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Photographs from S-21 / The Glass Box


Amrita Performing Arts


Ng Yi-Sheng






The Esplanade Theatre Studio



Unmoved by Horror

Being a reviewer changes you. You become critical, judgmental, suspicious. You gain odd power over your friends in theatre. Any audience member with a different opinion becomes a detractor, an opponent, a threat. You don't just have a good time, you appreciate. It's a drawback of the trade: for the sake of a few free tickets, you can never take anything onstage at face value again.

I'm particularly reminded of this while watching The Glass Box / Photographs from S-21. Both performed by Amrita Performing Arts, invited from Cambodia for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, the two have grave and earnest stories to tell. The former uses classical Khmer dance to "explore the relationship between contemporary Cambodian women and tradition", according to the program; the second, more trenchantly, deals with the bloody purges of the Khmer Rouge. These are serious issues of history and trauma, and theatre has provided a means of dispelling the ghosts, of sealing the scars. And here I am, the nasty little critic, wagging my pencil going, "This doesn't work."

There's no doubt that the cast of three is extremely talented, conveying great beauty and control of movement in both dance and drama. Photographs from S-21 was also based on a simple yet effective premise, being played as a dialogue between dead victims in an exhibit of artefacts from the genocide, and thus reflecting the state of trauma that persists in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. Yet I can't say, at the end of the evening, that I had a satisfying night of theatre. The performance was slow, ill-suited to its performance space, and ultimately unfulfilling - not quite worth the $28 I would have had to pay as an innocent groundling.

I may of course be the wrong reviewer for this show. I have little appreciation for dance, and during The Glass Box I was less impressed by the quality of the dancer's alternately gliding and robotic movements than I was by the futility of trying to express the complexity of women's relationship with tradition in a brief and sedate dance solo, without costume changes, props, or radical departures from classical form. Guided by the programme and the changing colours of the lights, I inferred that the narrative was of a woman emerging from the box of past custom into the green hope of fresh possibility, being degraded into the red underglow of decadence, and finally returning, newly bathed in the tranquil blue of reformed tradition. But being a drama person, I was left cold. There was nothing remarkable, no jolting epiphany, to be had here.

I was rather more appreciative of the difficult and deliberate movements displayed by the two actors in Photographs from S-21, as each escaped the invisible bonds of their confinement, one nearly blinded by the light after being blindfolded for so long. Through their awkwardness, alone and with each other, they subtly conveyed the horror of the body under internment, turned unfamiliar and dispossessed. Yet my appreciation of their growing trust in one another was greatly hampered by the impossibility of my having a sense of real intimacy with their voices, as my eye was forced to shuttle back and forth between their faces and the English surtitles, high, high above the action. I'm certain that a projection of dialogue a few metres lower could have improved my viewing experience greatly. But even then, the pacing of their interaction was slow, more so in the first half than the second, and much of the power of their intimacy was lost in the wideness of the stage.

One must give credit to the playwright, who timed his revelations well in the script, as the characters' identity and situation were made known to the audience piece by piece. Some truly intense moments were thus birthed, such as when the woman realises, suddenly, that a blob in her photograph is the hand of her daughter, reaching up to hold her before she is shot. The conclusion is also neatly transcendent, as the man and woman light joss sticks to give themselves their own funeral to free themselves, the woman nevertheless paying her homage to remembrance, saying, "When I am newly born in my next life, I will still remember the Khmer Rouge."

Yet all in all, it wasn't enough. The stark simplicity of this play, though possibly effective for those in Cambodia who have heard too much already of the Khmer Rouge, nonetheless left me wanting. With sparse knowledge of Cambodian culture, I needed more background, a fuller exploration that evening of the whys and hows of the genocide or even of any other issues in Cambodia: the meat to which these stripped-down performances could have provided the crusts of a sandwich. A classical dance and a minimalist theatre piece, adding up to 50 minutes, were simply not enough - not with the journeys left unfollowed, the kernel beyond the shell barely scraped.

I recognise that's a lot to ask of a visiting troupe during a fringe festival. And it can't be easy to tackle as horrific an episode of history as the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge. An audience member better educated in dance form, more rehearsed in Khmer history and language, might have come away transformed, uplifted.

Still, one of a reviewer's perks is having the sense that one's gut opinion matters, so I'm remembering the polished form and the stronger moments of this piece as I rate it. I'm a critic at the museum regarding photographs of horror, and my job is to look at them as photographs. If I'm to be impressed, then I'm asking for a piece that makes me forget, for a while, that I'm a reviewer.

"There's no doubt that the cast of three is extremely talented, conveying great beauty and control of movement in both dance and drama"

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.