By Patricia Tobin
(736 words, 3-minute read)
Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers for The Mysterious Lai Teck, which will run from 17 to 19 May at the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
“I am the shadow of Ho Chi Minh,” a voice states. It starts as a whisper, before being repeated later as a fast, sharp claim. This narrating voice recounts his origin story: about growing up in his home country of Vietnam, vaguely alluding to being from the same birthplace as Ho Chi Minh – as though to solidify his ties with communism, great leadership and power. Yet, he later admits he is not from the same region, only nearby. This voice, that openly lies, belongs to a man known as Lai Teck, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, and a triple agent working with the French, British and Japanese secret service.
Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Mysterious Lai Teck tells the story of a man who has over thirty known aliases, Lai Teck being the most publicly known. The historical figure of Lai Teck remains shrouded in mystery and Ho’s production serves to both examine and even further mystify the figure.
The first half of the show is disembodied, without a person in sight. Instead, we hear a narrator, Lai Teck, telling his origin story, while projections of curtains opening are cast upon the still-closed curtain on stage. As the curtains-opening video plays on loop, we only have the voice of Lai Teck to guide us through. His voice is steadfast, even when recalling lies or half-truths. He lists out the possible reasons he went to Malaya in 1934: he was sent by the French. Or not. He had friends there. Or not. Perhaps it is something we will never know. Along with the deliberate lies, the narrator boldly states that he is known as “the greatest traitor of the MCP”; all combine to evoke an enormous sense of distrust in Lai Teck. The curtains remain closed.
Against the backdrop of the closed curtain, the repetition of the looped projection is monotonous, and it is left to the dramatic lighting and striking soundscapes to evoke theatricality. The lighting by Andy Lim serves to echo Lai Teck’s story, as the closed curtains initially bask in stark white light, before being drenched in an amber glow, signalling a change in narrative tempo. The sound design by Jeffery Yue accompanies this, with the music crescendoing at dramatic moments: the thumping percussive beats bellow as Lai Teck goes through his many aliases, and strings swell when he recalls his time in Singapore.
Despite this, the audiovisual theatricality serves more as a sensible accompaniment rather than effective punctuation. The unreliability of Lai Teck is intriguing, but the technical and music elements add on to the heavy-handedness of the character’s portrayal. The narrative trudges on and the curtains remain closed.
When the curtains open, we finally see Lai Teck – a larger-than-life animatronic. His face is obscured, as additional projections of Lai Teck, or what we presume is Lai Teck, are cast upon him. It is difficult to make out the shape of him as the masks continue to pile on. This underlines Tzu Nyen’s intent not to demystify Lai Teck but to instead, recreate the unknowability of Lai Teck. Tzu Nyen pulls from historical and oral references, some more akin to hearsay – the only account of Lai Teck’s death is from MCP successor Chin Peng, who heard it from someone else, for instance – to render this artistic reproduction of the many layers of paper-thin sources, to produce a story of “ghosts and gaps”. Ultimately, The Mysterious Lai Teck serves as an intriguing introduction to an audience unfamiliar with this figure, like myself, though any intention to go further than this remains unclear. Like Lai Teck’s masked face, the production is similarly “veiled, draped and drowning” in artefacts, diary entries and rumours.
The voice of Lai Teck states that we are made of two bodies – of blood and of words. We never see blood, only relying on words, and without blood, we will never fully understand Lai Teck. When Lai Teck stops speaking, the bright lights are on, as though daring you to stare upon the huge immobile human-like figure. It is eerie and unnerving, building to the gradual realisation that while you were attempting to see signs of life in the man known as Lai Teck, you were facing a lifeless object all this time.
This review is based on the presentation of The Mysterious Lai Teck at the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM) which took place from 12 – 13 February 2019 at the KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre.
The Mysterious Lai Teck will be presented as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts from 17 to 19 May at the SOTA Drama Theatre.
Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.