The Hitmen Chronicles

Last seen as the demure Cecily Cardew in The Actors Studio’s all-male production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Gavin Yap is back on stage — this time as one of the lead characters in his very own play, the deceptively titled, Sweet Nothing.

Kakiseni got a chance to chat with this young, up and coming playwright and this is what he had to say:

Can you tell us a bit about Sweet Nothing?

In a nutshell, Sweet Nothing is really a play about two hitmen. Basically, they’re at a restaurant and they’re waiting for their target to arrive. And that’s kind of the plot. I mean, the thing about Sweet Nothing is that the plot is almost secondary to the characters. It’s the two hitmen’s characters and their dialogue that drives the story along. The actual plot is very simple, it’s very situational. There is a twist at the end, but I’d rather not say. I rather let people go see it for themselves.

I understand it used to be a comedy but you decided to change it. Why?

Because there was just a lot more to it than that. When I first wrote it, I wrote it as a project for my drama final while I was still living in the States. And when we put it on as a comedy, it had a very dark and brooding atmosphere that shone through despite the fact that we were camping it up. I was very taken with that. There was just a very sinister feel about the play even though it was a comedy. I thought it would’ve been a lot more interesting if I developed it more and followed that path a bit more closely.

Also, I was very fascinated with the two characters – the two hitmen. So, what I wanted to do the next time around was to get into their heads a little bit more. To try and find out what makes them tick as people. I mean, we all have moments in our lives in which we decide – okay, I’m going to be a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. I was very fascinated by people who decide to do this for a living. People who decide to become contract killers. What’s all that about? How does that happen? What happens in their lives that makes them make that decision to go down that road? And when you start doing that… when you start thinking about characters like this, [you discover that] they’re very complex. So, it was just more suited as a character study than a comedy.

So how did you go about getting inside the head of a hitman?

Well, I spoke to a lot of people in the States and in London. I read up on a few things and some of it is based on things that have happened to friends of mine and happened to me. Also, things that are just taken from my imagination. Just trying to think of [ideas] based on the conversations that I’ve had, books that I’ve read and things that I’ve seen on the Net. Just trying to figure out, [for example] if this happened, how would that person react. How would it affect that person’s life, that person’s psyche.

Do you think it’ll do better as a dark, brooding drama rather than a comedic outing?

The best way to describe it is a “character study”. There are funny moments. It’s not to say that the whole thing is dark and dreary. There are some very funny moments in it, because at the end of the day, these guys are normal people. They’re having a conversation. They tell jokes to each other. They have their own ways of keeping their heads straight because with a job like that, they need to have some kind of release.

So, there is humour. I don’t think it works best as a comedy or necessarily as a drama. I think it works best if you try and balance the two. But rather than camping it out, making the humour more believable. Placing the humour in the dialogue to make it more natural.

How long did it take you to finish the play, from the original down to the rewrite?

It actually took about a year and a half. The reason it took so long is because I took long breaks. I wasn’t writing continuously. I wrote the original in about an hour (laughs).

For the rewrite, I would write a couple of pages here and then I wouldn’t write anything for a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months. I wanted to get it right and every time when I did sit down, I’d write ten pages and end up getting rid of five because I didn’t particularly like where it was going sometimes. Because I wanted to get it right, I took my time. And I wasn’t under any deadline or anything to finish it. It was just something that I wanted to get done.

That was sort of a crash course for me in trying to develop an interesting story because after that I wrote a few more things and they were more fluid in terms of the writing process.

What was it like working with Joe Hasham?

Joe is an amazing director to work with. He’s found layers in the script that I didn’t even know were there. He’s very good at fishing out what lies in between the lines. Like, even when the characters aren’t talking to each other, they’re still talking to each other. If you know what I mean. He’s very good at filling in those blanks and shedding light on what’s going through the characters’ minds. What are they thinking? [Exploring] the relationship between the two hitmen.

On top of that he’s just very good at helping you find that centre. He guides you along. He’ll watch and tell you what works and what doesn’t work. As an actor, you need that because sometimes you don’t know what doesn’t work. You’re doing it because you think it works, but actually it doesn’t.

And he never lets you forget what the whole story is about. Even though I wrote it, sometimes even I forget when I’m acting because the actor takes over (laughs).

What about working with the other actors? What’s that been like?

Edwin Sumun plays the other hitman. I worked with him in The Importance of Being Earnest and I had a really great time working with him in that play. The decision to do Sweet Nothing was made while we were still rehearsing Earnest. I was very happy that Edwin could do it because he has a very fierce intensity that works great for the character.

Ari Ratos, Caroline Moses, I’ve worked with both of them before. I worked with Caroline in Twelfth Night. I worked with Ari in Twelfth Night, The Importance of Being Earnest and again in this one. So, I’m very familiar with Ari. I will say that they are both doing excellent work. The characters that they play are relatively small, but they are very difficult roles to pull off. They’ve exceeded my expectations.

This play has been recommended for viewing by those aged 18 and above, so what can audiences expect?

Well, we rated it 18 and above because it is a play for adults. Some of the language is very adult and some of the situations that happen. I don’t really know what to tell people to expect. The best thing to say is to expect something different (laughs). Expect something gripping because it’s a very intense play.

As a playwright in Malaysia, what do you think the outlook is for people like you?

At the moment things are looking pretty okay. For myself, I’m always writing something, so somethings might get done, somethings… maybe they won’t. Maybe they won’t be suitable for Malaysia.

As for other writers, if it’s something that you feel passionate about, you should do it. The worst thing that could happen is that someone will say “no” (laughs). And when you think about it, that’s not such a bad thing because not everybody’s going to say no. Things are not always going to go your way, but they will go your way sometime.

Any advice for budding playwrights?

Keep at it! Just keep at it. Learn from whatever mistakes you may make and don’t give up. Stick to your passion.

Lastly, is there anything you want to tell the Kakiseni readers?

Just, those of you guys who come see it, I hope you enjoy it and I appreciate all the support that people are willing to give.

First Published: 30.07.2002 on Kakiseni

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