By Sherlyn Goh
(970 words, 8-minute read)
“Can one accurately re-construct an authentic traumatic memory?”
Director Kuo Jian Hong posed this question to the audience before the start of the performance. Blank Run《空转》is an attempt to answer this, presented as a raw and visceral recollection of sexual trauma, where a woman pieces together memories that torment her. Produced by The Theatre Practice in partnership with the Sexual Assault Care Centre by the Association of Women for Action and Research, the hour-long piece explores the impact of psychological trauma on memory in the aftermath of sexual assault, utilising a clever mix of projection design, sound, lighting and set.
An unnamed woman (Gloria Ang) wakes up in an unfamiliar space, caged in by metal frames. Confused, she explores her space, before a shrill alarm goes off and the stage plunges into darkness. She wakes again and repeats the same actions, and the narrative gradually unfolds with every scene.
The only actor in the play, Ang delivers a haunting and chilling performance as a survivor of sexual assault. Her movements, coordinated by Ming Poon, start off slow and graceful; she caresses her body gently, down to her feet. As the play progresses, her movements grow repetitive: her continuous washing of her body, her clothes and the floor indicate her desperation to get rid of a stain that can never go away.
Throughout the first few scenes, she finds camisoles strewn across the floor and hangs them up on the metal frames. Yet, after each blackout, more camisoles appear on the floor: she is visibly shaken, afraid of how unfamiliar everything seems, that even a simple task like doing the laundry feels unbearable. The sheerness of the camisoles, thinness of the metal frames, and her delicate, dance-like movements convey a sense of vulnerability of her mental state.
Just when things seem to get better and she starts to hang up her camisoles with a marked increase in certainty, blue lights are suddenly projected on them, and she is thrown into confusion again. It is almost as if the various elements of the set – from lighting and sound to props – seem to work against her, suggesting that she can never truly get used to things, that things will never return to the way they were before.
The entire set is surreal, taking us through the recesses of the woman’s mind, with all her confusion, shame and fear. Kuo’s zig-zag metal frames, like puzzle pieces, resemble the irregularity in her mental state, and serve as racks for rows of translucent, white camisoles hung up by Ang, upon which Genevieve Peck’s multimedia projection design is screened.
The film screened on these camisoles is a montage of images shot from the first person point-of-view, flashbacks of the events leading up to the moment of assault. At times, Ang watches these vignettes along with us, visitors into a past she’d rather forget. And others, she re-enacts scenes in front of the projection. At some point, Ang stares at her own ‘reflection’ projected on the screen, and touches her, as though she’s trying to grab hold of her former self through the screen.
This desire and desperation to stay in control comes through very strongly in Ang’s performance. In one scene, she eats an apple viciously, forcing herself to take large bites. We see the juices of the apple drip from her mouth, down to the floor, while her lips curve into a smile – but her eyes betray her, displaying a pain she cannot conceal. She continues to do the laundry, smiling, laughing and humming, but her voice is thin as she tries to keep it together.
The last straw hits when she hears laughter of a man and a woman from off-stage, as the sound gradually surrounds her on all sides. The lights dim, and the film plays again, this time in fragments, with the scenes arranged non-chronologically, haphazardly. Against the soundscape of the whirring of the washing machine, Ang breaks down: she overturns a chair, rips camisoles off the metal frames, starts scrubbing her arms and the floor violently, and writhes across the stage. No matter what she does, she cannot escape these memories that haunt.
In many performances, technical elements often work towards supporting the storyline or actor. In Blank Run《空转》, however, these elements – sound, projection, film, light and set design – are just as integral and essential to the play. They come together poignantly, like fragments of her memory, to create a multi-sensorial experimental piece that remains accessible, even without dialogue or a linear narrative. There are moments, even, where Ang appears to be subsumed by these elements: she runs after the metal frames that move further away from her, and jumps at Peck’s cryptic words projected on the camisoles.
Above all, is the sense of uncanny that ripples throughout the piece. The melding of technical elements transforms the stage into a disturbing, psychological dimension that gets under the audience’s skin, evoking in them a semblance of the discomfort the woman feels. From loud, discordant static, to soft, mystical sounds of water dripping interrupted by jarring phone vibrations, Sandra Tay’s sound design works hand-in-hand with the gentle shadows projected on the wall, and the colourful, chaotic strobe lights, to continuously transport the audience through a variety of emotional realms – shock, fear, disgust, sadness.
Blank Run《空转》is a work that plays on contradictions and contrasts: the daytime repetitions and nighttime terrors, the fragility of Ang’s mental state and her will to stay strong, the desire to remember and the need to forget. In its attempt to stage the reconstruction of a complicated traumatic memory, Blank Run《空转》has successfully depicted the contradictions of memory – how it is unreliable, illogical, inconsistent – but above all, raw, haunting and unforgiving.
Guest Contributor Sherlyn Goh is a communications consultant and content creator by day. Outside of work, she performs at literary events and has launched exhibitions that marry non-fiction writing with curation and interactive digital storytelling. Her work has been published in literary journals and anthologies including This Is Not A Safety Barrier and OF ZOOs, and she has showcased at the Singapore Writers Festival and ArtScience Museum, among others. Sherlyn has a keen appreciation for Southeast Asian heritage, and is currently working on a book exploring the history and heritage of Haw Par Villa.
This production of Blank Run《空转》 was performed at the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival 2017. An original work by The Theatre Practice, this is its Singapore debut after touring to ACT Shanghai International Theatre Festival 2016 and World Stage Design 2017 in Taipei. It ran from 17 – 20 August 2017 at the Practice Space and was produced in partnership with AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre.