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Chamber Made Opera


Ng Yi-Sheng






The Esplanade Theatre Studio




Phobia is one seriously weird show. Coming from me, that's pretty high praise: I'm an admirer of the strange and wonderful; whatever expands the imaginative lexicon of the stage.

You see, Phobia isn't a mere play; it's a self-proclaimed opera without songs, based on the Alfred Hitchcock's acclaimed psychological-noir film Vertigo. The blurb for the Arts Fest programme does no justice at all to the work - we're told that viewers will be "transported back to a radio studio", where the soundtrack to a movie will be recreated with Foley effects; the old-school sound effects made by, say, twisting celery behind a microphone to simulate a breaking bone. You buy the ticket expecting a historical behind-the-scenes look at the manufacture of suspense - kooky, but still digestible - but that's not all you get by any means.

Instead, it's apparent immediately as you walk into the theatre that you're dealing with a something more than a science demonstration. The cluttered machinery and apparatus of the show is laid out to within a footstep of the front-row seats, and looking at the multiple desks, each stocked with a microphone and telephone handset, it becomes clear that you're being taken to a stage beyond the radio studio of the past - a hyperstudio, if you will.

The show begins with the actors/sound artists in 1950s period costume, sitting and standing at their desks. They split the lines between them, solo and in chorus, regardless of character, gender, or timbre of voice, accompanied by accordion, rubber band, maracas and mishandled violin. And it soon becomes clear that the intent of these theatrics isn't to mimic the concrete sounds of the real world. Nor is it to delve into the repertoire of the low-tech past of radio, since synthesisers and CD playback are also generously used to build up the sonic landscape.

Nor is Chamber Made Opera simply testing the infinite possibilities of sound: the actors' actions, attitudes and antics are visual keys to alternate understandings of this complex tapestry of noise. A fellow audience member noted that Phobia seemed like a play he should watch twice - once with his eyes shut, to concentrate on the sonic effects alone, and once with them open, to lay bare the mad artistry behind the sound. And certainly, while much of the Foley equipment became aural instruments for theatre (such as the plastic-wrapped mattress where actors collapsed, the walkway wired to amplify footsteps, the tiny door and doorframe, used to generate slams) other equipment was used purely for visual effect, like Mal Webb's ripping open a bag of raw meat to illustrate a description of churning intestines, or Mei Lai Swan's deadpan manipulation of a toy car to mirror the movements of a real car in the script.

Not unlike Play on Earth, which tried creating an online virtual performing space between three continents, Phobia appears intent on creating a new form of theatrical space - located in the dimension of sound, but also possessed of distorted visual fragments. Such images were often eerily apparitional: at the back of the stage, behind a translucent screen, Mei Lai Swan somersaulted in slow motion down the stairs to the sound of celery crunching; in another scene, she placed men's shoes on her hands and bent over, creating a dancing couple whose disembodied legs were all we saw of them.

What is recreated on stage, then, is not a soundtrack studio, but what a delusional paranoiac might imagine a soundtrack studio to be - where sounds are not made via the simplest or most natural means, but by the most theatrical, disturbing ones. It's an excellent exercise in the creation of a mood of subversion, a remarkable reorchestration of the human senses in relation to theatre.

Still, from a non-academic perspective, I can't help but feel something's lost during this intense experimentation. The bizarre effects are entirely appropriate to the themes of Vertigo - an intensely psychological film which tells of a private detective duped into pursuing a woman whom he's been told is insane. Yet with all the switching of roles and dematerialisation of action, the story becomes difficult to follow and the characters never become real enough for true empathy to occur. I very much wanted to feel emotionally invested in this piece, yet by the end I was left feeling detached, unsatisfied, and objectively rather than subjectively appreciative of the wonders of the performance.

Phobia deserves much applause for its splendid execution by a versatile cast who double as musicians and voice performers, as well as its significant theoretical development of the medium of theatre. Yet without that crucial emotional connection to the piece, that gut feeling of the delight of watching a play, I can't quite recommend it to the lay viewer/auditor. If you've the fortune to have this production play in your city, watch Vertigo first on video at home so you can first grasp the heart and stakes of the story. Then treat Phobia as a companion piece: it rises like an electronic phantom to mess with your mind, disordering your perceptions of film, theatre, and your senses themselves.

"Phobia is an excellent exercise in the creation of a mood of subversion, a remarkable reorchestration of the human senses in relation to theatre"


Author and Director: Douglas Horton

Composer: Gerry Brophy

Design Coordinator: Jaxqui Everitt

Lighting Designer: Gina Gascoigne

Sound Designer: Graeme Leak and Darren Steffen

Performers: Paul Binns, Michael Havir, David Joseph, Chris Lewis, Mei Lai Swan and Mal Webb

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.