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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Emotional asymptotes in Checkpoint Theatre’s The Heart Comes to Mind

By Ke Weiliang
(2,500 words, 8-minute read)

 

Sunday, 7 June 2020
circa 1230 hrs

I press the ‘play’ button on The Heart Comes to Mind for the first time. As per director Claire Wong’s suggestion, I grab my favourite drink – a bottle of Teh Botol Sosro, kurang manis -, plug in my earphones and toggle my mobile phone to silent mode.

I am about 20 minutes into the audio production, when my mother innocuously walks into my bedroom and asks “Eh, how to forward messages on WhatsApps (sic), ah?

Annoyed and wanting to make sure that she understands how to do so by herself next time, I spend 10 minutes giving her a step-by-step tutorial. By the time I am done, I have lost all memory or impression of whatever I was listening to.

circa 1800 hrs

When I watch a show, I usually flee from the theatre immediately after curtain call. If you spy me staying back for a post-show dialogue, it is probably because I have to review the show, did not understand what the hell was going on, and am desperate to pass off someone else’s intelligent insights as my own. 

Despite having effectively not listened to The Heart Comes to Mind, I decide to tune into the dialogue session between members of the creative team and the cast anyway. Partially because of the reason that I mentioned, but also because I miss seeing the Checkpoint team, whom I had the pleasure of interning with for 5 months back in 2015.

I am struck by how playwright Lucas Ho describes The Heart Comes to Mind as a “speculative memoir” – through the play, Lucas imagines a future 30 years from now where his daughter is in her 30s, and he in his 60s. In this present climate where livelihoods have been disrupted beyond our wildest fears, the act of speculation has become an integral part of life. While the term ‘speculate’ conventionally comes with negative connotations (e.g. unfounded gossip), I have also come to realise that we can also speculate about our futures where we treat each other more kindly. 

I am heartened that the discussion – moderated by Checkpoint’s Joint Artistic Director Huzir Sulaiman – touches not just on the content of The Heart Comes to Mind, but also prompts each team member to consider how the process of rehearsing for a production in the midst of a pandemic has possibly influenced their longer term creative practice(s). After all, there are things more important than satisfying the impulse to work on show after show after show like a zombie against the backdrop of COVID-19.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

After spending the entire day yesterday in my newfound profession as a food delivery cyclist, I resolve to listen to The Heart Comes to Mind in one uninterrupted sitting. To avoid a repeat of what happened on Sunday, I lock my bedroom door and even paste a makeshift ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on it. 

While I succeed in deterring my mother from taking a leaf out of Robert Kelly’s daughter’s book this time round, it does not really improve my attention span by much. In fact, I am alienated by the lyricism of the elderly Peter’s (played by Julius Foo) opening monologue (“Counting the wispy threads on your head, gleaming silver in the moonlight…”). I chuckle in relief when Lynn (Peter’s adult daughter, played by Oon Shu An) interrupts his monologue with a straightforward “Eh? Haven’t sleep yet?”. As aptly explained by Nabilah Said, ‘pandemic spectatorship’ requires hyperfocus and a sharp questioning of our senses. Against a backdrop where keeping up with the constantly changing COVID-19 legislation in Singapore is already a big enough struggle, I have no more headspace to decipher cryptic monologues, however poetic they may be.

Unfortunately for me, Lucas’ script deliberately leaves a lot of gaps for audiences to fill in. Over the course of slightly over 90 minutes, I listen to fragments of naturalistic, Singlish-filled dialogues between Peter and Lynn, and lyrically delivered internal monologues by both characters – all extracted from different parts of their pasts, and interspersed in no discernible pattern. By the end of my first uninterrupted encounter with the performance, I can only muster the following rudimentary impressions:

– Peter and Lynn live together, but have an emotionally distant father-daughter relationship
– Their wife/mother, Jennifer (who is not represented by an actor in this performance), has passed away
– I smiled very hard when Lynn (half) joked about wanting to hold a bubble tea ceremony at her future wedding.
Wednesday, 10 June 2020

With pre-recorded performances like The Heart Comes to Mind, I have the option of tuning in as many times I like (for as long as it remains online), and for as long or short a burst of time at one go. I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

As a reviewer, I am grateful for the added time and space that I have to articulate what I feel about the performance.

But as someone who simply misses watching live theatre? I am not so sure.

Whatever the case, with only three days left before The Heart Comes to Mind goes offline, I need to work harder to justify this review – and that means I cannot continue tuning into the audio presentation whilst in bed. So I sit at my work desk, pull up Google Docs on my computer and force myself to type out bits of the performance that either caught my attention, or that I instinctively felt were chronologically important to take note of.

As I type, I harbour thoughts of transcribing Shu An’s and Julius’ lines in their entirety, just in case I need something to refer to after Friday night. But would transcribing Lucas’ entire script be akin to video recording the stage version of The Heart Comes to Mind without permission? My long-time front-of-house worker sensibilities tingle. I eventually decide against it.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

At this juncture, I have listened to The Heart Comes to Mind in its entirety for the umpteenth time. I consider this a small triumph, considering that I have not watched a single online show in an uninterrupted sitting since the circuit breaker in Singapore started on 7 April 2020. In fact, I have been overwhelmed by the onslaught of digital arts-related content that has made its way into cyberspace over the past two months. The ‘Zoom fatigue’ that I have been experiencing has been so acute that till now, I have neglected my usual practice of providing updates of Singapore theatre shows to subscribers of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that I launched in May 2018.

While I have long forsaken any intention of responding intellectually to Lucas’ script with my currently diminished cognitive abilities, it is nonetheless beginning to strike some visceral chords in me. For one, I find that Peter and Lynn’s relationship bears uncanny semblance to the mother-daughter relationship depicted in the following comic strip by cherryandsister:

No prizes if you correctly guess that the mundane conversations between Peter and Lynn resonate with me more, as compared to their internal monologues. As someone deeply affected by the social isolation forced upon us by the pandemic, I have been opportunistically feeding off scraps of warmth that I receive during every brief hi / enjoy your food / have a good day exchange with customers that I encounter on food delivery duty. In a similar vein, their highly relatable anecdotes – be it Lynn being mad at Peter for refusing to eat the noodles she bought for him because it contains fishballs, or Peter embarrassing Lynn for filling in a quiz about sexual preferences that she tries to disguise as trigonometry schoolwork – manifest to me as a tapestry of affection that I miss giving to and receiving from loved ones I am currently physically away from.

Upon listening to The Heart Comes to Mind again (and again), however, it becomes clear that the affection openly shared between the father-daughter pair is at best a functional one, rather than rooted in any empathetic understanding of each other’s inner struggles. While Lucas’ script does not tell us how Peter and Lynn’s relationship became distant over time, there are nevertheless enough hints in their respective internal monologues that suggest a lack of mutual communication about the pain they are going through.

On the one hand, Peter is so overwhelmed by Jennifer’s passing, that he floods draft chapters of his upcoming novels with streams of consciousness that abstractly express his grief (“There are days when fishermen pull up empty nets, and when you try to tell yourself – the sea breeze is enough, and to just let the waves rock you back to shore.”). Lynn’s reaction, on the other hand, appears to be that of numbness created by work-related distractions, although she eventually betrays a rare shred of wistfulness when recounting a memory of Jennifer dragging her to VivoCity Uniqlo to try on clothes together. I find the emotional asymptote that exists between father and daughter especially heartbreaking, when I think about the initial excitement that Peter had three months after Lynn’s birth:

“When Lynn was 3 months old, I would read Shel Silverstein and Antoine de Saint Exupery to her at bedtime. I played The Beatles and Bob Marley for her. She became an extension of me: Peter Prime, a satellite ego that I channeled attention and care towards, in the hope she would beam it all back. Magnified and strengthened – a perfect, perpetual feedback loop of human affection.”

Where along this ‘perfect, perpetual feedback loop of human affection’ did it all go south?

What would it have taken for Peter and Lynn to open up to each other?

Friday, 12 June 2020

I spend some time watching a behind-the-scenes dialogue between Claire, Shu An, Shah Tahir (sound designer, composer and electroacoustic musician) and Ryan Sim (co-composer and cellist). In all honesty, their discussion about the processual creation of The Heart Comes to Mind’s soundscapes does not really catch my attention, as much as the brief footage of Julius and Shu An performing a full dress rehearsal of the play. These glimpses of what might have been reminds me of why I asked to review this performance in the first place.

You see, the performing arts shows that have hastily made their way online over the past few months are either archival recordings that were clearly not filmed with a public audience in mind, or deliberately performed live through teleconference platforms. What I find fascinating about The Heart Comes to Mind is how it occupies a space somewhere in between. It was on the cusp of being presented live at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, only for circumstances beyond anyone’s control to force the creative/production team into repurposing the entire show for digital consumption within a matter of days – not just once, but twice.

The enforced hastiness with which many of us have embraced digital platforms as our default means of arts presentation and consumption – will it prove to be a blessing or curse in disguise in time to come? Will we consciously and willingly harness the potentialities that technology has to offer? Or will the KPI-centric culture that has pervaded the Singapore arts scene for so long mindlessly trap us in a vicious cycle of producing digital art for its own sake, in response to the fear of losing our foothold in the industry?

I feel so torn in this particular case. When I watch Lynn question whether she should feel disconcerted that “this disconcertingly real sunset does not disconcert [her]” as she stands amidst Xinwei Che’s gorgeously designed translucent maze, I am also greeted by the sight of Peter loitering listlessly in the background. Using this to extrapolate how the live version of The Heart Comes to Mind might have turned out, I cannot help but wonder how their bodies would have inhabited the stage as they take turns to bare their souls to us. Perhaps it would have changed my interpretation of the play, and how I react towards it. For now, and for as long as I have to watch theatre performances within the confines of my computer screen, I can only wonder.

Despite finding the unravelling of Peter and Lynn’s relationship heartbreaking, I nevertheless feel as if there is also an emotional asymptote that stands between me and the play as a whole. I suppose this is where I appreciate the soundscapes that Shah and Ryan have painstakingly created, which really felt to me like a third character in the performance. Not one that has deepened my intellectual understanding of The Heart Comes to Mind in any way, but one that validates what my raw reading of Lucas’ script makes me instinctively feel – a sort of validation that I usually get from the spontaneous reactions of fellow audience members who are huddled in the theatre together with me. I particularly enjoy the different manifestations (some as subtle as a passing melody, others as blatant as an EDM remix) of Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow” throughout the performance. There is a state of emotional flux that this song wonderfully holds space for:

Running around as you do with your head up in the clouds

I was like you

Never had time to lay back, kick your shoes off, close your eyes

I was like you

Now you’re not hard to understand

You need someone to take your hand

If only Peter and Lynn took each other’s hands, while dancing together to this song in a game of Dance Dance Revolution.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Towards the end of the performance, Lynn reveals that Peter has passed away. Given the deceptively turbulent relationship that they shared while he was alive, I wonder what she will fondly remember him by. If I may venture a guess, I think it is his obsession with ensuring that his clothes are always ironed immaculately. The play not only ends with Lynn trying her best to iron Peter’s shirt to his standards, but also Peter admitting that he has learnt to love any wrinkles that linger on it. I suppose this is the best that they can do given the circumstances, and I am glad on their behalf. 

It has been more than a day since the audio recording of The Heart Comes to Mind went offline. The only documented impressions that I have left of the performance are the notes that I typed on Google Docs and this article. While my memory of the recording is becoming hazy, I do vividly remember the bubble tea ceremony that Lynn was (half) joking about, and decide that this is how I want to remember my weeklong encounter with the play. So I purchase a cup of pearl milk tea from a restaurant near my home, dug up my miniature tea set and made this video using Instagram’s Story feature:

 

Funnily enough, I broke the lid of my teapot right after recording this video. I guess all good things must come to an end.


The audio experience of The Heart Comes To Mind was made available on SoundCloud from 6 to 12 June 2020 as part of the Esplanade’s The Studios Online season. The live performance was slated to take place from 23 to 26 April at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Click here for details.

Ke Weiliang (also known as kewl, pronounced ‘k-yul’) is a Singaporean arts and cultural worker who graduated with a BA (Hons) in Arts Management from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2019. He is also the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that broadcasts periodic updates of upcoming performances and working opportunities in the local theatre scene.

Weiliang is most fascinated by creative practices that champion sociocultural diversity and wade into non-binary grey areas. Projects that he is proud to have contributed to include Charlie (Bhumi Collective, 2018), The Class Room (Li Xie, Kok Heng Leun, Jean Ng & M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, 2019) and the recently cancelled 100% Singapore (Rimini Protokoll & Singapore International Festival of Arts, 2020).

After having his livelihood in the arts disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Weiliang now spends most of his time working as a food delivery cyclist with foodpanda and Grab.

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