>MURDER DIY by NUS Theatre Studies Programme

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 24 mar 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: 54 jalan remis
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>playing holmes

Can you remember ever saying, as a member of the audience, that you had so much fun playing (for want of a better word) in a play? Well, I'm sure you would have said the words after watching MURDER DIY, Singapore's first interactive dinner murder mystery play, produced and acted by the graduating class of the NUS Theatre Studies Programme.

Set in a spooky bungalow along Jalan Remis, MURDER DIY was an inventive game that called upon the audience to use their observational, logical and detective skills. As it was a game - that is competition was involved with the winners each taking home a gift voucher from Pennsylvania Country Oven - the audience was divided into teams of 6, with each member of each team following a particular member of the cast around the house. Reality and dreams were intertwined as secrets were revealed, dark passions erupted, and the complexities and intricacies of the relationships between 6 friends slowly brought to light for the scrutiny of the audience.

MURDER DIY was a clever and ingenious site-specific production that mined the potential of audience interaction to the maximum. The audience appeared to have a certain amount of control that is usually denied to them while watching a traditional play in a conventional venue. Right from the start, a certain amount of power and authority was given to the audience when they were the ones who had to decide which characters were to die -- thereby affecting how the play was to be shaped. Together with the fact that the audience had to actively participate in solving the mystery by interpreting the various signs and symbols that abound in the play, a new alignment between audience and director/actors/scriptwriters was created.

>>'this was an entertaining piece of theatre that demanded the audience to heartily participate in its activities'

The audience had now become the 'authors' of the play, rendering significance to the most ordinary of activities - be it eating a piece of cake, or taking a swig from a beer bottle. The audience had the power to discard some signs by deeming them worthless and imbue others with meaning and purpose. The fact that the audience could position themselves anywhere they wanted to observe the actors only gave them another form of control - they were not limited by spatial constraints, but could stand afar, peer closely, or move around as the actors continued whatever they were supposed to do, without a blink of an eye.

As such, every physical gesture, every little movement was magnified -a quiver of a lip, a crease of the brow -- everything became symbolic, everything had a dramatic purpose. (What more when the audience took into account that everything was a possible clue?) All of this was easily lapped up by the voyeuristic audience who were positioned a few metres away from the actors. And it was this proximity that gave everything a sense of being more real, more genuine - the formal barrier between audience and actors that had to be mediated by the former no longer existed. It was like being invisible or somehow being in the world of a film where none of the people in it could see you. We could literally feel the actor's fatigue - in the case of Ivan Goh - as little droplets of perspiration splashed onto his shirt; we could sense the longing of Rodney Oliveiro -- who played a closeted homosexual -- by observing up close the little flicker of interest in his eyes as he stared at another guy in the gym.

As the French critic Roland Barthes announced the Death of the Author - his contention being that it is language itself that dictates what the Author seemingly 'made it say', manipulating him in as much the same way as he himself would often try to manipulate the Reader - the Reader was born with the ability to sift through the myriad of signifiers and signifieds that make up language. This can also be seen in a theatrical sense - especially in MURDER DIY -- where meaning is not dictated by the director, script-writers or the actors, but by the audience through the sifting and examining of the signs and symbols that overflow the play -- the many clocks hung in the living room that had stopped at different times; the Sadako-figure with her ghostly features who plastered her face against the blank transmission of a television screen.

But just as some critics have argued that Barthes' theory only gave the Reader an appearance of power (the Author is still in control; however, now it is not simply a power struggle between Author and Reader, but one that is mediated through language), so too can the power given to the audience be seen as an illusion. For all the freedom given to the audience, the audience was in the end caught up within the constraints of this new relationship, a relationship that still exerted control on the audience but now only in different ways.

This was seen in the fact that not only did the audience have to be constantly herded around by ushers - a structure that became too rigid in the end, with a whistle blowing to signify a change in scene, it felt like being in school all over again or working in a factory -- but they had to consciously take note and adjust to the changes in the different performing spaces of the actors, be it the moonlit balcony, or the small toilet illuminated by a yellowish glare, or the empty street outside the house where basketball was played. Moreover, the audience never had the upper hand throughout the whole story; they could only delve and study the signs that were given to them -- the final meaning could only be explained by the director and the scriptwriters at the end of the play.

Yet the frustration at this situation was greatly eased by the brilliant and all-engaging script - a script that had been put together by 8 scriptwriters. Direction under the ever capable hands of Jonathon Lim was taut and astute - the scene of an actress who burnt herself to death was imaginatively realised by having this said actress stand behind a web of clothing and setting it aflame, while the interview of Rodney Oliveiro (self-mockingly billed as the star of 'Spin') by reporters, who were only interested in the sexual orientation of the actor, was cleverly done in the style of a police interrogation. Meanwhile, the informal group discussions where attempts were made to try and solve the murders, had friends or strangers sitting around in groups, having refreshments while discussing and dissecting the play - this was what theatre should be, making and provoking the audience to think and share with each other their various experiences.

And it has to be said that the young cast gave the whole performance a vibrant urgency, an intensity that maintained the momentum of the play, even in scenes where the actor did nothing but fill a bathtub. But it was the Dreamkeepers - the people who guided the actors through this nightmarish world of lies - which provided the necessary surreal atmosphere throughout the whole evening. This was not only achieved through their antics - be it the playful parodies of a couple of key scenes, or the way they constantly incited or harassed the actors - but their presence also maintained a counter-balance to the stark reality that the actors inhibited.

So in the end, this was an entertaining piece of theatre that demanded the audience to heartily participate in its activities. But what made it more fun and exciting for the audience was that the play gave the best gift it could to the audience -- the feeling of liberation through the control of power, even if this control was an illusion.