By Bernice Lee
(995 words, four-minute read)
The Esplanade Theatre Studio is awash in red light. It feels like the set of a Marvel movie – gloomy and dystopian; a planet overtaken by villains, awaiting rescue. Red mechanical legs hang from above the stage. The audience sits in the round, beyond the reach of this alien spider robot.
It is a roomful of excitement for Cut Kafka! on opening night. This marks the first time that two prominent local companies, Nine Years Theatre (NYT) and T.H.E. Dance Company, have come together to collaborate. The production was commissioned for Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts, organised annually to coincide with the Lunar New Year festivities, but the sense of celebration seemed more to do with the gathering of two ensembles primed for their next step than with the coming of spring. It was a show of strength and a push towards new possibilities for both groups, led by their stalwart artistic directors Kuik Swee Boon (T.H.E.) and Nelson Chia (NYT), who co-directed and co-choreographed this piece.
Structurally, Cut Kafka! sometimes reminded me of a piece of musical theatre, with its densely-packed action sequences interspersed with spoken text, propelled by a tightly-rehearsed, agile cast – who sometimes also performed movement and text simultaneously. The difference being, of course, that for both ensembles this was a new experiment in form inspired by 20th-century Czech writer Franz Kafka’s body of work. The piece’s musicality comes from bodies and voices rather than from song. In other words, not a piece of musical theatre at all, but with the type of accessibility, drive and clarity familiar to that form. The work’s meticulous stagecraft created a compelling effect, from the finely-tuned performers to the careful layering of props: a giant chair, awkwardly tall tables often rearranged and reconfigured, or plastic Chinese opera headgear resembling insect antennae. Cut Kafka! was performed in Mandarin, but its English and Chinese surtitles took on a life of their own – scrolling sideways at great speed as the performers’ questions became more intense, or crowding the screen when the performers repeated the same lines over and over again.
I did miss some of the familiar, recognisable aspects of each company: the organic and hyper-athletic qualities from T.H.E.’s open-ended choreographic processes, or the richly-nuanced character play from NYT. But Cut Kafka! is the fulfilment of a distinctive, singular vision. The script by writer and performer Neo Hai Bin weaves together Kafka’s literary style, his iconic short story The Metamorphosis, his father, the Monkey God, references to Kuo Pao Kun’s work (which has been described as ‘kafkaesque’ in the way it critiques Singaporean bureaucracy), and other authoritarian father figures.
These ideas morph and transform throughout the production, as in a dream. Kafka’s iconic image of a man falling asleep and waking up an insect opens the show: this nightmare becomes the modern person’s literal need to turn into a bug in order to work and live productively in the city. This need becomes a practice of daily transformation, of getting stuck in human form or bug form – and the Monkey God’s “72 Transformations” becomes a mystical yet shunned practice because 71 out of the 72 are not allowed. One can pray to Zhou Gong, the god of dreams, but not to the cheeky monkey deity.
Throughout the production, the performers synchronise powerfully as one breath. They often inhabit the same physical state, shifting their weight slowly or twitching awkwardly, but sometimes they fall in line to perform full-body actions in unison; then becoming mirrors to each other, or leaning into one another vulnerably. The performers continue to transform, even though the script overtly suggests that society restricts transformation.
While these stage images interweave fluidly, the didacticism of the work’s political themes sometimes feels overplayed, just like the unnamed authorities it criticises:
The chair is too big
Who put me in it? Who put me on this chair?
Why don’t you come down yourself?
These questions are full of suppressed pain, but I am unconvinced that the problem is the chair and the authority it symbolises. In one particular scene, the performers take turns to leap on and off the chair. They square off two at a time, leaping to their perches – one high up on the enormous chair and the other balancing on a three-legged writer’s desk. There is the sense that these structures and positions of imbalance oppress all individuals – those seeking to create and assert their own voices, those seeking to be supportive, and those seeking to work hard and fit in quietly. But these same bodies are still capable of climbing and winding around the chair, and making their own way around these oppressive structures. Kafka wanted to “liberate the story within me” – as do the performers, as they contort themselves into unusual shapes, reach for each other, or dive through the slats of the large chair. Yet it is difficult to say if, at any point in Cut Kafka!, anyone is liberated. Everything is precisely choreographed and remains within the creators’ and the performers’ complete control. The only moment of shock comes when the enormous chair crashes to the floor – but even that is a clearly measured moment.
Cut Kafka! presents a superb ensemble coming together to tell a story for our times. Its conclusion is as deliberately dissatisfying as Kafka’s literary endings: the performers don plastic coats, and retreat from a large table – on which they were dissecting the husk of a butterfly’s wings – with their arms raised, as though with bloodied surgeons’ hands. The disembodied voice of an unseen narrator remarks: “I could only let myself be dissected”. It feels annoying and unfinished, leaving the conclusion unclear as to whether it is hopeful or not. I processed this as a statement from a repressed yet adventurous mind accepting its fate – a sense that the dissector and the dissected are one and the same.
Cut Kafka! by Nine Years Theatre and T.H.E Dance Company ran from 1 – 4 March at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay as part of the 2018 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts.
Guest contributor Bernice Lee is a dance artist whose love for language is in its kinetic, felt sense. She sees writing about performance as its own artistic medium, contributing her voice to building positions and perspectives over time. Visit her website here.