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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 95: Three Sisters and _T0701_ at SIFA 2021

In this episode of the ArtsEquator theatre podcast, Naeem Kapadia, Matthew Lyon and Nabilah Said discuss Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre and _T0701_ by Zeugma, which were both part of SIFA 2021.

Stream Podcast 95:

Also available on Spotify.

 

Podcast Transcript 

Naeem: Hello everyone, and welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. I’m Naeem Kapadia and I’m joined as usual by Nabilah Said and Matt Lyon. Today, we are going to be talking about the Singapore International Festival of Arts, which ran from the 14th to 30th of May last month. And involved quite a number of shows, which had a hybrid presentation format because of the pandemic restrictions.

We’re going to be speaking about two of them today, Three Sisters, which is a collaboration by Nine Years Theatre in Singapore and the SITI Company of New York, and _T0701_, which is by Zeugma—not sure if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but it’s a collective made up of Rizman Putra, Safuan Johari, Brandon Tay, and Zulfadli ‘Big’ Rashid.

So let’s start with Three Sisters. Now, Three Sisters, as I’m sure most of you would know, is one of Chekhov’s ‘big four’ plays alongside The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and…

Nabilah: The Seagull

Naeem: The Seagull. And why don’t you tell us a little bit about the plot, Nabilah, to refresh everyone’s memory? 

Nabilah: All right. So I’m basing the plot based on this version, which was by Sarah Ruhl.

Matt: Wonderful playwright.

Nabilah: Yeah. So I think with this version, I mean, essentially there’s three sisters. They used to be from Moscow, the capital of Russia, but now are in a regional, smaller city and there’s a restlessness to them.

And they are orphans if I’m not wrong? So they live with their brother as well, but of course the main characters are the three sisters themselves, and in the play, we basically have them getting visited by a bunch of different old friends—are they all soldiers?

Matt: The town that they’re in has some kind of military detachment. And the worry is that that’s going to go away and then the town will be even more dead than it currently is.

Nabilah: Yeah. So it’s very exciting that all these military men are visiting them. Some of them are the friends of their mother or some of them are slightly younger, charming young men.  

Matt: But equally it’s still not Moscow. It doesn’t have that excitement or drive or presence.

Nabilah: Yes. Throughout the whole play, there’s this sense of longing for Moscow, for the city, for a different kind of energy—and essentially that’s the plot. 

Naeem: Yeah. And I think it takes place across four acts if I’m not mistaken, and takes us through a few years in the lives of these sisters, and charts a little bit of their emotional journey during this period. And yeah, I guess the most interesting thing at the very outset is that this is a very hybrid production, perhaps as hybrid as we can get. Firstly it’s performed in two languages. So we have the Nine Years Theatre company members performing in Mandarin. And they’ve obviously been doing these Mandarin versions of Western classics for a few years now. And on top of that, we have the SITI Company, who are performing in English. Now, in addition to that, it combines live performance and video projection.

So we have the Nine Years company onstage, and the SITI Company projected through these video screens.

Nabilah: Presumably prerecorded. 

Naeem: Presumably prerecorded but interacting with the live actors. So it’s a very interesting format. I think, honestly, for me, it took a while to get used to that entire hybrid setup, but it was an interesting experience overall, because I’ve never seen a playwright like Chekhov done in, in such a kind of… omnivorous manner.

Matt, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you thought. 

Matt: I thought it was almost exactly wrong, but that that is a lot better than being irrelevant or doing something purely for the sake of it. I can’t imagine it was the intention to do it with these three projections of the SITI Company actors on the wall. I’m sure that the intention was to have everybody in the same space—at which point you would very much be going along with what appears to me to be Chekhov’s message in the play, which is that it’s about the mire and the bramble of humanity: it’s about everything that drags you down, that stultifies you, that keeps you in your place, that stops you going to Moscow. And I think that’s presented in the script by having such a huge number of actors on stage at the same time. So that you feel that if you even try to leave the stage, you’re going to be pulled back by all these people. And it’s this continual reminder that you can’t get to Moscow—even though plot-wise, there’s never any reason why they can’t go to Moscow until the brother starts losing a load of money in the later acts. 

So I think that then, when you not only have half of the actors not present, but even that only three of the actors who are not present can possibly projected onstage at the same time, whether or not there are six or seven of them actually attending the party… I think it absolutely destroys that feeling that the bog is pulling me down, that I am entrenched in the swamp. But in doing kind of the opposite of that, it’s nonetheless interesting—it becomes a play about being haunted. And so the people who are not present nonetheless have an echo of a presence. The people who do not appear projected at the moment, but we work out should be present at the party, are almost like people who can come up behind you and give you a jump scare and say, ‘You can’t go to Moscow!’

So in that sense, I think there’s a similar trajectory which the play manages to impose by almost exactly the wrong means. There’s this anti-magnetism away from Moscow produced by means which I think are almost exactly wrong, but still kind of work. So for me, the play didn’t work, but it didn’t not work.

And it was fascinating to watch. 

Courtesy of Nine Years Theatre and The Pond Photography

 

Nabilah: I’m not sure if it’s exactly the same thing, but I feel that I got that sense of impossibility. It was impossible for them to go to Moscow for different reasons. It’s impossible for the SITI Company actors to be on stage with Nine Years Theatre. Definitely that idea or that feeling was there with the show on many levels.

So like both in plot and in the staging of it or the impossibility of staging it. For me, the idea of the party, when I was watching the live show was really hard to grasp.

Matt: So there’s a sense that Irina the youngest sister, there’s a sense to which the entire production is kind of a celebration of her birthday in a very strange ghostly way. Is that what you’re referring to?

Nabilah: I mean, yes. I mean, I quickly forgot about her birthday, to be honest, because I forgot it was a party. And in the end– actually I’m questioning if it really was a party in a sense, because if you look at the plot or the synopsis, it says that it’s a memory play or like a memory scape of, that’s very much focused on Irina. So in that sense, they’ve kind of adapted the story, maybe even from Sarah Ruhl’s version into a kind of Nine Years Theatre–SITI Company version of the story that’s focused or centred on Irina’s perspective. So then I could understand why after some thought, certain characters would disappear, like how a memory would disappear and, you know, you only conjure it when you think of it. 

And I think the set also helped to underscore that, right? So the set being kind of like this white cube/white box, and you can actually see the title “Three Sisters” but it’s inverted and on the back wall. So there’s this idea that we are entering into Irina’s mind.

That’s essentially how I saw it. So for me it didn’t not work. And I found it really quite interesting, but it took me having to watch the VOD (Video on Demand) after to realise a lot of these things. 

Naeem: That’s another interesting point to talk about. So obviously I think most of the major shows in SIFA were done in this dual format. So there was the live performances, which ran for a few days. And then there was the Video on Demand, which was available for about three weeks. And I think in any event, the experience watching the VOD is sometimes quite different from watching the show live.

Now all of us watch the show live when it came out. Obviously when you see the three projections, they’re this huge looming presence, this triptych of paintings almost, that you’re confronted with, with the physical actors, actually being quite small and overwhelmed by this kind of clinical white space.

But when you obviously see it on VOD, they do a lot of closeups. And also, I guess this is another nuance – the actors were masked when we watched the show because we were caught in that weird little period where the restrictions dictated that actors on stage had to be masked. So you don’t see those expressions in Mia Chee who plays Irina– had wonderful expressions, which I was only able to appreciate fully when I watched the VOD, and just kind of seeing her interactions with the other characters live, just really added to my investment in the play overall.

I think I agree with a lot of what you said Nabilah, about the impossibility, it’s a play about longing and wanting to go back. And I think there was an odd empathy which came through, especially because this was a work that was created in the pandemic. And you’re so used to interacting with people on screen, that the idea of just interacting with your closest and dearest through the lens of a screen and experiencing such profound emotion was just something we’ve been so used to it, which I found oddly familiar even.

But that being said, I think it didn’t help that some of the pairings amongst the characters didn’t quite have the emotional resonance for me, that I hoped for. For example, the middle sister Masha who is played by Akiko Aizawa from SITI Company. Now I would have always thought of Masha as the feisty sister. She’s the one who has an affair with the army officer who–

Nabilah: Vershinin?

Naeem: Vershinin. Who basically– she’s also the one who’s kind of quite disdainful of her husband, this nerdy school teacher. The actress who played her had this very uninterested air in terms of the way she portrayed her as this all old, embittered, jaded Masha, without the kind of feistiness that I would have expected.

And especially that final scene where the army officers leave the town they’re in and she’s parted from her lover. It’s such a powerful scene and I’ve seen other productions where it’s played so beautifully and husband kind of magnanimously takes her back. But all you see here is that he says goodbye to her on a screen because–

Nabilah: On an iPad.

Naeem: …on an Ipad, and then you see her beamed live kind of weeping. And the husband’s sort of trying to say comforting words to her that don’t really come across. I think those kinds of moments didn’t really fall for me. 

Courtesy of Nine Years Theatre and The Pond Photography

 

Matt: I agree that there were two levels of difficulty in the interactions here, and that one worked better than the others. When the projected images interacted with the live actors on stage, it largely worked surprisingly well, even though they were prerecorded. The oldest sister, Olga played by Ellen Lauren was amazing at it. She was able to predict the timing of the live actors she was talking to and often seemed to be responding to them live in the moment, but nearly all the actors managed those interactions well. But it was very difficult for somebody in like TikTok portrait view on a wall next to somebody else in TikTok portrait view– it was very hard for those people to interact.

And specifically the interaction between Masha and her husband played by Barnie O’Hanlon – the timings worked even less. They’re not looking at each other. And for most of those interactions, I found that very ineffective, but here that bit worked again for the wrong reasons. In the original, Masha is 23. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the actor playing her role in this production was a multiple of that plus a bit. It may seem ungallant to point out an actor’s age, but everything an actor brings to a role necessarily affects the meaning of how that is received.

And so instead of seeing a young woman of 23 who’s stuck in a situation she doesn’t like, doesn’t have the maturity to deal with it and so lashes out, we saw somebody permanently poisoned and embittered.

And so she becomes this corrosive, drip, drip, drip, all the way through the play. And I found that somewhat wearing, although again, thematically reasonable, but at the end, it occurred to me for the first time in this play, that her husband is closeted in a society that cannot deal with and will not accept gay people.

And so when he says, “oh, Masha, you are good, oh, I will take you back” with that terrible fear and loss in his eyes, which the actor managed so beautifully, it just made me think, wow, these people have been locked into something that they don’t even have the words to explain. And any possibility of them even dealing with those emotions has been corrosively eaten out of their souls. And I found it strangely moving for probably the wrong reasons, but for very powerful ones nonetheless.

Nabilah: Hmm. 

Naeem: That’s a very interesting perspective, but yes, I think I agree. And you mentioned the age and I think this is always quite a tricky point to talk about, but I think just collectively, as well, when you look at everyone from Nine Years company, contrasted with everyone from SITI, there is obviously quite a gulf in terms of like, you know, just the age of the characters, which added another layer to the distancing. And there are many, many layers. So I think some people found the play more impenetrable than others, but, you know– 

Matt: I think it really helps to have read it. Especially when people are on stage, but not on stage – working out what the relationships are for somebody who doesn’t know the play–

Naeem: I think so. I think for me, I was quite frustrated by the fact that you don’t see the characters who are meant to be on stage all the time. Yes, it can be explained away, as you know, it’s a memoryscape. They flit in and out. But it seems to me a technical issue, which could have been solved. You could have just had more boxes with actors and actually see them responding to each other. Because when you’re doing a play like this with a large cast of characters who each kind of lend a different dynamic to what’s going on. And they’re not like just simple  – it’s not a simple two-hander – I think it really helps to have that sense of bodies always there. 

Matt: Do any of you remember Play On Earth back in 2006? Now you’re all young aren’t you? Way back. It was a TheatreWorks, 72-13, and it was an international online collaboration. 2006. An international online live collaboration between TheatreWorks, the UK company Station House Opera and the Brazilian company Philarmonia Brasileira.

And it involved live actors in Singapore with a screen above them, which was a composite of the UK and the Brazil performances. And they all spoke to each other and interacted, and it was extremely complex and not always successful, but they were colour-coded characters. So there was a red, a blue, a green and a yellow. And each country had a different combination of those colours, but only three of them, so that they needed the fourth colour taken from the other nation to supplement their story. And so it became this very interesting choreography of the live and the digital in order to create something that was hopefully going to be greater than the sum of its parts. I thought it was an extremely ambitious thing at the time and wish that people would maybe try that more now that the technology is better able to cope with it.

And I think that the best version of what Three Sisters turned out to be, probably would involve that level of ambition. There was a filmed scene in the middle where we actually saw the US version of the party, which was in a garden. And at that point it was projected all across the back wall rather than in three TikTok screens. And there, you got that sense of the other interactions that we are missing here. And I wonder if a more choreographed version where we kind of saw the simultaneity and we explored those dynamics would have been even more effective.

Of course we can’t ask for that because I think this was probably a last-minute compromise and a compromise that worked incredibly well, all things considered, but maybe it’s something we can look to in the future.

Naeem: I agree. I really, really appreciated those little interactions, which for me bridge that physical and virtual worlds so well. There was that scene– you talked about the garden party at the end of Act One and there was that scene, they were sharing some drinks, I think at the end of the second act as well, where you have the action on screen, just spilling into the live action. And it just felt so homogeneous that you forgot the fact that they’re performing on different continents. And I think that for me was just really nice to watch.

Then the other thing that was well done and I wished they had perhaps done a little bit more was the use of multimedia, which is quite new for Nine Years Theatre. So there were scenes where you have birds flying and I think it was quite emotional just because they’re talking about longing and you have this beautiful scene and it’s actually–

Matt: Projection.

Naeem: Yeah. Projection on three sides of the wall, the entire cube of birds flying. There was– I think at the end, the soldiers marching away, leaving the town and also that just beautiful verdant garden scene as well, which is where the last act is set.

And again, it’s probably a bit of an ask for Nine Years to have invested a lot more, but I thought building more of those elements would have just created a more cohesive way to bridge the two sets of casts, which they were working with. 

Courtesy of Nine Years Theatre and The Pond Photography

 

Nabilah: Yeah. I think what I also really like was the use of the space by the two directors, Nelson Chia and Darron L West. If I’m not wrong with the pandemic, there are some restrictions about how close actors can be–

Matt: Certainly the plays I’ve staged, I’ve had those. 

Nabilah: Yeah, you saw it, and yet you could see how well they worked with that restriction. So there was one where like, all the chairs were kind of like placed one metre apart, which is, we are very used to that visual, but the way the actors were draped on the chair or, you know, moving the chairs around, it felt really elegant.

And we were talking about how Nine Years Theatre often takes on a more like naturalism type thing, but it’s always done in this choreographed way.

Matt: Increasingly, it seems distilled it, doesn’t it? Compared to Nelson’s early work? 

Nabilah: Yeah. And I think even– oh, it’s so on the language point as well. I think they also don’t use the regular kind of like Mandarin register, but they use a classical Mandarin type thing. And just now you were saying – Naeem, you were saying, how it was English and Mandarin, but I realised on second watch, off how many other languages there were in the play. Like there’s tons of Italian and French and… Greek sayings, which filtered a lot more–

Matt: Latin.

Nabilah: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, Latin.

Matt: No, he probably said Greek as well. But the point is he shows off his classical education, because what else has he got going on in his life? That’s the husband of the Masha character, isn’t it?

Nabilah: But I think the others as well, like I think Tasha… 

Naeem: Is it Irina who speaks several languages? 

Matt: Yeah. And then Natasha learns in a status grab.

Nabilah: Yeah. Oh! And I don’t know if you noticed it, but one of the American actors repeated something that was in Mandarin, but as a joke–

Matt: Oh, that’s interesting?

Nabilah: And it happened a few times. Which I thought was kind of cute. Um, I wasn’t sure what exactly they were going for, but I thought it was kind of cute. 

Naeem: And then I think we have the Nine Years actor sometimes also responding in English instead of in Mandarin. You know, those little moments–

Nabilah: Some interesting things that they were trying. 

Naeem: –you know, where they just break out of the mould, but we’ve all seen a lot of Nelson Chia’s work in Nine Years Theatre. He’s done very famous Western plays, 12 Angry Men, An Enemy of the People, Art by Yasmina Reza, The Lower Depths by Maxime Gorky, all of those things. And I think for me, always the adjectives I use when I watch his shows are “crisp” and “elegant”. And there is just that kind of beauty to the way in which the actors move on the stage, which I think I very much felt here, just that stylised ritualistic kind of putting each chair in its place at the beginning, that prologue scene, and the way they move. And I think that’s why I was also filled with this sense of wonder and thinking about how the play would have actually been had this pandemic not happened. Had we actually had all those bodies on stage. It might’ve actually been absolutely fantastic to watch.

Matt: Yes.

Naeem: Two sets of actors are speaking in different languages, all negotiating that space together. It just kind of made me also think about what this place could have been. And that was also quite an interesting experience. 

Matt: But as it was, it was a beautiful attempt to compromise with an untenable situation. And that’s a situation that we all find ourselves in at the moment and it’s very human. So I thought it was rewarding to watch. Does that put a cap on that one?

Nabilah: I think so.

Matt: I think it does. Right. So then, we’re moving on to– 

Courtesy of Arts House Limited

 

Naeem: Okay. So that was Three Sisters. And now let’s move on to _T0701_, which you know, it’s funny, when I looked at the title of the play, the first thing that came to mind was “toyol”.

Nabilah: Oh…! 

Naeem: And I think that is quite a good metaphor of the play because a “toyol” is this kind of playful spirit child in Malay folklore, but _T0701_ has this clinical feel like, you know, just a series of numbers where, you know, which is meaningless and which could be part of a delivery parcel or something like that. And I think that sets the scene for this play, which, you know, not my words, but has been described as “a cross between Black Mirror and black magic”. 

Nabilah: Oh, I love that. 

Naeem: It’s set in a near future Singapore, I think 2031 – so 10 years from now. And it’s about the life of Jati, who was basically is a delivery personnel, who in the play is known as a “DePer”. And the world is now run by this online behemoth called Megah Corp.

And he’s trying to rise up through the ranks, moving from bronze to silver to gold tier by kind of performing as many deliveries and getting as many points as possible, while his mother is a bomoh, or kind of–

Nabilah: Bomoh.

Naeem: Okay.

Matt: Shaman character.  

Naeem: Shaman, witch doctor-type character who helps fellow DePers by giving them toyols as a means to cheat the system by blocking off the signals of Megah Corp. And it’s set up as this contrast between on the one hand, these supernatural/human forces trying to cheat the system and get an advantage over it. And someone like Jati the main character who just wants to tick all the boxes and rise up and make sure his digital persona thrives in this environment.

Would you describe it that way, Nabilah?

Nabilah: I guess largely, yes. For me with this play, I struggled with seeing how there could even be a legitimate opposing force that can be mounted against Megah Corp. So I couldn’t understand what the strength of the so-called resistance – and they use the word “resistance” to describe what the bomoh was able to do with her toyols. 

But for me at no point, did I see it as a threat to Megah Corp at all? So from the start, it was like the odds are so stacked and at no point did I feel like the balance tipped at all. So if there was a power struggle in the play, it was not filtered to me at the very least, because like with Jati, I think he was painted as a kind of like– not anti hero, but like the underdog who was a bit earnest and, you know, didn’t think he needed to cheat the system, wasn’t going to buy a toyol from his mom or at least it didn’t seem like he wanted to–

Naeem: Although he was completely aware that she was dealing in all of this toyol business with other fellow DePers and he just wanted to kind of do things the legitimate way and just rise up. 

Nabilah: Correct. But then in rising up in the play, you see him so-called cross over to the dark side and like have so much power, but power over… what exactly? I mean, the play lost me in the middle of it, to be honest.

Naeem: Yes. 

Matt: Yeah, you asked, how would you sum this up? And I’d say, I think we now know what happens when you make the Matrix trilogy on a PlayStation One in a Woodlands industrial estate.

The first Matrix is a work of frickin’ genius. And so you start this play thinking ‘wow, what an amazing setup’. You’ve got these forces ranged against each other. You’re not entirely sure of the details, but the broad silhouettes that they give you present the stage for drama. Executed in an extremely fresh and original way. And then in Matrix 2, you’re like, this is con-fus-ing. I don’t know what’s happening. Maybe the third one can save it. Then in Matrix 3, you kill yourself and end humanity with you.

And I think this is basically that. This was a play that diagnosed some of the problems that society is facing with precision and insight. We’ve got surveillance, we’ve got the zero hours gig economy. We’ve got the gamification of work. We’ve got the inability of people to fight back against the hegemonic worldview. But then what was it able to do with those diagnoses? Get itself very confused and fail to put anything across. You were talking about the practicalities of it. If this DePer’s mother is the leader of the resistance, then why is he worried about looking after his family, which consists of her? Because if she can’t feed herself, then the resistance isn’t working.

I’m not saying she’s gonna be as rich as the billionaire Jeff Bezos figures who are presumably running this Megah Corp. But she’d be able to feed herself. So it got very confused for me.

Nabilah: Something that I’m just realising now that could potentially answer that question Matt, is that maybe he wanted like an honest living, like “honest”, because you know, with black magic, there is a sense that it’s kind of subversive and not quite, you know – although I have to say that religion was never a thing in the play, so if it was that, then it wasn’t very clear I think.

Matt: Well, yeah, but the first time he meets these kind of underworld characters who are off the grid, he seems very confused about what that would even entail or surprised that that situation existed. And yet later we find out that his mother’s in charge of it and he knows that. You can’t have that cake sitting on the table when you’ve already eaten it. 

Naeem: That for me was a big issue. It was the plot. The strongest thing about this show for me, were the themes. It’s just so resonant. I mean, you see, Grab drivers that have to deal with challenge after challenge, that is mounted on them. And people having to define themselves through their online personas and all of that is just absolutely spot on, in terms of commenting on our society. But then when you take some of these quite interesting and topical ideas, and you try to put them into a format that to me seems more like a video game. 

Matt: Yeah. A ’90s video game.

Naeem: A ’90s video game. And interestingly, they have created an app which explores all the backstories of these characters and allows you to delve into their world. But the play itself does not do that. So I just felt that these four characters– and so there’s Jati, the main character, his mother, the bomoh, and then two other characters who are the resistance DePers, who basically want to use the toyols to cheat the system and who–

Matt: In some way that I don’t think any of us actually understands. 

Nabilah: No.

Naeem: And as far as I was aware, they were kind of pretty much indistinguishable from each other, even though it appears that they’ve got a slightly more interesting backstory.

I just felt there was such wasted potential in exploring this. I really wanted to know the motivations of the mother character, maybe what led her to become this resistance leader of sorts. What was the real threat and what was life like in the real world? We don’t get any sense of it at all. Is that necessarily better in this version of society then? This perfect ordered digital enterprise that is painted before us. 

Nabilah: You’re right. I mean, the plot felt like there were some things missing and it kind of like skipped at the end. You know, it feels unsatisfying because of that. In a way we can almost fill in the plot for it. Like we kind of generally know the–

Matt: I think that happens yeah. 

Nabilah: The arc of that story, like you said, the Matrix, Matt. So I think we can kind of– But it did feel as if there were kind of general beats that they were aiming to hit, you know, and then director Rizman Putra fleshed out each beat the best way he could. So something that I kind of enjoyed, although it kind of went on for too long, was a part where Jati’s on his PMD device, right. And then you kind of see Irsyad look as if he’s riding a motorbike, but then like at the back of it, the multimedia, you know, showing a landscape that he’s going through. It was actually really, really interesting with the pulsating, rave-like music–

Naeem: And actually I think on that point, we should probably mention that I actually enjoy the VOD more then the live version of the show, because the live version of the show was this giant screen, which as Matt said felt like a ’90s computer game. And then like a few actors not fully filling up the space. But when you saw it on the VOD, you have these scenes where you see the mother or you see Jati on the PMD device. And it’s a split screen where you see their online persona who kind of are meant to largely sync with the main actor. And it just felt a lot more immersive for me in those.

And then obviously with the music– and the music and sound design by Safuan Johari – kind of this pulsating techno beats, very metallic. And it set the tone, yes. I mean personally, it got a little grating for my liking, especially that final coda at the end, which really felt a bit like wailing. 

Matt: I think Nabilah, you said we can kind of fill in some of the details from our archetypal knowledge of stories. And I think one is very tempted as an audience member to do that, but no matter what clothes they attempted to put on this, they didn’t quite fit. And I think it’s because the underlying forces that the playmakers had set up against each other were very ill-defined.

It’s supposed to be, as you said, Black Mirror meets black magic. So on the one hand it’s authoritarian technocracy versus what appears to be a kind of soul-based, magical, traditional resistance. That resistance was nonetheless framed within technology. So when the mother character is speaking to us at the start, she appears to be a representative of the technocracy because she’s on stage gesticulating and speaking to us, but in a Julie Taymor-style double event behind her, there’s a low polygon video game character, more or less matching with her gesticulation.

So I’m supposed to see that as some kind of born from the earth, traditional soul magic? These toyols that she gives to people look like they could have been designed by one of Apple’s new hires. So that set-up just didn’t work. And it became very confusing. I was going through my entire wardrobe, trying to kit this play out with costumes that would make it make sense. Couldn’t think of that.

Courtesy of Arts House Limited

 

Naeem: You know, watching this play made me also just think about the many other attempts at science-fiction in Singapore theatre over the years. I say “attempts” because honestly, I don’t think I’ve walked away from a single one of those shows feeling that it’s a genre, which anyone’s done with any success here.

So Jonathan Lim did a play called Pursuant where dreams were forbidden and you had to have government-mandated thoughts. And so an itinerant teenager was put in a concentration camp and you know, it just felt very poorly kind of articulated to me. Teater Ekamatra did a play by Zizi Azah a couple of years ago called Paradise, which was set in this industrial chic version of Singapore. Very much like Big Brother, where you have someone who wants to break away from the system. And then you have these lines that are spouted, like ‘hard truths will be faced’. And again, there were attempts to link it back to Singapore and its rigid process-based life, but it just didn’t quite gel for me.

And I think a lot of people seem to have their heart in the right place by trying to criticise aspects of our society and perhaps doing it in this Black Mirror-like manner. But I think it really requires a little bit more of a cohesive theme–

Matt: Or the opposite? Well theme, yes. I thought you were going to say “mechanism:, which is why I said the opposite. I think the most successful alternate future dystopian thing I’ve seen is Cake Theatre’s Temple. It’s not necessarily futuristic, but it gets that idea, but it just presents this world of conflict happening in the distance, which can’t quite be explained. And in making that feeling pervasive and threatening, but without attempting to quantify it in the way that this play did – by setting up its rules of engagement so strictly, and then having them collapse because they don’t make sense – I think it was able to use that vague sense of oppression that we all feel to coalesce something like a diamond at the centre of it which was subject to that heat and pressure.

So I think that a lot of these shows kind of insist on their rules by which the world operate. They’re kind of very Young Adult novel in that respect that they want to do the world building. I’m not sure there’s enough time in a play to do the world building. So I think you’re better playing with those impasto brush strokes, which gives you a sense of what’s going on, but don’t encourage you to get your magnifying glass out.

Nabilah: Interesting that you say that there’s no time to do it in a play because it feels like this show wants to be more of a video game-esque, type of experience.

Matt: It feels like a 20-hour experience with a controller in your hands.

Nabilah: Yeah, it totally does. And I can totally see how it would work there. And the archetypes would really make sense. We wouldn’t be so demanding of plot in the same way I think. 

Naeem: Yeah. Because video games have a very simplistic binary, right? The good guy, the bad guy, that sort of– 

Matt: Well, not necessarily, but what they do is all the fetch missions, which are what we saw were just kind of loops of ’90s graphics, you would be playing those.

Nabilah: Exactly.

Matt: You would feel autonomy. You would be connected to them. You’d be invested in and you’d have a lot more time to sort out what these relationships are. 

Nabilah: Yeah. There was this segment, I’m not sure if you both remember, where Jati was kind of like going through the world and then kind of like kicking the toyols and like, defeating them…?

Matt: We have no idea, right?

Nabilah: It took me so long to figure out that was what was happening because the action was not onstage. Right. You could just see him kind of like move around and kick the air and–

Matt: And it was also not on screen really either. 

Nabilah: Exactly. Yeah. You didn’t really see the toyols onscreen. 

Naeem: Because the toyols, I think they are portrayed by these kind of smurf-like white characters. I saw an army of them–

Matt: Oh, I never got that. 

Naeem: So I’m assuming that might be toyols, I may be–

Nabilah: I think so.

Matt: I think you’re probably right that that’s what was intended.

Naeem: That might’ve been them when unleashed from that little, you know, whatever futuristic canister thing. So you see, that’s the thing. If so many people can’t get the basic idea you’re trying to put across, this worldview that you’re trying to build, then query whether it’s done in the right format. It just felt quite unfinished to me. I think yes, it would have probably have worked better as a video game. 

Matt: I would play the video game.

Naeem: And honestly, when I found out that they had done a separate app that delved into all of the characters, I was like, great. That makes sense. That might have been the best way to appreciate this. But like this–

Matt: But while I will play the video game, I’m not interested in exploring the app. Because again, it’s going to be more top-down narrative fleshing out the rules of the world for me to receive. I think that this is a world in which I need to feel that gamification, I need to feel the surveillance. And I think it needs to happen over time. And that I need to get the sense that the mechanisms that allow that story to progress are actually essential as part of the experience, rather than just being what I should have known by checking out the app earlier so that I can understand the basics of what I’m experiencing.

There needs to be a tutorial level in this video game.

Nabilah: Right, right. For me personally, you know, I thought we were supposed to follow Jati and see the struggles in him trying to come to terms with something, but in the middle, we were quickly lost and I quickly stopped empathising with him or understanding–

Naeem: Caring. There isn’t an emotional anchor. That’s the problem. 

Nabilah: Yeah. And so by the end of it, when he becomes very much like a villain-type– I don’t know whether he was a villain, but he–

Matt: Well, it’s like Neo turned into the Architect by the end.

 

Courtesy of Arts House Limited

 

Nabilah: Ah, yes yes yes. By that time I was like, ‘oh, who was I supposed to root for?’ If it was Versace Lawrence or Azizah Tekno, they were also last as well in the middle of the play, which was a bit sad because they seem like–

Naeem: Because I actually quite enjoyed– and I mean, I think we’ve not really spoken about them, so Izzul Irfan plays this character called Versace Lawrence and then Indumathi Tamilselvan plays another character called Azizah Tekno. And they are two of these delivery personnel, DePer characters who have decided they don’t want to be caught up in the system. They want to go into these drop zones where, you know, Megah Corp online tentacles don’t reach them and they want to engage– and I think they use of the term “alternative economy: with barter trades. And I actually enjoyed the dynamic and they’re kind of a bit coarse and earthy with each other.

And I was like ‘you know what? I wanted to see more of those two and find out about them’. But they’re kind of just used as this device showing that, okay, they’re buying this thing and then it just kind of falls along to the sidelines and we just don’t delve into those characters again. It’s very much window dressing to me. And I felt that was the problem.

I mean, like you’ve just got four characters. we’ve seen plays with three or four characters where every character is used and gets that level of depth and resonance that’s given to them to kind of form part of the jigsaw. For me here it was just like, you’re looking at four corners of a puzzle and there’s emptiness in between that’s just not given to us. 

Nabilah: Mm, so–

Matt: So indeed, so that has exhausted our thoughts on the matter. So what happens next?

Nabilah: I mean, maybe something to mention is that with these SIFA shows and with Three Sisters as well, there are some Critics Live panels, with discussions that people might want to check out on ArtsEquator’s website. So there’s one on Three Sisters. There’s one on OIWA, The Journey as well as The Year of No Return. And each one is really quite different because of the fact that, you know, it kind of depends on whether we’ve watched a VOD or the live show. And there’s interesting things to be said about each one and both, for example. I think if you are interested, do check them out.

I think SIFA this year–I don’t know what your thoughts are Naeem and Matt about SIFA this year and the idea of this hybrid thing. 

Naeem: I mean, look, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s been incredibly challenging. SIFA was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. You know, a lot of the shows that are part of SIFA were impacted and had to reinvent and retool, to deal with the challenges and have come up with these hybrid formats, which I don’t think was the original intention as well. So they’re working with the limitations they have and that being said, there has been quite an interesting variety. I think we should also acknowledge the fact that there are many other shows which we just did not have time to mention, which were really quite special and quite interesting as well. So it’s been a good festival. I’m glad that we’ve had SIFA after this gap now of two years, and hopefully it’ll be under more normal circumstances in the future. 

Nabilah: Yeah.

Matt: Yup. What he said.

Naeem: So on that note, thank you so much for listening. And that brings us to the end of this podcast. We will be back hopefully soon, digging our teeth into what else the Singapore theatre calendar has to bring. Thank you so much. And bye-bye.


Three Sisters by Nine Years Theatre and SITI Company took place from 21 to 22 May at Victoria Theatre. _T0701_ by Zeugma ran from 28-29 May at SOTA Black Box. Both plays were available on demand from 5 to 20 June. They were part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021, which took place for 14 to 30 May. 

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