Good Things in small Packages
A drug deal gone wrong. Now you're picturing a moonlit dock and greasy heavies taking cover from gunfire. Instead, picture this: Sentosa Concourse on the third floor of Vivo City; sunlight on carefree shoppers. Diminutive Steve stands alone, rooted to the spot. He won't fetch the drugs from the lockers because he has some emotional issues he wants to work through. Rotund Gary won't leave Steve on his own, which means that yuppie lawyer Steve and his chic colleague Carolyn will have nothing with which to entertain a ballroomful of lawyers attending an awards ceremony. Yes, small metal objects is a play like no other - but its quirky premise is not the reason. No, the reason is that the play's actors stand among the unsuspecting passing crowds of Vivo City and speak to each other at conversational levels which would be totally inaudible were it not for the headphones that pipe the actors' voices and Hugh Covill's music directly into the audience's ears.
Having said, that, the actors don't say an awful lot. This is a play built around pauses, and these pauses give the audience time to look around. In the long silences between the actors' measured lines, we saw Singapore: colourful, commercial, transient. People wandered by with their shopping, or to do their shopping, or to visit Sentosa, or to grab a quick, late lunch at the food court. And Singapore looked back at us and saw us sitting in raked rows, wearing headphones and apparently staring at nothing.
You go through some interesting thought processes in a situation like this. Let me list some of mine.
1) It's not just the actors - all those people down there must have their own secret stories, too. I wonder if any of them are playing out now. Can I see the stories in their body language?
2) Those people on the hideous, neon-coloured moulded plastic seats in the middle of the "stage" - why don't they mind us staring at them? Why don't they move?
3) The people on the neon seats are staring back at us. Do I mind this? Should I move?
4) I feel superior to all these milling people, because I am experiencing Art while they are merely shopping.
5) Hmmm... Metal Gear Solid IV for PS3 is out. I should buy it.
I won't continue - suffice to say that the mechanics of the production impelled me to investigate my environment and myself rather more carefully than I typically would have. And this was especially true of the start of the play, where it took me a good seven minutes to locate the actors in the crowd, possibly because I'm really bad at finding people in crowds, but probably because they weren't actually visible - certainly I wasn't the only audience member constantly looking around, searching for faces to match the voices in my ears.
And clearly, whether they had deliberately withheld their actors or not, Back to Back Theatre fully intended us to search. The company was encouraging us to look for the remarkable in people we would otherwise ignore. Indeed, this was supposed to be a major theme of the production, but I wonder whether it came across as strongly here as it did in the other cities the play has been performed in. The company's website states that small metal objects "explores how respect is withheld from outsiders - the disabled or unemployed - who society deems 'unproductive'." And director Bruce Gladwin's method of exploring this topic is clearly to minutely focus the audience's attention on the interactions of those unrespected outsiders, Gary and Steve, who are intended to represent, as the Sydney Sun-Herald said in its review of the play, "people we habitually crop out of the picture". The problem with this is that in Singapore Gary and Steve do not get cropped out of the picture: they are highly unusual here. Often, members of the crowd, wondering what we in the audience were staring at, would cast around for possible sources of interest. Their eyes would quickly skip over the Singaporeans in the crowd, even when they were doing something conspicuous (a couple of boys were dancing at one point), and then, when their eyes landed on Simon Laherty (playing Steve) or Sonia Teuben (playing Gary), they would quickly glance back to us to confirm that we were watching them. Down-and-out-looking ang mohs dressed in non-Singaporean fashions are remarkable here, so some of the intended impact of the play was, I suspect, lost.
But then, this is a play that will have a different meaning in every place it is performed. It seems small metal objects recently played in a sculpture garden in Seattle. There, the emphasis must have been on finding beauty in unexpected places, and how stillness can engender transcendence. But here in thrusting Singapore, at Sentosa station, the play was primarily about change.
Not that this was accidental: the play's devisors had powerfully incorporated the theme of change into the text of the play. The slick, seductive and eventually sinister Carolyn, who attempts to pry Steve from the place he has chosen to remain, is "in change management" - which is to say, she helps companies manage their rebranding. But the problems Steve is attempting to solve by staying still and listening only to himself are not so superficial; a new name and logo are of no use to him. His problems go deeper, where Carolyn's cod-psychology cannot reach.
I can identify. I hate my slowness at writing reviews (this one is well overdue). But I know from long experience that there is no point trying to force the words on to the screen - I just have to wait until they are ready. And this is simply who I am, much as I wish it were not.
Steve, of course, has deeper concerns than missed deadlines. He hates his loneliness, his fear and his confusion. And there is a part of him that is tempted by Carolyn's promises of quick solutions - she has her hooks in his skin. But she cannot reach his heart, the part of him that knows he will always be like this, will always be subject to earthquakes of feeling that cause deep, rushing waves within him, yet leave the surface unrippled. And so he stays, and abides, until all is calm again. Laherty's performance was perfect to suggest this: his rootedness; the deliberateness of his few movements; and the intensity of his stare, which hinted at the turmoil beneath.
Sonia Teuben as Gary seemed to be an older, wiser Steve, long accustomed to the tectonic shifts that throw a soul off balance, yet still sensitive to Steve's disorientation. Despite her short stature, Teuben became a wall: grounded, impenetrable, protective.
And these performances contrasted beautifully with those of the two actors playing the "respectable" characters. Tina Bursill's Carolyn was deliciously fake. Her autopilot-flirting when she first tried to dislodge Steve was a joy to behold, almost robotic in its calculations. Christopher Brown's Allan, on the other hand, was not fake; his shallowness was entirely sincere, because he had never bothered to look beneath the surface.
All actors were immeasurably assisted by Hugh Covill's sound design, which was smooth on the surface, but lush and melodramatic - almost soap-operatic - underneath. There were moments when a jarring chord attended the most banal of spoken lines and I wondered whether Covill had gone too far. But this production was aware of its humour even when it seemed unintentional - case in point, the bathetic ending, when, after forty-five minutes of standing on the spot, rooted by his existential angst, Steve suddenly declares that he feels better and he and Gary wander off together.
And why not? We're funny like that. What seem at the time to be our darkest nights of the soul often appear trivial after the fact and lose their power to scare us - even though we know deep down that they are unchangeably part of us and will come again in time. I, for example, feel much better now I have finished this review - and I look forward to my next one.
This short, spare play with its tableau-like central performances was
loaded with a rich humanity thanks
to the space it created for its unwitting stars - the shoppers and daytrippers
passing through Sentosa Station at Vivo City.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /