>THE SPIRITS PLAY by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 19 aug 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the battle box, fort canning
>rating: unrated

>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.


Pushing the boundaries of the avant-garde in Singapore, TheatreWorks, in collaboration with "cutting-edge" Japanese performance artists, redefines the conventions of theatre and drama yet again.

Written by Kuo Pao Kun with the performance conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen, THE SPIRITS PLAY presents itself as fragments of disparate narratives related by lost spirits trapped in time and space and, literally, in a bunker located on the hills of Fort Canning. Not seeking any conventionality or coherence of narrative structure and form, the three-hour long performance is divided into three loosely allied 'plays' with the first, entitled 'Grinder Man', performed in a darkened studio staged as a catwalk platform.

>>'this redefines the conventions of theatre and drama yet again'

Four Japanese performers awed the crowd with strictly-timed synchronized movements and homogenous outfits capped with a black box on the head, in an attempt to portray the cliched images of homogeneity and loss of individuality in our postmodern, industrial and consumerist world. This half-hour performance is reminiscent of a medieval 'freak-show' with the four performers constantly amazing the audience with familiar DIY hardware 'made strange' (such as the grinding of electric cutters on metal plates which, incidentally, caused hot metal fragments to fly through the air and fall on the audience!) while incorporating video and cyber-technology as well as earsplitting techno-music to dissolve the boundaries of art, fusing all into a performance that pushes the frontiers of the new. The appearance of Grinder-Man at the end of this sequence was certainly an interesting intertextual reference to all computer-gamers who are familiar with Duke Nukem - another reference to our world of hyperreality.

There, however, seemed to be little real correlation between the first play and the subsequent two despite the director's attempt to draw a loose relation between the social history (and future) of Japan and Singapore. The mood radically shifts as the performance is moved into the Malayan Command Headquarters (better known as the Battle Box). Here, the space of performance is redefined as the boundaries of actor and audience dissipate into the eerie atmosphere of the poorly lit bunker. 7 veteran local actors 'float' around the corridors and rooms assuming different roles of lost spirits, each relating a painful story of war and loss. One begins to realize that as much as one is 'watching' these performers, one is being watched by them as these spirits closely engage with the spectators. The audience becomes integrated into the space of performance and becomes much like (the) spirits locked in the bunker for a full hour, while wandering from corridor to corridor.

The haunting memories of guilt and pain then link the second and third plays together. A play of dramatic "'inaction", we are brought into the psyche of seven post-war characters, each dealing with their own demons. Employing the familiar motif of water, the repetitive ritual of bathing and washing that takes place in a space encircled by barbed-wire fencing becomes the central "action" as the characters question the sense (and senselessness) of war. Counterpointing familiar truisms such as "Honour in death, shame in defeat" against "Was there any real act of bravery?", this play becomes an angst-filled interplay of long periods of silence and flickering narrations. Perhaps the waiting becomes an integrated action that the audience must partake to complete the performance.

Overall, the plays within the play are certainly an interesting alternative to presenting old issues. The use of the command bunker is certainly one that is most impressive and memorable, redefining theatrical space (TheatreWorks' trademark, surely, is the way it negotiates with spatiality) and performance.

As much as the play can be credited for raising important issues about the need for the remembrance of one's own history and the consciousness of historicity, the excessiveness of long pauses, repetitive bath movements (one can only clean so many parts of oneself!) in the final play and the disjunctive divide of 'Grinder Man' from the subsequent two plays, raises questions of dramatic sensibility. If drama is about the communication of ideas, there are certainly points at which THE SPIRITS PLAY fails since it lacks a coherent sense resultant from a fragmentary dramatic and narrative structure. One wonders if the sense of these three 'plays' is merely a sense of artistic play, claiming heritage from the avant-garde - perhaps then, that is sense enough.