By Nabilah Said and Eugene Tan
(2,500 words, 10-minute read)
Spoiler Alert: This review contains major spoilers for the show Caught.
Nabilah: I approach the venue for Caught with some trepidation. There had been scant details from the Singapore Repertory Theatre about what to expect from the show – ArtsEquator ran an interview with the director, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, but that served to obfuscate, intentionally, since mystery is a big part of the illusion that the production requires. (Akanksha Raja had written: “The translucent veil between fact and fiction, the complex layers of intercultural encounters, and the politics of art all come together in this unique experience”.) It left me with a vague feeling that its central character, Chinese political dissident artist Lin Bo, was a conduit through which to talk about the Western gaze on (East) Asia, and our “post-truth” world. But it didn’t quite answer another question: “Why should I care?”.
Eugene: I saw the show on what appeared to be a kind of donor night. And to be completely honest, if not for a jio by a friend of mine, coupled with a discount on the tickets, I wouldn’t have chosen to go to Caught. The publicity for it, including the social media buzz around it, made me think that spending time on the show would be a gamble. It would be either spectacularly successful. Or not at all. On the other hand, I work in nightlife, and “immersive” anything has been a buzzword for a while now, so I was curious. SRT was billing this as a socially immersive show.
I meet my date for the night for dinner at PS.Cafe next door to the venue; we eat, and start to notice that PS.Cafe is filling up with people who obviously have way more money than either of us (Birkins in different sizes, colours and skins), clearly spent way more time getting ready for the night (you do that updo ma’am, and you too), and perhaps thought they were going to sit down for a play (these expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes).
Nabilah: I am going to be late for my appointed timing, so I take a Grab to the venue, Miaja Gallery in River Valley. I arrive to find a snaking queue in the alleyway outside the building. Instantly I think, ah, they’re trying to bring the grit of New York, where Caught had originated, to Singapore. People are dressed snazzily, having not expected to stand in line by the roadside. I later realised that what was causing the line was a photo-op site, and bottlenecks caused by the lone elevator carrying people up to the gallery.
Eugene: All of this only made the “grit” of standing outside a building to wait in line to use the one elevator non-existent for me. It was about watching rich, well-dressed people not understand why they were being inconvenienced, and yet make sure to get their photo-op, to prove their presence to whoever it was who invited them, and maybe Instagram too.
Nabilah: I was definitely very aware of who my fellow audience members were, more so than with more conventional forms of theatre. I suppose this brand of “immersive” carries a paradox that you end up being quite distracted by the people around you, and wondering what is motivating their behaviour. For example, with the queue, there was definitely something mildly social engineer-y about it, that was both wickedly delightful and kind of masochistic.
Eugene: Actually, I found things like that first photo opp, the colour coding of audiences, and the use of the elevator ride to be more functional than anything. It felt like artless crowd control. The moment we talk about immersive theatre anything, especially with this sort of cool urbane vibe, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More hangs overhead. And whether we like Sleep No More or not, that experience features multiple moments of control that are far more sure-handed, artful and charming.
Nabilah: Once in the gallery, we are grouped together and then greeted by our hosts – all of whom seem to be pan-Asian or European and kind of overly chatty in a way you have to be in the mood for. I decide quite early to engage but without losing a sense of autonomy, which I suppose if I wanted to extrapolate into my role as a citizen in Singapore, I could. I kind of hazily smiled and went to check out the group exhibition, Dissonance, that has been organised alongside the show. (It’s been extended to 7 December.)
Eugene: Ours was a batik scarf wearing host, and he explains the exhibition to us, getting us to look at a particular work and talk about how what we saw wasn’t necessarily what meets the eye. I have to admit, if it wasn’t for the fact that our host was quite cute, I would have laughed and walked away. Because immediately, for an experience that’s supposed to be about immersion and socialising, the fiction is all wrong.
We KNOW we’re here to see a play. We KNOW this is produced by SRT. We can see the exhibition isn’t what we might call “curatorially robust”. So to have a host insist we pretend that these things are not true, it’s a bit masak-masak. I mean, at what self-respecting exhibition would you have a host explain the work to you and tell you how to experience it? This is a problem because, if the theme of the night is that nothing is what it seems… we already don’t believe the premise of our presence.
Nabilah: I did find the exhibition text too on-the-nose: “The exhibition is an invitation to pause, to dig deeper, and to question if our experience of art is about the artwork itself, or rather our own perception of it.”
Eugene: I go get a drink from the bar (full disclosure, the bar was operated by LuLu’s Lounge, where I work every Saturday night) and order a soda water. We walk around and confirm that indeed, the curation of this “exhibition” is not really worth the time to think about.
Nabilah: A wild Lin Bo appears, taking selfies and chatting with guests (audience?), and then he gives a speech about his work. Of course, it isn’t Lin Bo at all, but actor (NAME REDACTED), but I accept the Chinese accent, the slight oddballness and the Shanghai Tang-esque outfit as part of this experience.
Eugene: I don’t really want to take a photo with actor Timothy Nga, but watch lots of people climb a dais to do so. Good for them. Turns out Timothy Nga is playing Lin Bo, and he’s giving some speech about his work and it sounds quite high-minded, and I can’t help thinking, “then why did you agree to let them show your work in this context?”.
Nabilah: Ok so looks like I can’t do this stylo (NAME REDACTED) thing anymore. Anyway, I barely grasp what Lin Bo is saying because I am struck by the choreography of it all as he circumambulates around the audience (guests?), and slowly sheds pieces of his clothing.
Eugene: There is a point in his walking around the gallery that Lin Bo bends over, and a flash of his undies appear. They were red, with a waistband that said “Addicted”, and I was just thinking “This is so gay”. Which, later turns out to be a plot point of sort.
Nabilah: And yes, the homoeroticism later on, what did you think about that? Because I found it – an almost kiss that comes out of nowhere– a little misplaced. It seemed to hit a false note within the semiotics of the entire work.
Eugene: I have to admit I was totally there for that.
Nabilah: I remember thinking like “Wha…? What is going on here?”. I don’t know if something can be called immersive if you half-expect them to reveal the game to you halfway – that glitch in the Matrix moment when you realise there is no spoon. On a related note, they are selling refreshments during one major (and long) set change, but the vegan options run out early on, leaving only non-halal hotdogs. And the show is three hours long. So instead of having sustenance, I am directed to speak to my fellow audience members instead. My host has disappeared so another host comes along – an expat yuppie type who says he took on this job because he wanted a break from the corporate life. There is an earnestness there that I could have clung to, but which I had little sympathy for in this setting.
The high point of absurdity in the piece, was with the introduction of a character called Wang Min, played by Serene Chen. You could see the audience almost viscerally, yet painfully struggling to engage with this twist. She is purportedly an artist, and we witness the curator (Chelsea Curto) trying to steer a trainwreck of a public talk as Wang Min brutally destroys all her pseudo-intelligent statements, delivering playwright Christopher Chen’s lines like salvo. Within the setting of Miaja Gallery, the send-up of the art world works. We laugh as the curator, this figure of Western imperialism, tries to reassert her dominance, and failing that, tries to equalise her standing, and finally, crumble in defeat, as Wang Min’s smile turns into mirthless snark. But coming quite late into the show, Wang Min’s verbal gymnastics and mental rug-pulling are ultimately alienating, despite us being in on the joke.
Eugene: It was a high point of absurdity, yes. It was, at least for me, actually a high point in what, up to that point, felt really flabby, clumsy, and needlessly smug. But also, it’s where the fiction of the piece, again, fails. We’d already seen Chen walking around the gallery before this, dressed in black, and now she’s on stage as this character, in a dress that looks like Chinese joss paper. And my brain just goes to “WTF? What Chinese person would walk around looking like they are waiting to get burned at Qing Ming?”. How am I expected to believe this is real, if that reality is already sabotaged by the fact that we’ve seen the actress before, and let’s face it, if you live in Singapore and go see theatre, the actress is a known entity? And, if we don’t believe this moment to be real, what the heck is the pay-off in seeing this reality dismantled down the line? Which, spoiler alert, it is.
Nabilah: It’s interesting that you bring up the thing about seeing Chen in the gallery beforehand, because if this was any other play, we wouldn’t have any trouble seeing an actor play another character. We can accept the artifice involved in acting and yet also believe in the character being portrayed, in a way that we are rejecting here. And I think the difference is that Caught demands you to accept something as reality, but only so that it can then shock you with the truth for its own entertainment. It’s like playing peekaboo with a child and patting yourself on the back after. In other words, it underestimates the audience. But it also overstimulates them.
Eugene: Just to hang on to Chen for a moment: if she was playing this artist who was behind the whole thing, then what on earth was she playing when we saw her earlier, performing being interested in Lin Bo’s speech? Why was there a costume change for the “post-show discussion” scene? On the one hand, this points, to me, to a missing plot point. But more problematically, I do not assume I’ve missed something and instead assume that the direction is flabby. And I really think this all rests on the fact that the first premise of the experience is just so lacking.
Nabilah: For me, it was a question of restraint and elegance. There is an outtake of a scene where two partners talk about a third artist who they both may or may not have been screwed over by. It is, once again, an attempt towards tenderness. But we are crossing the 2-hour mark, so I find myself hardly caring anymore. The artist mentioned is called Yu Rong; it is hard to appreciate a joke when you find yourself being part of its punchline.
Eugene: I have to say, this moment with the actors in their underwear in the dressing room, viewed through a cutout in the wall as if the dressing table mirror is a two-way mirror and we are on the other side – it’s a cute device. That every time Nga stood up, it was just, err, bulgy red ADDICTED undies… I was grateful. But really, very well-selected undies, kudos to the costume team. Rightly or wrongly, I am inclined to believe that this gay actor character is THE character that Nga has been playing all night, and everything else we’ve seen has been layers of this character playing other characters, playing other characters.
Nabilah: If there ever had been a fourth wall in this show, it’s been permeated and punched through so much that I don’t think we’re in the same house anymore.
Finally, we are asked to head back to the main gallery downstairs, now referred to as the “Lounge of Lies” and a “decompression space”. The reviewer in me has dissociated sometime between wondering about first-world privilege and the enforced class participation, so I end up chatting with Chen, now seemingly free from the bonds of performance. But there are some things she can’t say, the strings of the director still visible. In that moment, the party is well and truly over.
Eugene: At the end, we are told that we should leave our emails, because we would get missives that would continue the experience. I submit my email because I’m curious about what I would get. Not because I believe this tale that’s been placed before me. And that is where I know this thing has failed completely. I’m not immersed, at all. I’m outside of it, watching a company toy with rich people, who are playing along, because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do, but everybody gets it, so nobody feels stupid, which is reassuring.
Nabilah: If there had ever been a Lin Bo – ghost, bogeyman, dissident artist, the sum of all the fears of many a controlling government, a strawman by any other name – he had left the building long ago. I do the same, melting into a city, my hunger for truth subsumed by a literal hunger. In the hierarchy of needs, the multilayered thought experiment of Caught floats its way out of reach. Instead, reality – and my baser instincts – quickly catch up with me.
Eugene: A week or so later, I get an email. There’s some artfully garbled video. I try to listen a bit, but give up, it was hard to care enough to work through. And really I just thought: “Like this only ah?”
How wrong I was. A few days ago, weeks later, I receive another email, the subject line “SRT’s CAUGHT – last message and a huge thank you”. It’s from the company’s managing director. It’s a money beg. And there you have it. That’s the end game.
Caught by Singapore Repertory Theatre took place at Miaja Gallery from 10 Sep to 6 Oct 2019. More info here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.
Guest contributor Eugene Tan has been Becca D’Bus since she was born 14 years ago in Boston, Massacusetts. Becca is the host and producer of RIOT! Hosted by Becca D’Bus and one of The Glory Hoes. Becca has never won an amateur contest. Eugene is also one of the organisers of IndigNation, Singapore’s Pride Season.