel Tan, which runs till Saturday.

Wong takes quiet pride in her directorial craft, where she is more than happy to let others take centre stage. It is her invisibility cloak, so to speak: "The point is to make it seem effortless. There are a lot of nuances and subtleties that we have to work so hard at, with a lot of craft, to make them unseen. Because the point of it is the world you're creating: the characters and their story."

Wong's own story is one of a consistent pursuit of excellence.

Born in Penang to a police officer father and housewife mother, Wong grew up in Kuala Lumpur. Her father had been assigned to work at the police headquarters there and the family moved with him. Wong, the youngest of five children, led a happy childhood with her three older sisters and one older brother.

She stood out in school as head girl and sports captain and was frequently top of her class - factual tidbits helpfully supplied by her husband.

"These are things she'll never tell you," Huzir, 40, says with a grin.

Her family was not well-to-do. "My father was an honest cop," she says with a laugh, "therefore we were not at all rich."

But they lived frugally and got by. Her well-read father was set on giving them a good education. (During the Japanese Occupation, his father hid in a chicken coop, with only the complete works of Shakespeare for company.)

After graduating from high school, where she had represented Selangor state in badminton competitions and was president of the literary, drama and debate society, Wong was sent across the Causeway to study at National Junior College. She lived with her relatives in Singapore.

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