>one breath left by theatre ox

>reviewed by eugene tan

>date: 15 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: sculpture square
>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.


Watching ONE BREATH LEFT by Theatre Ox was supposed to be like visiting an old friend.

I saw it almost exactly a year ago, at that time it was already two years in the making, and I was extremely impressed. It has returned this year as part of the Arts Festival, and I went knowing that there would be changes, and curious as to what these changes were.

First though, some background to the making of the play. Three years ago, Theatre Ox, under the leadership of Ang Gey Pin went to Pontedera in Italy to work at the Workcentre of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. They returned after a year with a performance entitled "One More Breath Left". They went back to Pontedera to work for another year, with a slightly different line-up of four, but still under the direction of Ang. They returned last year to stage the new structure of the performance, now entitled ONE BREATH LEFT. They then returned to the Workcentre, with one of the performers changed to work yet some more on ONE BREATH LEFT. In their work there, it was decided that it needed new input, and so, members of the research team at the Workcentre, themselves the cast of another opus of the Workcentre , "Action", have been included into the structure of ONE BREATH LEFT. Their inclusion was intensively workshopped over three days, we're talking 16 hour days here folks, with the only rule being that they could not interfere with the established structure of ONE BREATH LEFT.

>>'As it stands now, three days of intensive workshops and months of rehearsal and performance have not been enough, but surely they will get there. The work has certainly not stopped.'

The text for the performance is culled from various sources including ancient Chinese texts and traditional Chinese songs. The story is a simple one, a woman is on her deathbed, mumbling deliriously to herself, her family crowded around her. She remembers her life, and things she was told about death. This is where the confusion (and I mean this positively) begins, we are never sure which of the vignettes presented are real, which are remembered and which are dreamt. Around the stage are six hooded figures in black, at times a chorus, but usually sitting on a bench or framing the performing space in various contorted positions.

It was now obvious that the new performers, not of Theatre Ox were to operate as an entity separate from the four performers of the company. This worked sometimes and did not at others.

On the one hand, the sense of looming death was hammered home, they were crouching all over the set, huddled together, singing along and so on. But on the other, they were plain mystifying, cumbersome or downright unnecessary. The performance is wonderful if you watch and experience the main four performers, they sing and move with incredible dexterity and clarity and they engage almost immediately.

The hooded people though, by design or otherwise do not. For most of the performance the hooded figures stay hooded, hunched and face the floor. It is a little bit difficult to engage with performers who are confined to that. I say by design because they clearly never interfered with the central action of ONE BREATH LEFT. Instead they were like the garnishing which at times made the dish and at others, distracted from the flavours.

But what then of the show as a whole?

The use of some very obscure texts and at times even more obscure diction could have left us out cold. But it did not, and here is where it is clear that these are performers who are completely immersed in their craft. The story is really told though movement and sound, where one did not understand word, one certainly understood sound -- not tone, but sound. At times, we were taken on an emotional ride based on the sound alone, we didn't just see a woman lying on the floor mumbling, we felt the impending death through her mumbling playing against the sound of her family around her.

The way sounds fill and resonate in the space of Sculpture Square is also used very effectively. At the start of the performance as all 10 performers enter the space, they chant and marcd to a verbalised beat and then the singing starts, barely audible at first, but growing in intensity until it fills the space and ultimately the audience. This device is used throughout the play, of contrasting aural textures to create different effects, all of which affect the audience on some level or other.

It is also here that the six performers of the Workcentre shine. They too perform sound with a certain clarity of intent, breaking up scenes almost as a subtext to or comment on the action performed by the four of Theatre Ox.

So in the end, it is clear what has happened, at least what is supposed to be clear, because of the skill of the performers. However, in case it wasn't, the performers of the Workcentre had you in mind. In the only moment where the two separate teams converge, one of the hooded figures gets up and narrates the entire performance in English. Thank you, you may sit down now.

Evidently then, the separate team of performers from the Workcentre and their inclusion will need a lot more work. ONE BREATH LEFT as I saw it last year was wonderful, but it was also two years in the making. As it stands now, three days of intensive workshops and months of rehearsal and performance have not been enough, but surely they will get there. The work has certainly not stopped.