By Shawn Chua
(1,088 words, 6-minute read)
Having securely fastened the headgear, I am submerged into the virtual world of Frogman. The instructional voice of the Queensland Jury service informs me through an earpiece that I have been selected at random to join a jury. I am accompanied by 49 others seated on swivel chairs arranged in two tiered rows surrounding the narrow, carpeted stage in SOTA Studio Theatre. The Queensland Judicial service logo is displayed on the monitor in front of my seat – the same logo that is currently projected within the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset as we synchronise our interface with the amphibious realities of Frogman’s live theatre and VR experience. This headset will present me with evidence – told through the form of reconstructed vignettes – for the trial of police diver Douglas Clark, a key suspect in the murder of a girl named Ashleigh Richardson. A red light now flashes, signalling me to remove the headset.
Frogman is a taut one-hour mixed reality performance by UK company curious directive that is framed as a murder mystery braiding three narrative experiences. In the real-time present, we meet Douglas’ daughter, coral scientist Meera Clarke (played by actor Annabel Betts), at her laboratory as the omnipresent detective Fiona Webbs (voiced by Sarah Woodward) presses her to recall the events of January 1995, leading up to the disappearance of her childhood friend Ashleigh. The recent recovery of a speedboat has led to a relaunch of the investigation and Douglas’ arrest. As Meera recollects the events, we are given a signal to put our VR headsets back on. This time, we are transported to 11-year-old Meera’s bedroom in 1995. In these virtual reconstructions, we become voyeurs peeking into her childhood. We see Shaun and Lily, Meera’s childhood friends with whom she sets up ‘22 Bridge Road Coral Club’, speculating about Ashleigh’s disappearance and recounting their encounters with her. Although Ashleigh is initially referred to as a bully, we learn later that Meera shared a secret friendship with her, and we bear witness to their blooming friendship forged over late-night sleepovers, playing make-believe and confiding about their fears and dreams. These childhood reveries are interspersed with the third narrative experience – underwater sequences during which we are plunged into the role of Douglas Clarke, on a search and rescue mission in the aftermath of Ashleigh’s disappearance. Here, the VR headsets are transfigured into diving masks, and we are immersed in the virtual environment of lush coral gardens. Presumably these are archival footage currently being reassessed as part of the trial.
While Frogman is ostensibly set up as a virtual tribunal, we soon realise that this is really the dramaturgical frame that initiates us into a story about reconstructions. On the most practical level, this framework acknowledges the VR headsets and rationalises our interaction with the devices. It is an innovative narrative strategy that valiantly embeds an often clumsy experience into the theatrical interface as we make sense of the forensic reconstructions of the crime through virtual reality. In spite of the seemingly complicated technological manoeuvring in and out of VR, there is a seamless elegance and efficiency that sustains the rhythm of the work from the initial tutorial to its surreal denouement. By acknowledging the VR headsets as an interface within the narrative, the audience is not required to assume a transparency (per industry parlance) of the medium that is often a precondition for the ‘total immersion’ alloyed to the promise of VR. Immersion is not the goal here – we are always aware that these are reconstructions, whether it is through the technology of VR, the recollections of the past, the make-believe of children’s role-playing, or the meta-theatrical act of storytelling itself. Indeed, some of the most compelling moments of the work lie not in the high-tech photorealistic rendering of the seabed, but in the captivating and restrained performance of Betts as Meera, pulling us into her world. Even then, in spite of the intimate seating configuration, our presence is never acknowledged by any of the actors, whether in the live performance or the virtual environment. This distancing effect of reconstructions is strategic. Instead of embodying, empathising, or interacting as characters (as are the usual tropes of VR experiences), we are meant to bear witness.
Yet, even in the VR reconstructions, we never see what actually happens to Ashleigh. The pivotal moments leading up to her disappearance are retold with young Meera and Ashleigh imaginatively enacting the scenes in the bunk bed of Meera’s room. The past remains elusive, ambivalent, and it refuses to be resolved. The seeming binary between the virtual and the actual – the live ontology of performance and the mediated simulations of virtual technology – are simultaneously collapsed and suspended as the frames of reconstruction are dissolved and multiplied. The tenor swerves into a different register of the ‘virtual’: “Ashleigh said she could breathe underwater,” Meera exclaims towards the end of the interrogation. The reconstructions in Frogman operate with a centrifugal force that virtually displaces us from the ‘real’. In the final scene, we are ejected from the initial centre of the present tribunal into the mythological dreamtime of the Bama people of North Queensland who lived by the ocean. We hear the voice of young Meera narrating how a huge wave had transfigured the bones of the Bama people into the coral structure of the Great Barrier Reef. By this point, the judiciary framework we had entered into has dissolved into a tale of ecological grief which we continue to bear witness to.
Corals are a poignant symbol in Frogman, that in turn become a virtual interface through time. Early in the play, Meera explains, “I study corals, the slow death of the reef. Bleaching. I’m interested in the ones that survive, even in today’s conditions.” Corals are the nexus that bridges Meera with her late mother, her childhood friendships, and a deeper ecological time. Upon reading the programme notes, I learn that the underwater sequences had been filmed in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where the diversity of coral life more closely resembles the robust ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef before the current state of extinction-level bleaching. The etymological root of ‘virtual’ in scholastic Latin is virtualis, a term that refers to the potential that is held in dialectical relation to the actual. But in Frogman, the virtual has been evacuated of potential and sealed in an ungraspable past. In reconstructing the virtual, we encounter the displaced loss in our reality, and find ourselves dealing instead with the uncanny process of mourning.
Frogman by curious directive ran from 21 – 26 May 2019 at SOTA Studio Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Guest contributor Shawn Chua is an artist and researcher based in Singapore. In 2012, he was awarded the National Arts Council Scholarship (Postgraduate) and he holds an MA in Performance Studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.