By Nabilah Said
(950 words, 4-minute read)
If hope is a thing with feathers, then Peepbird, a 60-minute-long non-verbal show, would be it. This offering by The Finger Players was my first live theatre show since COVID – the one that was promised, had been prophesied and invoked in many a panel and Facebook post for the past 6 months, while we waited for theatres to open. It was also the company’s first show of its new season, helmed by its co-artistic directors Ellison Tan and Myra Loke.
Peepbird was a dream.
I spend the early part of the day fantasising a triumphant return. I visually map out my route to the theatre, given that the usual Citylink Mall route to the Esplanade is closed (a lesson I learnt from Jocelyn Chng). When it starts to rain minutes before the show, my friends and I, who are catching the show together, mentally re-route our journey with the efficiency of Google Maps. Still, I miss out on some things, like a jacket. “It might be colder than usual since there’s less people,” says a friend. Right, I remember: only 50 people in the theatre. Internally, it felt like a small puncture wound was slowly letting air out.
Peepbird was an event.
It’s funny how many people you can recognise from behind a mask. I excitedly wave a hushed hello at the faces I recognise in Esplanade Recital Studio as I make my way to my seat. My friends take a sneaky photo of me and send it via WhatsApp. It is all very thrilling. “Why do I feel like a giggly student on excursion?”, I hastily type back as the lights start to dim.
This was a ritual I missed. An old ritual. A comforting one. I can’t say the same for the newer rituals. The temperature checks. The security checks. The multiple check-ins: for venue, location, mall and country. All these new rituals meant for our own safety, but which add to my anxiety.
Peepbird was a painting.
From where I sit, I can discern a kind of existentialist journey of three crows, maybe more – performed by Jo Kwek, Vanessa Toh and Al-Matin Yatim – who love, live, fight and die, and are human or humans-dreaming-of-being-birds, who appear to remember and forget the pattern of life, of death, of violence even as they take on markers of a civilised, if increasingly absurd, life. If the narrative is gauzy, it is counterbalanced by the sheer starkness of MAX.TAN’s costumes and the intense movement vocabulary of director Loke. I particularly like the hat-tips to our Asian sensibilities, like the circularity of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, and the leaf-like patterns of the wing designs.
As per the hallmarks of the work of The Finger Players, there is also a playing with scale. Puppet designer Loo An Ni’s birds are both larger than life and miniature-sized, made of different materials and maneuvered in multiple ways by the puppeteer-performers. The show is simultaneously visceral – Kwek in particular is resplendent in her portrayal of a kind of warrior mama bird, but Al-Matin and Toh also throw their literal weight into the intensely physical show – as well as metaphorical.
The effect of this juxtaposition is a surreal one. It instantly makes me think of René Magritte’s iconic Son of Man – densely poetic imagery that nonetheless seems to hide a larger truth. But aesthetically, Peepbird is loyal to its source subject – dark, feathery, complex. If it is a René Magritte painting, then it is one bathed in the hues of Rothko rendered in Chinese calligraphic ink.
Peepbird was an elegy.
There is a moment in the show when a piece of a prop/costume gets dislodged and thrown to the floor. For the rest of the show, it lies there, lifeless. Only moments ago it had been animate, full of life, activated by movement and the magic of theatre. It made my heart drop – this perfect metaphor for everything we had been missing for the past few months.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I think I wanted celebration. I wanted colour. I wanted everyone to say that everything was ok. I wanted to hug everyone and say we’re back, we’re back, we’re back. But were we? We can smile and be really brave, but while we’re still living in pandemic conditions, we know that something isn’t quite right. Right?
Peepbird was a journey.
In the span of 60 minutes, I feel an internal battle between a desire for meaning and an appreciation for the meaninglessness that seemed to mirror our current lives. I think part of this was the effect of having watched too many shows via a screen, a cumulative alienation which had me craving for a journey of enveloping narrative, dialogue, and character that Peepbird did not necessarily offer. That would have been too easy. So instead, I let myself melt into the simulacra of the show, becoming human-avian, outcasted, frustrated, forgotten. I abandoned my critic’s notebook, no longer watching from the outside. Even if I was lost in the story, I found myself, finally, in the frame.
Empathy is a speculative journey. Empathy gives us wings, helps us see through the eyes of another. In making the show, Loke had referenced the culling of crows in Orchard Road due to overpopulation. I find myself returning to that memory of violence while watching, wondering about the stories of the voiceless. The ones society deems as pests.
Aesthetically, the show might have been predominantly black, but in its abstraction, it turned solid and multicoloured, reflecting this world in the same way you know that a black and white image is not just a black and white image. The result is a meaningful one. Peepbird was loss, but it was also resilience – perhaps best exemplified in Kwek’s final, triumphant stretch of her majestic wings. A wingspan as if to say, I am still here. We are still here. Watch us soar.
Peepbird by The Finger Players is presented as part of a pilot performance trial supported by the National Arts Council. It ran from 7 to 8 Oct 2020.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.
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About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.