What is project SALOME? Who is Seah Loh Mei? Singapore theatre director Ong Keng Sen puts his own spin on the fantastical figure of Salome in this multidisciplinary multi-pronged performance which incorporates documentary film, live performance and even a pre-event social media component. Rebecca G. speaks to Ong Keng Sen and actor Janice Koh.
First immortalised in writing almost two millennia ago, and made visible in Oscar Wilde’s eponymous tragedy, Salome has riveted the attention of royalty, poets, composers, painters, scholars, and her audience in equal measure. From religious obscurity to secular controversy, a dramatic figure has been cut. Where does she stand in the modern day?
There are multiple interpretations of Salome’s story throughout history, and project SALOME, commissioned by this year’s edition of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, is the latest contribution to this legacy. It will find its home in the iconic Victoria Theatre from 27th to 28th May. Directed by Ong Keng Sen, and featuring a plethora of international and local artists, the production promises to be an immersive regeneration of her perspective for our time.
We chat with T:>Works’ Ong Keng Sen, and performer Janice Koh — who plays the characters Seah Loh Mei and Head of Salome — about the project, the conversations that have led to its creation, and about Salome herself.
Responses from the artists have been edited for length and clarity.
The production is described as a contemplation of the character’s complexities through the mediums of documentary film, social media, installation, and live performance. Could you tell us a little more about what happens before, and after the audience enters the theatre?
Ong Keng Sen (OKS): The complexity for me is in the re-imagining and investigation of The Salome Complex. What is this complex in contemporary times? Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s text where Salome is constantly sexually harassed by the oppressive King Herod, her mother’s husband, but informed by other readings and works that have happened before, it is about redressing some of the silences in the myth of Salome and perhaps retrieving their narratives.
The Salome Complex is for me the crux of what I am hoping to unpack in these three mediums: Seah Loh Mei played by Janice Koh in the social media performance @thesalomecomplex. You can enter the projection of self by Seah Loh Mei any time; some may choose to follow her narrative now as it unfolds or some will choose to read the Instagram posts just before they enter the Victoria Theatre.
Then, the documentary film, Becoming Salome, with Michael(a) Daoud made entirely in my own apartment in Berlin. It is a documentary portrait of Michael(a) Daoud, and their life story of how they escaped from Syria and basically walked from Athens into Hungary. They arrived finally in Europe and Berlin, and along the way, they shed their different selves to become new people. By creating the drag personality of Bolbola, Michael(a) is able to counter the harsh realities of being a defeated asylum seeker in the all-powerful European Union. In particular, the film proposes an ending after the head falls.
The film projection is interwoven with the Head of Salome, also performed live by Janice. The character Seah Loh Mei is not in the live performance. However Seah’s motivations and dilemmas can perhaps be seen as echoes of some of the motivations of Salome, filling in some of the silences in Wilde’s play.
Janice Koh (JK): I think you can never expect any classic story of text under the hand of Keng Sen to have a straight-line trajectory. It is a project of uncovering and discovering the various worlds and universes in which a character like Salome can resonate, beyond what we see in a Renaissance painting for instance. In doing so, the project is also challenging the narratives that have been perpetuated by some of these earlier works.
Speaking of characters – why ‘Seah Loh Mei’? Who is she, and how is she related (or not) to the original figure?
JK: Seah Loh Mei is a play on the name Salome. When Keng Sen and I had a discussion on who Salome might be in our world today, this was the character we developed – a tennis star, a Singapore sports darling.
OKS: Without revealing too much, I would just say, follow @thesalomecomplex and get to know Seah Loh Mei from these bits of entries. A disruption occurs somewhere down the line and her position and status change and she is forced to take action. Her narrative ends abruptly on 26 May, unresolved, and then we enter the Victoria Theatre.
Some might say that social media in particular encourages false portraits — what role does it play in Seah Loh Mei’s life?
JK: Seah Loh Mei uses social media in a way which many people, including public figures, do – to highlight and reinforce the image they would like others to see.
The process of creating a personality for social media has been quite fascinating. Similar to building a character on stage, it is a journey of creating fiction and make-believe. However, you quickly begin to realise the difference. In the theatre, there is a contract with the audience, in which they suspend their disbelief. Falsehood is an essential and accepted part of performance. The social media world, however, exists in and permeates our lived, everyday realities. The boundaries between real and false, what is to be believed, and what you choose to believe in the media space, are interesting. Where does the act of theatre begin?
“Heads will roll”. Salome provokes questions about the male gaze, and the characterisation of individuals like her in literature from centuries past to the modern day. How does project SALOME aim to represent or subvert that gendered power play?
OKS: In project SALOME, I do want to try to make a piece which is not about Salome colonising someone’s biography. So, with this starting point, I began to think of the multiplicity of Salome as a female icon in contemporary times, as an asylum seeker struggling to find their destiny and dignity. The double portrait of a cis-gender female performer, a queer performer, and Salome. They are multiples of each other but they are also uniquely singular.
I think the Head of Salome in project SALOME was for me a way to deal with this time immemorial story of Salome that we’ve heard, and how her head, which could be in some museum somewhere in the future, tells her story. We suddenly are no longer concerned about this man whom she loved. And we’re no longer concerned about his head. She tells her own story rather than being remembered forever as this scorned woman who had to behead a man.
The production features an international cast and creative team. Was there anything you found particularly interesting during the collaborative / rehearsal process?
OKS: The initial idea was to cast someone from Iran, and then a Singaporean cisgender woman, I already had Janice in mind, and then a drag personality from Singapore, as well as a Japanese Kabuki performer – four monologues. But the pandemic hit and I found myself trapped in three to four lockdowns as I was travelling during that time for work, or trying to get back to Singapore. It was very challenging. And it became very clear for me that I couldn’t expect people to go into quarantine, or travel in the same way just to make a transcultural work. I was initially quite discouraged. So interestingly, I found myself in a place of loss, a sense of powerlessness, and I had to find my own space of regaining power through this work.
I felt I also had to rid myself of all my art processes from before, you know, working with artists and designers that I knew. So, I decided to collaborate with new people in Berlin, and people that I don’t know, at all. I had to completely abolish my ways of working, so that I could free myself. I had to shed quite a lot of myself, both humbling and exhilarating.
How has the experience of working with such diverse artistries in project SALOME been like for you?
JK: Having worked with Keng Sen over many years, I am familiar with how he likes to play with clashing forms or genres and artistic practices. It brings a fresh perspective to universal themes or known stories. We have worked collaboratively in this manner across various international productions, involving artists from across continents, and it has always been educational, enlightening and stimulating for me. However, what has been more challenging this time round is having to work on Zoom for the earlier part of the process. We had to rehearse or discuss at odd hours of the day because Keng Sen was in Berlin, our creative designers Heman Chong and Elizabeth Mak were in the US, while the production team and I were in Singapore. The pandemic has compelled us to embrace the possibility of this mediated rehearsal situation, but I’m looking forward to being in the same room with all of them soon!
Lastly – meditation, rituals, projecting, self-mythologising, transitioning, becoming – how would you like audience members to prepare themselves for the show?
JK: Everyone will take away something slightly different. Audiences can follow the journey of Seah Loh Mei before stepping into the theatre. It offers another re-imagination of Salome that the audience can engage with when they finally encounter the production.
OKS: I invite the audience to enter and be open to receive, be intrigued and see the potentials of the imagination, and basically to enjoy. Sometimes we don’t rationally know what we just experienced but it can be a portal to a brave new world.
project SALOME runs from 27 to 28 May 2022 at Victoria Theatre. Tickets are at $48 and $58, with discounts available. Check out the SIFA 2022 website for details on other programmes of the festival, which runs from 20 May to 5 June.
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