> 4 Corners


I want to remember. The city. The festival. The people. The feeling of sitting in the last few rows of an open air theatre in the heart of the city. The embarrassment of dancing as part of a performance. The joy of being at the Singapore Arts Festival and the disappointment of catching only 4 shows.

As you might have guessed the theme of the festival this year was I Want To Remember. To reconnect with memories, histories, places and people that we have forgotten in these fast paced times. The Singapore Arts Festival takes place over 3 weeks in May/June and this year’s edition had over 50 events featuring dance, music, theatre, film, art shows, workshops, master classes, etc.

The first performance I saw was a Japanese play curiously titled ‘When the Grey Taiwanese Cow Stretched’. The play is written and directed by Yukichi Matsumoto of the Osaka based theatre company Ishinha. The group is well known for its epic scale productions, unconventional choreography and impressive outdoor stages. The purpose built stage, comprising of loads of scaffolding and islands made of wooden planks, was set up in the Festival Village near the Marina Bay with the tall city sky scrapers as the backdrop. The 500+ audience was seated on more wooden planks and we were informed that the show would go ahead come rain or shine. When we got there the sun had just set and as dusk settled dark clouds threatened in the distance and throughout the performance lightning added to the drama on stage.

Also unique to their plays is the use of the Jan Jan Opera language, a kind of street rap music and the street lingo of their home town. Using this language, the play describes the dreams and setbacks of young people who embarked on the Sea Road from Japan to various islands in South East Asia and the impact of the Pacific War (1941-1945). Though talking of epic historical times, the large cast tells the story of individuals - of ex-soldiers and entrepreneurs and hardworking laborers. They grapple with questions of identity, with memories of their home states and their frustrations with the adopted countries. The play attempts to cover the entire twentieth century in the Pacific region, however it fails to give us a present day context. It felt like the stories of these migrants were isolated in time and place like the islands they inhabited.

Over two hours the cast captivated us with their symphony of movement and the chanting like dialogue. The narrative was slow and repetitive and that allowed us to follow the surtitles displayed on 2 screens on either side of the stage. Nevertheless, there were still moments when the length and pace of the 12 scenes over 2 hours seemed a bit tedious, especially since the seating was quite uncomfortable.

The next performance I really wanted to catch was The 1955 Baling Talks by the Malaysian group - Five Arts Centre. The company is a collective of art activists and practitioners that are known for their performances in alternative spaces and forms. It was completely sold out. So I shamelessly played the ‘theatre-wallah’ from Bombay card and managed in at the third bell!

The play itself is the transcripts of the talks held on 28 and 29 December 1955 in a simple school room in Baling. The revolutionary war, now known as the Malayan Emergency had been going on for seven years and it was a pivotal moment for Malayan-Malaysian-Singaporean history. The Malayan Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Chief Minister of Singapore David Marshall debated with Ching Peng of the Communist Party of Malaya over the terms and conditions under which the Communists could surrender and help bring an end to the Emergency. Notions of loyalty, patriotism, nationality, ideology and independence were hotly discussed, but the talks remained unsuccessful. The transcripts revealed how politicians, and experienced ones like the Tunku, shrewdly maneuver each other and how history comes to be made. No playwright had tweaked the dialogue or introduced fictitious characters for dramatic effect. We were witnessing the Baling talks exactly as they had played out over 5 decades ago.

Some may say that the production was very unimaginative in text. But it more than made up in the way it was designed and staged. The show was hosted at the School Of Arts Gallery. The play script was divided into 4 sessions – each with a separate set of reader-performers. In each session 2 members of the audience were invited to read some of the parts and the others were read by a range of actors, journalists, politicians, etc. The readings were complemented with projections of press clippings, graphics, photographs, etc as well as stage directions (as there was no real action taking place) on the back wall. The overall effect achieved was one of literally unrehearsed spontaneity. It was a reminder that those making history had also emerged from ordinary citizens like us.

But the most innovative idea of the production was the incorporation of Twitter in the performance. The Baling talks had taken place in a small school and outside the room hundreds had gathered to get a glimpse of what their future was going to be. As announcements would be made on the progress of the talks, those assembled would break out into their own comments and arguments. The directors of the show attempted to recreate the mood of that time in that art gallery using the tools available to us today. The 100+ audience were encouraged to use their various gadgets to tweet during the performance using #balingtalks. The production team themselves posted on twitter the landmark statements made by the various politicians and discussed the likely outcome of the talks. And this live twitter feed was projected on the back wall for all of us to follow as the talks unfolded! Very few of the audience members actually ended up contributing to the online conversation as we were all busy following the real debate, but reading the live feed definitely added to the sense of being present at a live historical event. Having the blue sparrow as another character in the play was ‘unusual’ to say the least, but I have a feeling that we may see more of that in the theatre.

The next show - The Inhabitants – was a leap from the virtual to the real world. Less of a show and more of an experiential evening. The producers were very clear with the audience instructions – only 33 members per show, wear comfortable shoes, do not carry bulky items and arrive half hour before the performance. We were given a meeting point and on arrival our belongings were taken away for safe keeping. The 70 minute promenade style performance was staged at the Drama Centre Black Box theatre by the Barcelona based theatre company – Teatro de los Sentidos – along with local Singapore actors.
The essential question that the group asks in this piece is – What is a city made of? They believe that it is not the landmarks but the invisible threads which connect the inhabitants with one another. And the audience is also made part of these unseen connections. Early in the production we meet the 3 mythological weavers – the Moirae (the Fates) who weave intricate designs with the threads of our destinies. In this production, the Fates are knitting with white wool and each of us is given a piece of string pulled out from their compositions and are asked to hold on to it. At the end of the performance we are led to the final section under the night sky where there is an elaborate installation in white wool with arches and tunnels and pillars. And we are then asked to add our individual pieces of string into this web. And with that one act we tied in our destiny with those of all the audience members who had come before us and those that would follow till the end of the festival. It was a collectively quiet moment as most of us there reflected on our place in the universe and how all our lives are interconnected.

And in between these two sessions we were coaxed into awakening all our senses. At no point in the evening were the audience allowed to sit back and be mere spectators. Throughout the production the lighting was dim, the volumes were low and we had to concentrate hard to follow the action. Actors led us from one episode to another and dared to question our choices. The highlight would have to be the section where 33 blindfolded actors approached us. They each blind folded one of us and demanded we surrender our trust into their hand as they led us around the room. My guide shared a fishing trip memory from her childhood. And then she left me. Another actor took my hand and told me another story. All the while, around us, we could smell spices being ground and fresh mint leaves being chopped. We were blind and wandering in a market with voices calling out to each other and actors holding our hands and talking to us. Asking us to remember those on the cusp of being forgotten. Reminding us that we are also forgotten memories for someone else. It was a truly surreal experience in 4D even though we were blindfolded and had no glasses on! Though I didn’t really get to rediscover the city of Singapore, we all did rediscover what it is to really see/smell/hear when we are not being assailed by loud noises and bright hoardings.

The last performance, I didn’t watch but I was a part of! A show called Internal by the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. 5 actors, 5 audience members and a 5 minute speed date. I had a lovely time with Yuri as I sipped on shot of red wine in a plastic glass. This was followed by a quick session with the members of the ‘speed dating support group’. The 10 of us (by this point I had stopped differentiating between actors and spectators) sat in a circle with a dramatic top light. Our ‘dates’ then proceeded to take turns sharing their observations of our character traits, what motivates us, what turns us off. One of ‘us’ also got to share our view of what we thought of our date. Followed by some music, dancing, exchange of postal addresses, the 30 minute performance wrapped up with a hug, a kiss and a promise of a letter in the near future.

And that was my life and times at the Singapore Arts Festival 2011. With each new show I watched, the audience numbers shrank and I slowly moved from spectator to performer. It was unnerving for me, but at the same time I was getting the opportunity to watch shows from all over the world in one fine festival. Thank you Singapore!

P.S. A month after I returned to Bombay, I received a very sweet hand written letter from Yuri. The play continues.