Time And Time Again
It is a rare treat to encounter a truly aesthetically beautiful work so Collective Mayhem - a "collective" group of theatre practitioners working together - deserve credit for achieving a marvellously coherent aesthetic that was as authentic as it was subtle. In its script, staging, sound and movement, Memory - Human Remains was beautiful and haunting. This effect was enhanced by the simplicity of its elements: a pared down structure inhabited by motifs that had evidently been thought through carefully. The visual aspects dominated, and the narrative thread was clearly secondary - snatches of words here and there took the place of conventional dialogue. While emotions were clearly evoked, the plot was hidden, leaving the audience to guess at the context for these emotions. This was a refreshingly self-referential approach to exploring the realm of memories.
Having said this, Memory started out being a fairly tortuous experience - and remained so for some members of its audience - precisely because of this approach.
The production was split into three disparate segments, the first of which was a spine-chilling, grainy film of the interior of an HDB flat, accompanied by echoing laughter and the screams of children. This ended without explanation and we suddenly entered the second segment: an aged man (Lim Kay Siu) sits in his study and types out his account of a scene from his youth, with the words appearing on a screen before us. Certain phrases haunt him, like: "I have to go", "don't fight, always love each other". He struggles to recall the accurate version of the scene, and digs through his possessions to try to remember. His reverie is interrupted by the repeated re-enactment of one scene from the past. The scene comprises a few core elements: sunlight filtering in through slatted windows, a lady in red lies prone, she is fondled by a slim young man, she rejects his caresses and says "No! It's wrong", she decides to leave, the young man is shattered, a shard of glass is held up threateningly, someone says "don't do this". There is the suggestion of violence and the sound of glass breaking just as the stage goes dark. Each time the scene replays itself, the characters are a little different - stronger, weaker, more tender, or harsher.
These were clearly the time-warped memories of the old man, twisted and confused by the passage of time. But there wasn't a fixed narrative, just truncated dialogue and inferred relationships. After the second re-enactment of the scene, we were squirming in our seats and unspoken questions hung in the air. We pieced together connections slowly - the lady in red and the young man were torn between a sensual chemistry and something else that regarded their relationship as "wrong". Were they lovers? Were they siblings? Children?
Just as the guessing game got tiresome, the visual beauty of each scene started to permeate our consciousness, and we were drawn in by each tableau, each deliberate, slow, and calculated movement. Li Xie's physical acting was remarkable, imbuing the scenes with an emotional richness that was otherwise subdued in the rest of the play. The whos and whys stopped mattering. After ten or so re-enactments, the background scene moved to the foreground, with Lim Kay Siu's character taking the place of the young man. We finally saw the end of the scene, the shard of glass at the throat of the lady in red, her death implied by a somewhat self-conscious dripping of blood from a chest of drawers.
It was a boldly demonstrative climax to the otherwise understated segment
But at the end of this segment, a new set of questions arose with no
further answers. Was there any deeper meaning behind the revealed murder?
Was there a broader message about memory, love and death? Or was this
entire exercise an elaborate metaphor for the unreliable memories that
our minds harbour? The truth is, while the visual element was so compelling
and the actors so radiant, the non-specificity of the plot made it difficult
to empathise with the characters. Lim Kay Siu's character resonated
with the pain of someone needing to know the truth, but there was no
context for his emotions, and we remained outside his emotional world
ultimately. As a result, our appreciation of his situation took on a
detached and even formal quality. The lack of a clear storyline, while
fascinatingly frustrating in the beginning and middle, served to keep
the audience at arm's length, which is a place most theatre audiences
don't want to be.
Nonetheless, Collective Mayhem is on to something here with their fine
execution in the second segment of the production. While the play was
thin on themes and message, it demonstrated a canny ability to convey
abstractions through physical speech and movement, and to do so in an
authentic way. Memory - Human Remains has much potential to
be built into something fuller and more powerful. Perhaps Collective
Mayhem could look at the work of the very accomplished Hong Kong troupe
Theatre du Pif, which takes on classic and well-known stories and brings
them to life through acting and dance. To go the other extreme, towards
greater abstraction, they could explore the New York-based Shen Wei
Dance Arts company, which is a crown jewel in the genre of dance as
An admirably authentic work centring around a recurring re-enactment of a scene from the past. Each scene is a variation on a few core elements - a lady in red lies prone, she is fondled by a slim young man, she rejects his caresses, a shard of glass is held up threateningly, she decides to leave, the young man is shattered. These scenes occur behind a mesh screen, creating a fuzzy "mind's eye" perspective for the audience. Between scenes, an aged man (Lim Kay Siu) recounts the memory in words, struggling to reach the accurate version. The narrative appears to be secondary, and we are left to wonder who, what, how, why. But just as the guessing game gets tiresome, the haunting opiate of each scene starts to permeate our consciousness, and we are drawn in by each tableaux, each deliberate, slow, and calculated movement. Li Xie's physical acting is remarkable, imbuing the recurrent scenes with an emotional richness that is otherwise subdued in the rest of the play. The collaborative are on to something here with their fine execution of concept. While the production was thin on themes and message, there is much potential to build this work up to something fuller and more powerful.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /