Across a long, white table, the increasingly frenzied actors jump to their feet in flawlessly timed sequences, each mouthing long, barely coherent lines of numbers, literary excerpts and scientific theories to a glaring projected backdrop of their own words. Newton's Law of Physics, Pride and Prejudice and a "Save the Environment" slogan glance off each other in a magnificent stream of theatrical consciousness, critically reflecting on a world beholden, and consequently trapped by, its directionless quest for definitions and absolute knowledge.
This was one of many electrifying scenes in Cake Theatrical Productions' avant-garde epic Temple, which fashions a concourse of disturbed relationships and shattered fantasies out of richly symbolic stage pictures, enhanced by surrealistic soundscapes and multimedia narratives. At her best, playwright and director Natalie Hennedige strips man of logic, knowledge and other foundations of being to reveal his oldest, most intractable fears and darkest impulses.
The passage of time in Temple is marked not by the hands of a clock, but by the gradual devolution of seven men and women over seven days. Interlocking vignettes of three variously dysfunctional relationships unfold during the first act, where four brothers and sisters (Rizman Putra, Mohd Fared Jainal, Nora Samosir, and Noorlinah Mohamed), a couple estranged after plane crash separated them (Muhammed Najib Bin Soiman and Goh Guat Kian) and ambiguous pair Love Child (Li Xie) and Little Girl (Noorlinah Mohamed) engage in everyday jealousies and power struggles.
As evidenced in her brilliant work Nothing, and now in Temple, Hennedige has a vigorous interest in turning over the rocks of contemporary relationships and examining what lurks underneath. Particularly striking are her observations on the ever-shifting dynamics of marriage, which play out between a couple that, although they cannot speak each other's language, sustain a dialogue that segues between Chinese and Malay. However, this wry, sparkling interplay of languages is short-lived, as they struggle with the failure of memory and dissolution of love. A few scenes later, husband and wife suddenly encounter Babel, and are consequently unable to understand each other. The failure of language, it seems, is a testament to a world divided, dislocated and unable to communicate.
Isolation and oblivion also creep into the other relationships, which are similarly fraught with tension and conflict. In an attempt to save themselves from their problematic lives, these characters seek refuge in an abandoned sports hall. Sealing off its exits, they assign roles, make knowledge and create laws in an Edenic universe kept alive by their vow never to let anyone in.
However, any control they appear to have over their own lives is illusory. Tapping into the wellsprings of myth and religion, Hennedige swiftly exposes the terrible consequences of escapism. Just as Eve was tempted by the serpent on the apple tree, the newly-established "Land" cannot resist the tantalising knocking on its doors, opening them to a misshapen troop of crocodiles in cheerleading suits. These slowly infect the population and take control of their subconscious, leaving them to thrash around in emotional and moral no-man's land.
Purity and reprieve are only temporary in Hennedige's nihilistic worldview - her physical poetry onstage recalls Louise Glück's restless, grief-stricken lament that "this is my mind's voice; / you can't touch my body now. / It has changed once, it has hardened, / don't ask it to respond again." Towards the end of Day Six, the physically and emotionally stranded characters are splayed across the sports hall, breathless and dazed, as if unable to emerge from a strenuous dream. In her final monologue, Noorlinah mutters, with searing, heartfelt pain, "you know the end: the world, it ends!" Yet, her fate falls short of her proclamation; she seems only on the verge of resolution, haunted by the allure of an ending. The audience, like the characters, is made to suffer a world stationed on thresholds, where illumination is always accompanied by disillusionment, and where spiritual revelations which allow us to see more clearly may well leave us in despair.
The actors' taut and intensely physical performances reduce the drama centre's large proscenium to a chillingly intimate world of fallen bodies and broken spirits. They lunge at each other only to stop on the brink of touching, magnifying their characters' deep sense of longing for something greater than themselves. As an ensemble they also inhabit an effortless, shared rhythm, conveying droll moments or collective despair with hard-earned precision. While all turn in brilliant individual performances, it is Noorlinah's unnerving blend of anguish and sheer desperation that keeps the audience on a tight, quivering leash. Achingly alive, she spits her lines with force and clarity, immersing us in her character's haunted awareness of a universe in decay.
Brian Gothong Tan's multimedia, arranged with artistry and flair, is a flawless accompaniment to the action on stage. Haunting black-and-white close-ups of the actors rubbing their faces with sand complement a scene where the characters aggregate in a wilderness; while his conflation of National Day celebrations with the Tiananmen uprising uncannily reinforces Hennedige's political allegory. Philip Tan's sound design completes this multi-sensory assault, conveying both epic sweep and emotional claustrophobia in his illustration of a natural world almost entirely supplanted by technology.
Sure, parts of the production are sometimes messy and unrestrained, bloated with tedious action sequences and song interludes that would not have hurt from more rigorous editing. (After a while, one feels that the elaborate pawing and clawing and repetitive wailings of "inconsolable longing" lose their potency in conveying the characters' suffering.)
In perhaps what is Cake's most polarising work to date, several audience members walked out before the show ended, and seasoned theatergoers and critics I spoke to were frustrated by the production's baffling mishmash of narratives and lack of signposting. However, the less I tried to make sense of plot structures and character relationships during the play, the more I was helplessly captivated by Temple's phantasmagoric spectacle.
Hennedige's aesthetic force is tethered not to logical storylines but to overarching ideas, and it is these that lend her work the credibility and coherence that a single narrative arc might achieve. In Temple, I discerned three such ideas that, admittedly, only sharpened into focus the second night I watched the performance. The first third of the play charts a world at odds with itself; the second witnesses the world trying to escape from itself; and the last exposes the futility of these efforts. Perhaps the delineation of these ideas could have benefited from simple blackouts to separate then or a more representative categorisation of the respective acts and scenes, but nonetheless, the power with which the play expresses its ideas denies accusations that it is indulgent or solipsistic.
In her poem October, Glück writes, "Tell me this is the future, / I won't believe you. / Tell me I'm living, / I won't believe you." Temple sustains the same compelling fatalism, finding new and convincing ways to express the cries of the lost, dying and doomed. Rather than tugging earnestly at your heartstrings, Hennedige insists on getting under your skin. The result is a play whose images and implications are likely to stay in your head for a long time. I left the theatre depleted, disturbed and immensely satisfied.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /