The Play's Not the Thing
I'm not really sure how the play in Play on Earth came about. Oh, sure, I know that UK theatre group Station House Opera are the pioneers of multi-site live performances linked together by high-speed internet connections. I know, for example, that their 2004 production, Live from Paradise, was performed simultaneously in three apartments in Amsterdam, and that they reprised the production in 2005 in England, changing the venues to a former courtroom in London, an empty shop in Birmingham and a disused church in Colchester. And I'm sure it's safe to assume that the company's artistic director, Julian Maynard Smith, grew tired of mere intranational productions and decided to go intercontinental, inviting Singapore's TheatreWorks and Brazil's Philarmonia Brasileira to join him for the party.
And I also know that the aim of this production is to create, as well as three independent narratives that play live to the three audiences in their home venues, a "fourth space" which floats between the three countries and houses a "global narrative" in a virtual world. This "fourth space" is visible to each audience on a set of three adjacent screens positioned above the stage, each of which shows a live video feed from a camera moving in and around one of the three performance spaces. So, for example, in Singapore we saw views of TheatreWorks' new multi-purpose venue on the left, views of a poky Newcastle community theatre in the middle, and views of a cavernous Sao Paolo auditorium on the right.
But I still don't know how the actual play - the sequence of words and movements and camera angles that made up the experience of watching Play on Earth - came about. Certainly, none of the participating countries bothered to credit a writer in the programme and, looking at the finished product from a Singapore perspective, it rather appears that there weren't any. Instead, it seems that the three companies simply agreed on a brief list of events that had to happen at specific times so as to create interesting visual composites on the three adjacent screens - and then just flailed around blindly to fill in the intervening time.
The blind flailing was quite fun, actually, because it tended to deconstruct the play. I filled my reviewer's notepad with snippets of dialogue in which the actors seemed to be criticising the meaninglessness and banality of what they were doing. Here are a couple of examples for you. The first:
And the second:
Moreover, I didn't have much idea of what it was that was "really supposed to be there" or what was "not working". Kang occasionally carried around some household-appliance-shelf-like thing, but I couldn't tell what it was and it didn't seem to matter anyway. If anything, the actors seemed to be deliberately avoiding saying or doing anything specific, in case it interfered with the fourth narrative shown on the overhead screens. This meant that, until the fourth narrative built up a head of steam - and that didn't happen for almost an hour - watching the live performance was like watching paint deliberately refuse to dry.
The few stuttering bouts of meaningful exchange the actors shared led me to believe that they were engaged in some form of love triangle. Possibly, Chew was a landlord, Noorlinah his wife, and Kang the tenant with whom she was having an affair. But far more important than this domestic scenario was the contribution the Singapore triangle made to the intercontinental love nonagon playing out on the three screens above the stage. You see, the characters in each of the three plays were little more than colour-coded archetypes. There were four possible archetypes, which (at the risk of being wrong, because this was also pretty confusing) I shall identify as Blue, the Husband; Red, the Wife; Yellow, the Lover; and Green, the Voyeur. Each country apparently only had three of these archetypes (Singapore's being Blue, Red and Yellow), which meant that to complete the set, they had to borrow an archetype from the two other countries that had it.
This was supposed to make the three countries want to connect with each other because only together could they build their stories properly. For the most part, however (at least in Singapore), it meant that the actors marched around robotically trying to get in front of the right camera at the right time, and then buggered off outside for a while, leaving us with an empty stage.
This wouldn't have mattered so much if we were left watching meaningful or interesting stuff on the video screens, but all too often what we saw there was disparate (random juxtapositions of interior and exterior views) or banal (the Green Voyeur in close-up watching the other screens).
We did get occasional glimpses at the other countries' narratives, but even then there were problems. A mock fight scene between the British versions of Blue and Yellow was quite amusing but it was marred by a repetitive, improvisational style of acting that robbed it of its comic timing. Similarly, an inebriated monologue by the British Green quickly became painful because the actress in question (Emily Jane Grant) seemed to think that playing drunk involves stuffing your mouth full of marbles. And of course, the Brazilian segments were in Portuguese, which made them completely unintelligible to me and, I am sure, the vast majority of the Singaporean and British audiences.
To be fair, the production attempted to use this to its advantage by playing up the language gap. The Chinese speakers in the Singaporean audience were greatly amused when the Brits started shouting at each other in Cantonese, and I'm sure the Brazilian viewers were equally engaged when Kang delivered a few speeches in Portuguese. But whereas a show such as Prism could withstand the fracturing effect of multilingual performance because it remained otherwise coherent (and because it had subtitles), Play on Earth was already confusing, and the polyglot babble just made it even more disconnected and incomprehensible.
There were really only two successful aspects of Play on Earth. The first of these consists of the times when the elaborate international choreographing of the actors and video cameras produced composite images which suggested that Singapore, Britain and Brazil had become one continuous space. A particularly fun example of this involved three red tables filmed so that they combined into one extremely long table with Singapore on the left, the UK in the middle and Brazil on the right. Then all the actors in all the countries disappeared underneath it to participate in an international metaphysical orgy. The pleasure to be had from scenes such as this was the pleasure of the magic trick: of delighting in an illusion that is technically difficult to pull off. Such scenes were relatively common towards the end of the play, and they were all quite delicious - but they hardly seemed enough to justify the huge international effort that had gone into producing them.
More interesting were the very few times when the fourth narrative struggled to establish its own identity, was forced into opposition with the narratives that constituted it, and eventually achieved an ambivalent compromise. A trivial example of this involved one of the British guys simultaneously praising the charms of the Singaporean and Brazilian Reds. Because the women were so physically different (Noorlinah is petite while her Brazilian counterpart is statuesque), the British guy found that in attempting to compliment them both he essentially negated his compliments and nonplussed the object(s) of his affection.
A more interesting example came when the British Blue Husband murdered and chopped up the British Yellow Lover, then got together with the erstwhile British Green Voyeur who had now changed into the red dress of the Wife. On its own terms, this narrative was pretty straightforward, but when placed next to what we were seeing in Singapore, where the Yellow Lover had survived and the Red Wife remained who she always was, it created some fascinating dislocations. These archetypes were clearly supposed to be the same characters, regardless of geography - and yet they were not the same at all. It was at moments such as these (although they were extremely rare) that the production succeeded in creating a meaningful fourth space, a space that called into question the nature of place, of person, of narrative.
And so it was only really at such moments that the production justified itself as more than a gimmick: that it proved it was a valid experiment in a new medium, an art form where stories live together like bickering housemates. But even then, it seemed to me that the Brazilian segment added very little to the mix, partly because of the language barrier but mainly because nothing much seemed to happen there. And there was still no real justification for the live component of the production: three pre-filmed, synchronised screens could have done as good a job as the three video feeds plus live performance, simply because the live performance in question was so deathly bland.
It is a miracle that Play on Earth happened at all when you think of the extreme logistical difficulty of putting it together as well as the fact that the technology is, frankly, not quite ready yet. But in art, you don't get points for difficulty. Much as Play on Earth was often boring and incoherent, though, it also showed in places that the medium of international intermedia live/video performance may well prove a vibrant instrument for future artists with the virtuosity to master it.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /