ArtsEquator’s theatre podcast is back in 2022, with critics Lee Shu Yu, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia in a post-show conversation about three productions at M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022: The Essential Playlist by The Second Breakfast Company (Singapore), Being: 息在 by 微 Wei Collective and Collaborators (Singapore) and OK Land by Circle Theatre (Thailand).
This episode is part of Critics Live!, which aired live with an online audience on Telegram on 24 January 2022 via Channel NewsTheatre. Critics Live! is a critics-led programme series to give arts audiences an insight into how critics formulate their responses to performances.
Listen now on Spotify or stream it here:
Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone, and welcome to Critics Live. My name is Naeem Kapadia. Now Critics Live!, for those of you joining us for the first time or attending this format for the first time, is basically a programme organised by ArtsEquator. It is a platform for theatre reviewers to discuss productions, usually right after watching them with a live audience.
Now, we are doing this for the first time as a live radio chat in collaboration with Channel NewsTheatre. And today we will be discussing the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival with the theme ‘the helpers’, which ran from 13th to 22nd January this year, covering a total of eight productions, with five local and three international shows, and we will be speaking about three of those productions tonight, which are: Being by Wei Collective, OK Land by Circle Theatre, and The Essential Playlist by the Second Breakfast Company.
So just before we jump in, a quick round of introductions. I’m joined this evening by fellow theatre reviewers, Matt Lyon and Lee Shu Yu.
Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.
Lee Shu Yu (LS): Hi everyone.
NK: Tonight we’re going to start by discussing Being by Wei Collective, and Shu, would you like to maybe tell us a little bit about this production?
LS: Yeah, okay. Hi everyone. This is Shu Yu. Yeah I’ll give a short introduction of Being or 息在 by Wei Collective. It’s about a character, X, caught in a cycle of dreariness, and one day, along with everyone else in the city, he falls asleep at 3:30pm and they all have the same dream of the sea.
Now the dream takes us on a journey of discovery. So into the depths of the ocean, to the story of a two-headed fish who consumed everything, to a peaceful beach, and then all the way back to X waking up again where he fell asleep in his home.
And the play is described as exploring the relationship between man and sea, and what it means to be an intricate part of nature and thus discovering how to be at ease in the sea of life. So I took that last bit from the synopsis.
Yeah, so that was the play. It was only 50 minutes long, if I remember correctly and it was quite short, it was quite succinct. But actually despite all of that I was actually really moved by it. I resonated very strongly with the initial predicament of the fatigue, repetition and dreariness. And in the first scene, this person is obviously having the same kind of day, day in and day out—and of course donning a mask and all of that. I think it mirrored a lot of what we go through these days with the pandemic and stuff.
But I think what really charmed me was the staging elements of the work. So the spatial design, the really atmospheric lighting, and that stunning soundtrack that underscored the whole piece really gave me that sense of immersion. And I really also appreciated the use of the different objects. (So I have a soft spot for the use of objects in plays.) So that’s just a short overview; I don’t want to talk all about it at this point—I want to maybe hand it over to Matt or Naeem. You guys want to share what you thought?
ML: Sure. I also liked the sound and the design. The issue for me is that it was too much of a blank canvas. I think you said you responded to the fatigue at the start, but the fatigue for me was more of a just not really doing anything.
And even as the play went on, the protagonist did not do an awful lot. I think there were hints at maybe a Beckettian repetition and maybe even a little bit of Artaud’s kind of transcendental joy, but they were very brief and not very impactful. And what I found myself mainly thinking was, I’m watching children’s theatre, but they forgotten to put the main actors on, and the main actors actually had all of the story…
So instead, I’ve got this one guy who was just supposed to be in the background of all the scenes, and now he’s got to carry all of it. And I guess that explains why, despite the fact that it’s so spare and there’s only one actor, it’s so well-lit and well-designed, and the sound is so nice because they were expecting to support a full production, but only one guy turned up.
I dunno. What do you think, Naeem?
NK: Look, I think for me it was one of those shows where the critic in me was trying to place meaning on it. So I found myself quite frustrated at the start because I was trying to figure out what this story was, who this X character was, what he was trying to do, was he originally supposed to not be a human, all of that… But I think the more I started to just immerse myself (as Shu says) in the production and just let it wash over me, the more I was able to appreciate it. I think the first few minutes were a little bit tiring for me because he goes through the same repetitive motions, being literally weighed down by the physical world: he’s wearing a mask, he’s wheezing, he’s having difficulty moving his objects—but he finds this joy and release in the embrace of the ocean. And there’s that wonderful physicality. And I think for me the best way to appreciate this was just seeing it, not so much as a play, but as a physical performance of sorts.
And there is a strong performance by Neo Hai Bin who was the person who had both written and performed the show, obviously aided by the technical elements as well. I think he was able to show this kind of balletic charm—childlike whimsy, even. And I liked the change in tones, it was pensive and melancholy and joyful.
And I think the other thing for me was that I had never seen a show at the Esplanade Annex Studio (I think I’ve seen one show before from the Fringe Festival), but one that showcased its full capacity. And I think the lighting really helped to show the depth of that space. I think there was a scene where they introduced this two-headed monster, and they were dancing around—and there was just a lot of wonder in manipulating that space: it felt quite immersive to me.
So I think after a while I began to not pay a lot of attention to the surtitles and what they actually meant. And just to watch the show and let that whole feeling of rootlessness or joy or whatever just take hold of me.
LS: I wanted to add to that also, because I noticed that I was sitting quite up-close, and there were a few other rows behind me. So it was really quite immersive for me: I could pay attention to the small elements, and I imagine whatever I had gone through was pretty much like a 3D short film. But if I had been sitting in the back rows, it really might have looked a little bit more like a picture book to the audience.
So I think that closeness gave me the opportunity to appreciate, for example, the shimmering of the tinsel: I heard the rustling of it add to the soundscape, and I could really observe his facial expressions, which to me was a lot more like dialoguing with the situation or the environment, more so than just seeing that there was one person in a big space. So I think maybe that closeness benefitted me in some way.
ML: I’m in the strange situation of agreeing with everything you say, but in the most minor possible way. Like you say it washed over you, and I say, ‘Yes, it was a lukewarm, underpowered shower.’
It was… fine. I didn’t hate it—but it was so well packaged for so little content: it was like a box inside a box. Simple, but really nice staging and lighting… And then you said ‘balletic charm’. I can’t really give you balletic charm. He was just a normal guy wandering around. And okay, he wanted around in a moderately interesting manner for about 45 minutes, but using the word ‘balletic’ on that, it seems a little bit much to me, I don’t know… Defend your balletic, Naeem!
NK: I think there was a real attempt to engage the audience. And I think you have to also admit that it is not easy to be on stage by yourself for that length of time. And, he had to convey so many different emotions. Obviously there was the dreariness of the material world and everything in that initial few minutes, but then once he comes in, there’s this childlike whimsy. I think the scene which, at least on the night I watched, resonated quite well with the audience was when he was cooking a variety of seafood and people were giggling. And it was quite charming: I remember he was fishing and people would throw in like a crab or something like that. It felt childlike. I think someone mentioned children’s theatre and, yes, it could have been that, but perhaps that was what we needed.
And I think you mentioned about the point of it all? I think one of the reasons for a fringe festival is perhaps for a show like this to be given its space. Because for me a fringe festival is where you want to perhaps be challenged with something slightly unconventional; not that full, packaged traditional play (and we’ve had a few of those) but something like this, which is a little bit looser around the edges, which kind of defies its conventional linearity and all of that. I think that there is space for that. I’m not saying that it was the best thing I’ve seen, but I’m glad that it was given a chance to be realised as a production.
ML: Yeah. I think it was the right kind of thing for a fringe and it did feel like a sincere exploration.
We’ve got a question here from Ke Weiliang. (Who could that guy be?) ‘What do we think the relation to the theme of ‘The Helpers’ was?’ What do you think about that, Shu?
LS: I’m going to be honest. I actually, while watching the show, couldn’t see the relation to what the synopsis said it was going to be. So I couldn’t really see man’s connection to nature. I thought nature was like a device to explore man’s coping and something like that. So in a way it was really hard for me to link it to that nature theme. But I could wring a bit of an explanation out to the helpers theme: so maybe this character needed some help, and nature was the help? So I can imagine that there would be some kind of reasoning for it. Why do we have to think of helpers as people? It could also be experiences, memories. It could be a particular belief or faith in what you experienced that kind of brings you through the everyday. So that was how I made sense of its relation to theme.
NK: And again, this goes back to my point of trying to ascribe meaning to it. And I think I was struggling with that. I was like, ‘What does this mean? How is this about helping?’ Et cetera… But perhaps it was something a little bit more abstract: it was the idea of helping yourself, about slowing down. I think that was quite a bit in the program about breathing and slowing down, and there’s this very strong emphasis on him not being able to breathe easily in the physical world, but him being able to just thrive when he goes into the sea. So it’s this idea of just returning to your roots.
And I think rootlessness is a theme which appears in other shows. I think it does appear in OK Land, definitely: the sense of rootlessness which you feel. And perhaps it was just this idea of being more grounded and finding and helping yourself towards a place where you are more grounded and more contented.
And I don’t know what the ending is meant to be. Was it all a dream or…? But the point is, I guess he finds some form of inner peace, and I think that it ends on a positive note, which I think is a nice thing to watch: you feel like someone’s not had a great time, but they’re able to connect with something that gives them a greater purpose. And I think if it leaves you with some warm feeling, I think the show has achieved its purpose
ML: Do you know, I honestly can’t remember the ending. What happened? Like literally what happened on stage at the ending?
NK: I think he emerges from the sea… and wistfully looks back at his own experience.
ML: That sounds about right.
NK: I don’t know how else to describe it, but that’s the sense I got.
ML: Yeah. You said it was about slowing down, and I just thought if it had slowed down anymore, it would’ve fallen asleep. And I wonder if the reason I didn’t was because they made us sit on the floor and my back started hurting.
I’m sounding so horrible. I didn’t hate it, and it was fairly pleasant, but I think it thought it had a lot more point than it actually had.
I wish they had played a little bit more with the responsibilities of the adult world versus the childish joy—which I think was in there… But I was just looking for something a little bit more high contrast. I don’t mind subtle, but I think there needs to be a little bit more nuance in the content before you get to a level of subtlety that reads as anything other than a dullish grey.
And apart from the design elements, that’s more or less what I was seeing. Naeem is nodding. You can’t see it but we can: Naeem is nodding.
NK: I think that for me, one thing that I perhaps didn’t appreciate so much was the voiceovers, because I felt that if you had just let him… if he wants to do this, it’s almost a wordless performance: I think only at the end he says a few words. And if that had been the intention, then just let music and light and physical action go on rather than having to keep telling us this overarching story about man and the sea and the beast and all of that. Like I felt that actually became more distracting for me.
So I think it probably went against the intention. I suspect there were attempts to go for deeper themes, but I agree that they were not fleshed out. And after a while, I stopped trying to search for those deeper themes. And I just wanted it to be an experience. And I think I agree it was relatively pleasant. I don’t think it was revelatory for me, but I do appreciate the work that went in.
And as you said at the very start, I did really think that the sound designer Jing Ng and the space designer Liu Yong Huay Faith both worked together very well, and I should also credit the costume work by Loo An Ni and the dramaturgy by Daniel Toh [sic].
And I think all of these collaborators came together to tell a story that could unfold like a picture book, that could be experiential—I think that is probably the word I would use to describe this show: not so much a linear play, but an experiential tale of finding yourself.
ML: Why not?
LS: I would love to see this piece as maybe a 10-minute shot film.
ML: I think it would work much better in that medium—I think you’re absolutely right. Yeah, Something that really allowed the visuals to be properly curated and that didn’t outstay its welcome. It could probably get some nice density from that.
Okay, so shall we move on to the next one?
And a little bit of an apology that to Daniel Teo… I think there was a little verbal slip there from Naeem—I am being informed by Nabilah that it’s Daniel Teo, the dramaturg.
NK: Apologies, apologies! We are working with a lot of different notes tonight, so apologies to everyone whose name might be slightly mispronounced.
ML: But don’t worry: Naeem’s going to now mute himself and self-flagellate for the next ten minutes, and he can come back after this next play, which is OK Land by Circle Theatre from Thailand.
Okay, here’s your punishment Naeem: you can give us the synopsis on this one!
NK: I’m not going to mention the names of anyone. I’m going to leave that for you, Matt. I’m going to tell you a little bit about the company though, which I’ve taken from the program, but Circle Theatre is a fairly new company, founded in 2018. And from what I understand, it seeks to present Thai issues in a format where the audience tend to sit facing each other or in a circle—and hence the name. So encouraging dialogue and debate.
But what OK Land is, to strip things down, is a good old-fashioned piece of political theatre, It’s set in a convenience store, an everyday store that you would find in any neighbourhood. And it features two employees who are doing the late-night shift and a couple of customers who come in. And it appears to be a series of fairly mundane interactions, almost set up as a sitcom initially from what it appears, but it goes a lot deeper into an excavation about the state of the world, of Thai society, of the pandemic, and of the politics of inequality.
And it actually ticks off quite a lot in slightly over an hour. And I thought it was actually a very solid piece of writing.
ML: Yeah, Shu, what do you think?
LS: Yeah, I agree. I really like how straightforward the writing was. It didn’t beat around the bush and it really brought a lot of different characters into the picture to intersect at the point of the convenience store, which was actually my favourite part of the play, because it’s liminal, it’s like convenient… but then it’s also owned by a mega corporation. You have all these people from different backgrounds and walks of life coming in, and they have different things that they want out of the convenience store.
So I was very excited by the way they put these audience members into a space as if they were just watching from the side of a convenience store. And they had this little sound design of the little beeps going off because the concept here is that you just take a cart and you tap on the machines for whatever groceries or instant food that you wanted, and it would come down a tube. So it was quite charming in that way, and the employees were also made to do a bit of a jingle—I think it’s like a salutation to the convenience store franchise, which was really weird and dystopic in a way. But we are also introduced to a pandemic or a disease that is running rampant in the outside world, and it’s called ‘Zombie Ants Disease’. It took me a while to understand they that was the disease that was going around.
So they had these little jabs at the tycoon and this pandemic that was just running rampant outside, and it really draws up a very sardonic outside world. And it just feels like peering into a little box and just rattling these little characters around and seeing what happens when you put them together.
So the writing really just made things really accessible for me also to unpack all these different conversations that were happening.
ML: Yeah. Just to interrupt: Jezamine Tan from The Necessary Stage asks, ‘Is the self-flagellation going to be live streamed?’ And I believe Naeem has an OnlyFans page, which he’ll tell you about at the end.
But I really liked this– (Sorry, he’s covering his eyes now.)
I really quite liked this play, and it was a bit of a surprise for me because the sound quality was possibly the worst I’ve ever heard in a recording in my entire life. And obviously Singapore is rich and we can afford to do it well, but even on a five-year old phone (and they appeared to be filming it to a relatively high visual quality on phones), there’s just no excuse for doing it that badly. The audio levels were set so high that it was clipping throughout, and then they tried to lower it down to a reasonable level by setting the most aggressive noise cancellation I’ve ever heard. So you all get these burbling underwater noises underlying everything. And it was almost entirely unlistenable. So I just ended up turning it down and reading the subtitles really, and just hearing little bits of the jingle every now and then.
But regardless of that, I was pretty much engrossed with it. I thought it unfolded really nicely and it made its message well. I do have a bit of a preference for a slightly stronger and more confrontational form of political theatre… My favourite play about capitalism and why it doesn’t work is Mercury Fur by Phillip Ridley, which centres on the story of an older brother trying to protect his family by hosting a party for a rich banker who wants to torture to death a 14-year-old Vietnamese Elvis impersonator. And that sounds a little bit strange and extreme, but the way the play is managed, it just makes you realise that the situation we’re in in late-stage capitalism is pretty much exactly as extreme and unlikely as that, and contains that level of ridiculous cruelty.
And I thought that the Zombie Ants Disease for COVID (and its symptoms were basically depression, right, leading to suicide?)… Yeah, it’s true; it probably needs saying, is it the most interesting way to say it? Thoughts?
NK: Yeah, I think I found myself struggling initially with why they didn’t just talk about the pandemic as it was and why they had to invent a whole different pandemic.
But then again, obviously there was this tycoon, which to me was a fairly coded reference to probably the monarchy, and something which they probably could not say when they were performing it in Thailand, so they probably thought, ‘Let’s just be coded throughout: let’s not talk about COVID, let’s not mention America, let’s mention ‘Trumpland’, and let’s not bother about sanitising hands, but let’s invent something where we sanitise our feet…’ And they just ran along with the idea… and I was okay with it. I think it took me a while, but I think once you buy into that narrative, I think it was fine because despite being a play about Thai society, I think there’s a lot, which we in Singapore would be able to relate to: the whole thing about the ever-changing rules, that today you can buy alcohol at this time, but tomorrow it’s not sold at all; the foreign mutations; the anti-vaxxers… There was a comment about the jingle, which reminded me of this world of surveillance we’re in, where we have to use TraceTogether and check in all the time and all our moves are monitored…
And then there’s also the socioeconomic inequality that has resulted. I think Shu mentioned, it’s about people from different walks of life, but the fact is I think all of them are living in some fairly gated community or compound and they all kind of middle class, but then the outsiders, this older lady who comes in—she’s really the person who the system has failed: she’s been trying to look for a job, her family members are ill… She used to be an employee but she lost her job. And she’s one of the people who slipped through the cracks. And that was a nice way to really excavate the idea of how do we help an individual like that? Do we just film her on social media? Do we just give her money? How should corporations help? Just dumping produce into certain local districts and saying we’ve done our part? Or should there be a more concerted attempt to improve the lives of such people? So I think for me, this play actually really dug its heels into that theme of helping others and seeing how we can do that in this kind of situation.
And that made me think. So I was able to actually see a lot of parallels with our lives and I actually enjoy the fact that it was a very issues-based play.
LS: I was going to ask, as Weiliang has done in the chat, what do you think about that ghostly character who was carrying the video camera throughout?
ML: Yeah, I agree with you Naeem that when it got into the heart and the social issues and what people actually want to say to each other in the environment that we have at the moment, then that was when it was at its strongest. And so it felt like it really wanted to be a documentary, but it almost chickened out, and then put these half-steps away from reality, like calling it Trumpland instead of America or, like you rightly pointed out, putting plastic bags on your feet instead of sanitising your hands and wearing masks.
And I wish it had a bit more of the courage of its convictions and maybe gone kitchen-sink or gone absolutely crazypants. And the ghost figure who appeared and who only certain characters could see, and turned out in the end to have been a student who died filming a protest ten years ago or something like that? Trying to make that the emotional centre of the piece seemed to be a mistake because the starving auntie was really representative of a far more recent and currently relatable damage: the inequities that the pandemic have increased. There are people starving to death and there are people without work. And obviously Thailand’s political situation is not the situation we have here. So this may be a case of it being lost slightly in translation. But for me, I found that character baffling at the start. And then when I worked out that he was supposed to be a ghost and what was going on, a somewhat unnecessary choice.
Is that the side you came down on, Shu?
LS: Yeah. I really didn’t know what to make of him. And I didn’t like it when they revealed that he was actually a protester that died.
Of course, like what you said about the whole cultural resonance here, maybe it’s a bit different… But it just felt like he was really out of place because there were other things to focus on, that all the other characters were focusing on, and they had all their energies on trying to help the hungry auntie or trying reason with the political and social inequalities that were at play here.
But the character of the course was… Until the very end, people were still like, ‘Oh, you can see him? How come only these people can see him?’ It was a device that dragged on way too long for me, and didn’t seem to amount to much at the end.
NK: Yeah. I have to agree. I remember I was watching the show with someone else and I was saying, ‘Is that the videographer? Is that an overzealous audience member?’ Because I just honestly could not figure out who was this guy standing right in the middle. And I was like, ‘Oh, the blocking is really bad! And the audience members are right in front of the camera!’ And it had to be spelled out to us that this is a ghost, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, okay… If you say so.’
I felt there was so much in the play, so many rich themes, that they did not need that character. And as you rightly say, Matt, I think the older lady was the emotional anchor of this play. I liked the fact that she was given her space to tell her story because she is obviously from a different experience than all the other characters: the architect or the food blogger or the student activist, or just the everyday convenience store employees.
But I felt that having that ghost character and then giving him a bit of a resolution at the end felt a bit unnecessary. So it was a case of perhaps putting too many things inside the play and within an hour I think there’s only so many stories you can truly unpack.
ML: But some of the stories for me were just wonderful. We’ve talked about the convenience store auntie, but the manager of the convenience store as well. My favourite moments in the play were where he is basically on the phone to corporate HQ for this 7-Eleven clone, and the voice of the actor who replied on the phone—obviously I don’t speak Thai, but it was just the most perfect robotic delivery I’ve ever heard, and it just so immediately captured the faceless algorithm that is these corporations, and it was horrible.
And I’m so glad because Naeem said I had to pronounce all the Thai names, but fortunately I don’t have to because the programme does not tell me which character was played by which actor, so I have no reason to read out those names, but whoever… (I know, Naeem is throwing his hands up in despair!) But whoever it was who played Boss, the convenience store manager, just the way he became irrational and his anger built as he’s speaking to this digital sociopathic presence on the phone, it was frustrating and moving and true.
LS: Yeah, he was my favourite character. I felt he really carried that the performance really well, from the beginning where he’s distant, he’s just playing the boss character, and he’s also talking to the employee, Joy, to be a good employee, basically. And then all the way to the very end where I really didn’t expect it when he got on the phone and he just broke in the midst of all the chaos. There was no reason to expect it, but then he finds his own voice or he finds his own agency. And I think I was quite pleased with the ending because of that offering of hope, of trying to break the cycle or find a way out of the situation. And yes, maybe he’s a little bit more educated, maybe he’s a bit more privileged—but I think he represents that character that is not one that is hopeless. And is not one that’s giving up in the face of all of this.
NK: Yeah, I agree absolutely.
ML: And I think probably the theme of ‘The Helpers’ came across a little bit more directly in this one as well. Which I think, especially when you’re essentially buying in a production from overseas, it does make sense to curate a little bit more carefully when it comes to the theme.
So I was very pleased to see it. I just wish it had better sound. Oh, my word…
NK: Yeah, and honestly if I had been there in the audience, I think I would have enjoyed this play even more than I did because of its wonderful immersive staging. I think there must have been not more than 20 audience members, and you’re right there, smack in the action, watching actors come in and scan things in your face.
ML: Yeah, and half of them seem to be filming it as well, which is a very today thing to do as well, isn’t it?
NK: But I think that the problem was also because the angle was slightly weird. So for those of us who are watching this as a video, the blocking did not feel great to me, especially when you have about five characters talking and overlapping each other. I think it felt really a bit of a mess to me in those scenes, and I think if I was actually in the physical space, I would have probably appreciated that a little bit more. It might’ve been an issue of the camera angle because I’m not sure whether this play was originally conceived to be filmed. It may have not been, but I think that was something that detracted perhaps from making it a truly immersive production.
ML: Yeah, I see what you mean: it was a little bit difficult to follow the momentum sometimes, wasn’t it? It’s almost like they cut away to a completely different time or something: people just materialised. But I think that’s quite forgivable; I’m not too unhappy with that.
Weiliang was made so happy by the constant OK Land door chimes that he can let go of the sound quality. To which Shu agrees, and to which I despair of both of you and refuse to talk about this play anymore.
Let us move on to The Essential Playlist!
LS: Yay! The crowd cheers…
ML: So The Essential Playlist was by the Second Breakfast Company from Singapore and it followed the interactions between a group of social media creators who are trying to find out how they can respond to helpers – essential workers – during the pandemic, and maybe share those stories, but maybe also not sacrifice their viewing figures or their ratios… And I’m pretending I’m a young person who knows what any of this means!
One of the essential workers was a nurse and the other was a delivery rider. And we see how the social media influencers try to work with their stories in ways which veer from extremely trivial to possibly slightly less trivial. Fair summary, Shu?
LS: It’s a difficult thing to talk about isn’t it? It’s a difficult thing to execute as well, actually. Fair summary, fair summary, in all honesty.
I have a lot of feelings about this play and I don’t know whether I’ve reached a conclusion on it, but I think The Essential Playlist is a show and is a concept that’s very difficult to get right today because many people have very different thresholds for what social media and modern social justice activism, can and cannot do. So I think it’s one of those plays that’s really like, you see what’s your threshold, and then you will decide whether or not you like it, and whether or not it was effective.
To me it was a slightly backdated play already, I feel? Yeah, okay, Naeem is nodding, and Matt looks like he wants to agree. There’s a lot of things that Matt wants to say about this piece. But yeah, the discussion here, the discourse on essential workers and non-essential workers has, I think, evolved and grown a lot since the report came out in the news, a couple of… How long ago was it?
ML: Decades… Centuries…
LS: Yeah, it’s been quite long, lah, hor? And then stuff like social media and content creation has also gone under the spotlight with the (Night Owl Cinematic) exposé, and it does make this threshold a lot more layered, I feel. So going in, I really had this kind of veil all over my eyes and I had this feeling like, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be centred on content creators. I don’t know what to feel about that, because they’re not the number one group of people that I feel like I want to empathise with if they were made the protagonists of the play.’ So it was really quite difficult for me to engage entirely. But I have to say that if the Second Breakfast Company wanted to go with this cheeky distasteful, slightly cringy aesthetic, and make me feel uncomfortable and make me have a very visceral response, then I think it worked perfectly. I think that worked really well. I was having these goosebumps the whole time because I just couldn’t—I just felt so uncomfortable watching them be pretentious, be fickle, think about going viral the whole time. I didn’t like the character of Henry. He was so annoying. So if that was what they were going for, I think they succeeded really well. He was very spineless.
And I think a lot of the times I couldn’t tell what the characters were trying to fight for, especially the content creators. Yeah, so it worked: I hated the characters, and I also hate myself for identifying with them.
NK: Yeah, if you say a play is going to be successful in terms of how it triggers a reaction in you, then I think this definitely triggered a reaction in me because I was irritated about five minutes in.
I think you mentioned that it’s a bit dated; I felt that instantly. It’s been one and a half years since the Sunday Times poll in June 2020. And why are we talking about essential workers in 2022? I do not know why. But in any case, if you do want to tell their stories, why are you centring it on content creators who are basically portrayed as entitled, irritating and abrasive with little attempt made to distinguish them or provide any form of nuanced personality?
Now, this could have been an intention to just make us not like them as a bunch, but I just felt it was really grating. And unfortunately for me, I think the direction of the piece did not help. There was this jaunty, annoying soundtrack at the beginning, which plays in every scene—it’s almost peppy. And the whole thing felt like a skit to me, it felt like a parody. And I don’t know whether I was meant to take it seriously at all. The only bit where we have a bit of an emotional anchor is when we are introduced to the two characters, the delivery worker and the nurse. And they do make some authentic statements about, these top-down-government, corporate initiatives and how they are a bit meaningless.
And it obviously explores the idea of health. I will give it to them: they did tackle the theme, they talk about how you help these people, that’s good, that’s a tick. But if you do want to talk about these people, why not centre the narrative on them? Why do we have to deal with these four unlikeable characters for three quarters of the play and then have these good stories tucked away inside?
So I just found myself irritated because of the way it was set up and the mixed messaging. And that just affected my ability to enjoy the play.
ML: And if you’re going to irritate me in a play, I’m up for it, but I want to know to what purpose. And I could not see that purpose. I wonder if the play thought it was satire? They were elements of the design and the performance that indicated that… You mentioned the sound design; I can see that as satire in that it was an oversimplification of what is already simple when it comes to those boom-boom-tish kind of generic YouTube music beds. And it was played a bit too loud and a bit too long, so all right, I guess that’s a kind of a spoof or a skit, as you said earlier.
But again, to what purpose? If it’s satire, then you should be punching up, right? You should be speaking truth to power and making power look as ridiculous as it should when it looks at itself in the mirror. But we begin by finding out that artists and apparently social media creators are not in a position of power because they have been dubbed inessential.
So are we supposed to empathise with these deeply unpleasant people or not? If we’re not supposed to empathise with them, why aren’t they even more cartoonishly unpleasant and why don’t we have a bit more of a hero narrative with the actual essential workers?
And it’s funny because I think we all agree that the play came across as a little bit old fashioned, but we also, probably I’m guessing couldn’t fit it into a playwriting category because it doesn’t play by the proper tropes; it just manages to feel like a slightly broken version of several different things.
LS: I do want to add that the reason why I feel I haven’t really come to terms with my feelings about it is because it is a very different angle from what a lot of us are used to in playwriting. Typically you would write characters that, you can identify with and root for from the start. In a way if this was intentional by the Second Breakfast Company – and I have a feeling it is – then centring these content creators provides us with a very different kind of dynamic or experience in theatre. And I don’t know if it’s just my personal discomfort or maybe it’s time for us to be challenged by these kinds of new tropes, these new arrangements of stories, these very current but at the same time very superficial issues… I think they’re all part of society now. And it’s going to be hard to critique even the phenomenon that we see today because it is superficial, but it also forms a huge part of how we interact with the media, how we interact with storytelling, how the stats show up these days. So at the same time I do want to mention that I thought that discomfort was effective insofar as to make me feel like, ‘Oh no, what am I doing with my voice? What am I doing with my creation or my creativity? What am I doing as someone who can echo or repeat or share voices and stories?’ And I think that the piece worked in a very complex way to make me reflect on my own ability, but I was a little bit uncomfortable with that conclusion at the end, where they said that maybe it’s better to let people tell their own stories, because I feel like maybe that’s a bit too much of an ultimatum. I feel like as storytellers, maybe we should just focus on telling stories with sensitivity, with accountability, rather than handing the mic over to essential workers to tell their own stories altogether. So I feel like it fell short at the conclusion a little.
ML: Yeah, I think when we’re talking about the shallowness of this kind of fairly low-effort social media, then yeah, absolutely. But did this really critique it or did it just replicate it and perhaps even water it down and put it in a medium where it doesn’t have its own advantages or the visual impact that you can get on a 2D screen with fast cuts.
So for me, it was a failure to properly engage with the shallowness. (I know that sounds a little bit like an oxymoron.) I don’t even believe that there are content creators that shallow, but equally we seemed to be asked to empathise with them, so I couldn’t see them as a satirical enemy figure. It didn’t provoke the kind of reflection in me that you’re talking about, Shu, because for me, I don’t think I ever would be that deliberately shallow. And I’m not accusing you of anything, but if I saw myself in that, I’d really have to look in a mirror for a long time.
NK: Yeah. And I think we’ve got a very interesting comment actually by Weiliang, which I think deserves to be heard. So he says that he used to work as a food delivery rider himself, and that valuable commentary is being made about the power dynamics of helping. And he was thinking about the scene where Sam is being ambushed by the Lunch Bunch with this chicken pizza, only for them to realise that she’s vegetarian. And it says a lot about the motivations, how we help the self-gratification or do we pause to listen to people on the ground?
I have to agree that scene resonated with me as well. And I think there was another scene with Fatin, the male nurse character, and he talks about all these corporate sponsors who give them products with their branding and want them to showcase it on social media. And that they just almost become like a publicity guinea pig, really.
So I think all those kinds of comments do resonate because there are these people who just want to help just to tick a box and do their CSR or whatever it is—just fulfil that box-ticking approach. But what does it really mean to improve the lives of these delivery people, of other forms of essential workers?
And I think those were the stories that I wanted to see elevated, but I felt they were buried in a lot of vapid dialogue.
ML: And do they even need to be framed by that vapidity? Can’t we just use theatre to go straight to those stories? I don’t see the point of, as I think you said, spending 75% of the time with people who are unpleasant and incompetent. Not really seeing it…
We have from Juliana Kassim here an interesting point about the play being dated. ‘I think it’s worth remembering that applications for the festival open a whole year ahead, and these works are usually already in progress. Bit difficult to try and foresee its relevance at that time.’
I think I recall reading in the programme that the genesis of this play was actually the ban on personal mobility devices and how that might affect delivery riders. Although of course, then the pandemic happened and the play changed to accommodate that. For me, though, the datedness of the play is not so much that it’s talking about the Straits Times’ essential workers article; it’s more that the stagecraft of it is quite traditional. Whereas for me, Being was a fringe show and OK Land was a fringe show—and this was a little bit more like student drama: something that’s traditional but not quite in control of its mechanics.
Yeah, anything else we want to say about this? The stories that were really there: we did get to hear a little bit about the nurse and the delivery rider in the end. Was there enough touching on that? Was there anything that we really could take away from that, do you think?
LS: I felt that it was a breath of fresh air when they were allowed to have their own space. Maybe that was the point, building up to a point where we just wanted to hear their voices. And then when they were allowed to take the stage and say things the way they wanted to, it was awkward but it was heartfelt. And I think that breath of fresh air could be something that… This piece works best when it is very genuine, when it’s not trying to be something it’s not.
And one moment that stood out to me and I think a lot of audience members was when the nurse had to sanitise his hands for twenty seconds, and there was this silence. It was really funny! It was very natural and very out of the blue. So I think it really does best when it allows itself to be organic rather than tries to be something it’s not.
ML: But then verbatim theatre exists, right? Why not just do that? If we’re all agreeing that we want to hear these voices, and that the point of this play was to make you wait to hear the voices, then why not just give us the voices? I don’t necessarily think that the dramatic structure, which hid the good stuff from us for so very long, was worthwhile.
NK: Yeah, I have to agree because I think all the points that we say resonated with us were essentially meant to be verbatim snippets. So why do we have to deal with this structure? And I think that was, I think you talked about authenticity, Matt, and that was the reason why so much of the play grated on me, because it felt so inauthentic, that whole setup with these entitled characters—and that probably was the intention: they’re all equally entitled and going about their approach to build their ratings. The whole thing just felt like a snazzy, meaningless PowerPoint presentation about something which we don’t want to buy in the first place. And then you wait and wait until you get to the good stuff. And I’m just thinking, why do we not just listen to those stories?
So it might’ve just been the messaging of it and the way it was structured. But I think that was what really affected my ability to engage with it.
LS: I think there’s still value in having some of these very farcical elements, actually. I do feel like there’s that contrast to when we actually hear those voices. I think maybe they were trying to build up to something like that where you actually see the juxtaposition between trying to tell somebody else’s story and actually letting things take their course.
I quite enjoyed several of these moments. I think something that’s quite grating probably is that it’s maybe a little bit heavy-handed. Maybe the characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that makes it very hard to cut through the fluff.
Yeah, so I do think there’s actually a lot of like value in comparing the “inauthentic” and the “authentic” (all those words in quotations!). But in a way, I would have loved to see this piece have a bit more time… I know I said it’s a bit backdated, but it probably needs a little bit more time to just ask itself even in those scenes of content creation, what is it actually trying to say?
ML: Yes, indeed.
I wonder if we’ve got any questions just for the last few minutes?
While we’re finding any of those, Nabilah says, ‘To me, this was the Second Breakfast Company showing the glimpses of how they grapple with the difficulties of dealing with this subject matter from an artist’s or privileged perspective. The question that the panel seems to be disagreeing on is if showing those knots is completely unnecessary.’
And I think for me, yeah, I did mention that… But if we do want to show those knots, then I wonder why there have to be so many content creators who are all basically identical—like surely one or two would do it.
We were supposed to think for a while that one of them was a bad guy and one of them was nice, right? But their behaviour indicated that they were both equally shallow.
LS: Yeah. Yeah, I got confused at some point as well. Cause I thought they were on like different sides and then they ended up being all really bad, all having really bad ideas. So I was like, ‘Oh no, I can’t even empathise with one of you!’
ML: Which is a potential story that you can tell, but the one who was supposed to be nice was obviously and immediately bad. So it wasn’t some kind of strange journey where, ‘Oh, he seems so nice! But then he is evil after all! Therefore yes, this machine of social media is indeed going to eat us!’ Rather it was just the nurse character saying, ‘Oh, he’s a nice guy,’ and the entire audience I presume going, ‘No, he obviously, obviously isn’t! What are you thinking?’
NK: Yeah I guess the one thing that might be worth maybe mentioning is, do we want to talk a little bit about the theme? I think we’ve touched on it a little bit throughout this chat about the helpers and, obviously the fringe festival will be moving away from having a theme in future additions. And is there a value of a theme? I think there was this concept of ‘Fresh Fringe’ in the past where you’d have these perhaps much younger companies doing shows and there’d be two or three of those productions and then the main body. And now that’s been mashed together this year into just one set of eight productions with an overarching theme. But the theme concept has also changed over the years. I believe it used to be based on a work of art, and this year it’s based on a concept/quotation, that sort of thing. What were your thoughts about that?
ML: Sean Tobin, who used to be the artistic director of the fringe, used to be my boss. And whenever the teachers were talking about what plays they wanted to put on (because we maybe have three plays that the Year 4s have to put on), he’d always say, ‘Oh, we should think of a theme!’ And I’d be like, ‘No, Sean, stop it! We have enough difficulty finding plays with the right cast size. We don’t want to think about anything like that!’ But I do see the point when it comes to a fringe festival: it does give it that extra little bit of cohesion, even though there is often a little bit of a stretch-to-fit.
So I tend to like a theme in a festival, but I tend to like it to be something fairly concrete. I remember one year when Sean did ‘art and war’ and everything really was art and war. But with a theme, like ‘the helpers’, whenever you open it up to something a little bit more interpretive – like Shu, with Being earlier on, you were redefining it to explain how the ocean was a helper or something… And yeah, we can make those arguments—but I tend to be a little bit of a purist when it comes to themes.
NK: Yeah. And there’s a comment that says from 2023, there is no theme, so I think that’s the point; sorry if that wasn’t clear. So we are moving away from a theme, and I actually am in favour of that because I’m doing exactly what you mentioned Matt: trying to force myself to fit everything into that theme. And I read the synopsis and some of it is a bit tenuous sometimes. And the programme has ‘Our relationship with the theme.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, if you say so, but it’s not going to fundamentally change my appreciation of the play.’ So I think just having a collection of plays without any theme that they’re forced to constrain themselves to might have some value.
LS: I think one other thing that I would really like to see – maybe not next year, but maybe in the Fringe further down the road – is that if there’s no theme, then maybe we could also have a few more performances, just to diversify the lot, just to diversify the calibre of shows that we’re watching—not necessarily to allow bad shows into the Fringe, but to allow a greater diversity of ideas so that more comparisons could be made. Because I think that having a theme explores the different paradigms within that theme, but if we had no theme, then it would be very interesting to see the contrasts or to see the different directions that people could take with their ideas.
So I was actually quite fond of the theme at M1 Fringe; I think I looked forward to it. It didn’t have that much of an impact on me in terms of meaning-making and all of that because I’m the kind of person that would watch a piece and just make sense of it as its own work. But I think that it would be really interesting to see what 2023 holds for us.
ML: Nabilah asks, ‘What is bad? What is a fringe?’ I have a long history of saying what is bad… What is a fringe? I like to see something that you wouldn’t see Pangdemonium do. And not that I dislike Pangdemonium, but they’re basically the opposite of fringe. And so with The Essential Playlist, I could see Pangdemonium doing something like that – probably better – but I couldn’t see them do Being. So even though I’m not Being’s greatest fan, it fits in the right category to me. If I’m going to see a fringe festival show and someone gives me Being, I’m like, ‘Yup! I paid you your money and you gave me the thing.’ And I think that’s probably also true of OK Land, which even though it was old-fashioned political theatre, I think it had enough going on with the staging to justify it being a little bit more of a fringe performance.
Weiliang says, ‘Pangdemonium presenting Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral at Fringe.’ I think you’ve guaranteed that I will have nightmares tonight. Thank you for that comment.
NK: I think for me, a fringe is basically something that kind of takes you a little bit out of your comfort zone and makes you think and challenges you in some ways. And I look back at some of the fringe type of shows I’ve seen. Unconventional staging is one of them. We’ve had audio tours and we’ve had group-activity-type situations—I think there was a treasure hunt of sorts… You know, these slightly unconventional ways of storytelling that you do not see in a traditional theatre space. I look forward to that because that is exactly where you want to expose yourself to something that is not quote/unquote ‘traditional theatre’ with a beginning, middle and end. Not to say that those kinds of plays should not be at the fringe, but yeah, exactly.
So I think I would be looking forward to being challenged and wowed in different directions. And I feel that this year perhaps challenged me a little bit less just because I don’t think any of those issues were very new to me or were things that make me think significantly more about an issue than I already did. Whereas I think in the past, some of the shows I had seen had been a little bit more challenging in terms their themes.
ML: You know, having said that, the thing we’ve probably been most missing lately in theatre is the traditional show. There’s been much more opportunity to stage something a little bit fringy because so many of the standard rules of theatre are broken. You can’t have full houses; it’s probably better if you all do stand in the back three meters apart. So theoretically I guess I mind that maybe one of these plays didn’t fit into my idea of fringe, but for me, it actually comes back to the other part of Nabilah’s the question: ‘What is bad?’ And I just wanted whatever they were to be better. I am all up for traditional theatre at the moment—sit me in a packed auditorium, looking at French windows and I will be over the moon. But I do need it to be good.
LS: I think all in all, I had a really good time at the Fringe. Just personally on the level of going back to the theatre and enjoying stuff with people sitting by me, and also just engaging on my own terms. I think whatever the case is with quality, or writing and staging execution, all of that, I think I just had a really good time because I think I really appreciated the interesting ideas that were brought to the table. So kudos to the Festival and the creators.
NK: Absolutely: I think it’s always great to see new works, and thank you to all the creators for this year’s Fringe.
So I think just to wrap up thank you to all of you listeners for this chat. Please do follow ArtsEquator and Channel NewsTheatre. And if you have the means to contribute, please do—there will be some links that will be posted up on the channel shortly after we end. Do look out for future Critics Live! sessions, hopefully where we all can see each other in the same space. And yeah, I guess till then, thank you, good night and see you next time.
ML: Bye-bye, thank you.
The Essential Playlist by The Second Breakfast Company ran from 12 to 15 January 2022. Being: 息在 by 微 Wei Collective & Collaborators ran from 20 to 22 January 2022. OK Land by Circle Theatre ran online from 12 to 23 January 2022. All three shows were part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022.