By Leow Puay Tin
(1350 words, 10-minute read)
Recently I caught a round of theatrical experimentations by Southeast Asian and Japanese directors in Tokyo. Called One Table Two Chairs Meeting 2017, it was the second of a 3-year series at the Za-Koenji Theatre. Taking part were Prumsodun Ok (Cambodia), Kamei Juntaro (Japan), Fasyali Fadzly (Malaysia), Chey Chankethya (Cambodia) and Liu Xiaoyi (Singapore).
One Table Two Chairs can be regarded as a theatre exercise. The name is taken from the basic staging requirements of traditional Chinese opera, and has been given a contemporary twist by requiring the directors to make a piece of performance of 20 minutes’ duration and using only 2 performers. They can take on additional roles as performer, writer or deviser, etc. A table and two chairs will be provided.
But what was the point of the exercise? Why ask the directors to work on something which seems outdated in contemporary performance, where sets and other theatre conventions have largely been abandoned in favour of media and multi-disciplinary, physical experimentations? Keeping in mind that the exercise was mooted by Za-Koenji’s artistic director Makoto Sato, who is well-known for his tireless championing of theatre experimentations and collaborative projects, the come-back might well be, “Why not?” Taken literally, as stage sets, the table and chairs may not be interesting. But as a conceptual provocation, it could be riveting to see how the directors would respond to the assignment.
It was therefore startling to see that none of the pieces tried to work with or against the table and chairs. (It was somewhat like watching a debate where the speakers avoided arguing for or against the motion.) Two pieces used the table or chairs as unit furniture to sit or put things on (Journey to the South by Liu Xiaoyi and Inside-Out by Chey Chankethya). Two other pieces (by Fasyali Fadzly and Kamei Juntaro) used them as a stage set. The most interesting response came from Prumsodun Ok who ignored or rejected the wooden Ikea-type table and chairs by leaving them stacked in a corner of the stage. He however passed up an opportunity to ‘meet’ with the table and chairs. If the act of stacking (rejection) had been performed, it would have allowed him and his co-performer to reveal their thoughts and attitudes. As it happened, in his as in the other pieces, the table and chairs didn’t need to appear on stage at all. They were superfluous. All the pieces could have been performed on an empty stage.
Since the five directors worked independently to produce their own pieces with performers of their own choosing, the ‘meeting’ intended by the collective title of the show seemed to be limited to the interactions between the people involved in each piece. The directors had been given a free hand to choose anyone they wanted to work with. Four of them (all with the exception of Fasyali Fadzly) recruited trained performers skilled in dance and/or singing. The results turned out to be Asian intercultural showcases of Chinese kun opera (performed by Wang Bin) with Javanese traditional dance (Didik Nini Thowok) in Journey to the South, Korean pangsori singing and drumming (Ahn Sungmin) with Japanese contemporary dance (Oshiyama Shiho), and classical Cambodian with contemporary dance in Inside-Out (Chey Chankethya and Chanborey Soy).
Another piece that featured classical Cambodian with contemporary dance (by Prumsudon Ok and Shinoda Chiharu) avoided being a showcase by deliberately staging it as a performance of Asian interculturalism with the two performers play-acting at getting to know each other through their dance vocabularies, as the screen behind them projected a mixture of mundane questions about their background and identity (which had some echoes of Jérôme Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and myself) and nonsensical lines such as “Please remember where you were 5 seconds ago and imagine where you are after 5 seconds.” With tighter framing and a bit of humour, it could have been a nice send-up and commentary about intercultural projects.
When this rather overstretched play-acting was dropped about halfway into the piece, it quickly morphed into something totally different and compelling. The male body became the subject. The female (Japanese) body remained dressed androgynously in tights, Nike sneakers and a cap, while the male (Cambodian) body was stripped down to shorts and filmed by the female performer with her mobile phone. Briefly, at some point, he took her phone and shot her moving body, suggesting mutuality in their act. The use of loud and gradually climaxing electronic music, dim lighting, shadows and simulated or live streaming provided the emotional tones for the mute moving bodies, suggesting exploitation, voyeurism and self-erotisation, among other possible readings. It was a mediated encounter without any physical contact or even display of pleasure or desire for the Other (body). Trapped in their seats, the audience could not escape from being voyeurs and being ‘outed’ as such. It was a wonderful instance of post-dramatic performance’s ability to involve or implicate the audience in the real-world significance of a performance they were watching, by making it hard for them to distinguish whether the discomfort they were feeling was due to the noise and disorientating moving images or finding themselves at a kind of a public ‘peep show’.
Fasyali Fadzly’s piece, Ingatan, was the only one to use a character-based text with dialogue and a simple narrative (about a man’s recollections of his father who suffered from dementia.) What made this otherwise conventional dramatic piece interesting for me was the unexpected representation of the father through a crudely-made life-size puppet with an iPad screen for a face. The puppet was manipulated by the man’s wife who had no real dramatic function otherwise. (It was performed by Siti Sandi, Fasyali’s wife, an investment consultant and untrained actor performing for the first time.) It was electrifying when the puppet suddenly came to ‘life’ when the tablet screen was turned on, accompanied by the recorded sound of the father puppet’s voice. The visceral shock at seeing this dehumanization by disease created a momentary stir among the audience. Loss of memory and self had compelled the father to live only in fleeting moments, repeating ‘programmed’ lines mechanically and robotically such as “Is your mother back? Ask her to make me a drink.”
Visually and metaphorically, the object puppetry was stunning and spell-binding, creating an empathetic bond with the audience. But once the shock wore off, the script ended rather predictably. It seemed as if Fasyali Fadzly had the right impulse to make object theatre but didn’t or couldn’t go on to explore or develop it further. He might have been hampered by a lack of critical distance from taking on a triple role of writer-director-performer, as well as by his choice of an inexperienced collaborator for the project.
The other three pieces were less accessible to a reading. In fact, without resorting to the programme notes, and going just by the performance itself, it was difficult to guess at their intentions. Journey to the South was supposed to be an attempt by a kun opera performer to follow the journey of the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He “across the ocean into a modern theatre space to collaborate with a Javanese cross-gender artist.” Inside-Out was exploring “how the body and mind respond to obligation, tradition and social context,” while the pangsori piece was delving into the physical effects on a dancer’s body in response to the “7 rhythm patterns” of the drumming/singing which change according to the contents of the story being sung. These actually involved quite complex narratives that needed to be teased out through the choreography by the directors. As it were, the performers seemed to be left to find their own way or were too absorbed or trapped in their own ‘private’ worlds of performance to make meaningful interactions with their partner.
In sum, One Table Two Chairs Meeting 2017 provided a sampling of the vocabularies and works of a group of Asian contemporary performance-makers. Of uneven quality, it highlighted some of the inherent difficulties of making intercultural and contemporary performances, including the difficulty of clarifying the point of making a performance and the purpose of collaborative projects.
Guest Contributor Leow Puay Tin is a playwright and text curator who is in Japan on a 6-month-long fellowship from Japan Foundation Asia Center. Currently on leave from Sunway University in Malaysia, she is looking at site-specific performance events or location-based performances which are carried out in non-theatre spaces, while collecting materials to make a new text for performance.