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Photographs from S-21 / The Glass Box


Amrita Performing Arts


Hsieh Nizhen






The Esplanade Theatre Studio



A Forgettable Reminder

It is difficult to critique a production that concerns itself with a history of war and trauma, particularly if its aim is to remind one never to forget. Photographs from S-21 / The Glass Box is a piece of theatre and dance that was inspired by real events that occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The double bill began with The Glass Box, a solo classical dance performance that explored the paradoxical relationship Cambodian women have with their traditional culture. This performance was inspired by the true story of a friend of the choreographer who was gunned down in a street for having an affair with a powerful man. The dance was not a re-enactment of the incident but rather a physical display of the choreographer's emotional reaction to it.

Set on a minimal stage, the only thing to catch the eye was the dancer's ornate costume, which moved and glittered with her. Her movements and gestures were swift and graceful, but also so controlled that they rendered the person beneath them almost invisible. Freedom and apprehension were in conflict here. Trapped by the expectation of feminine virtue, the dancer took small, sweeping steps but never a leap into the direction she intended. Her torso spun and twisted as her feet shifted slightly but purposefully, in celebration of the female form - but always, she stopped short, as if under surveillance, and she retreated with every step she took forward, her face bearing a constant expression of sorrow. It was as if she had become a caged zoo animal for our entertainment. We looked on not only as observers but as accomplices as she struggled for freedom of expression.

However, the subtlety that was the performance's main point of attraction was soon lost. The tension the piece had evoked fell into repetitive patterns and failed to develop: there was little variation and too heavy a reliance on the glass box metaphor as a means of substantiating the dance.

In 1997, an exhibition bearing the same name Photographs from S-21 was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two photographs of a man and a woman from that exhibition became the basis for a play by Catherine Filloux. Their pictures were taken by the Khmer Rouge prior to their executions at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison at Phnom Penh. In this play, these two portraits come to life, encounter each other and engage in an intimate dialogue about their individual sufferings.

Performed in Khmer with English subtitles, the translation may have clouded some of the nuances the Khmer version contained. Still, historical horror was recreated, to an extent, in a simple storytelling fashion that left the more emotionally complex elements to the audience's imagination.

But apart from the storytelling, the play's central conceit - the photographs' coming to life - compelled us to consider the how the depiction of war and disaster affects us. In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag asked similar questions about whether the depiction of cruelty could inspire dissent, foster violence or create apathy. The unnamed female character in Photographs echoes this sentiment when she looks at the audience, commenting on the number of people that watch her from day to day. She remarks to Vuthy that their eyes come in so many colours, like lights. The two characters talk about the other photographs that the people move on to after looking at them. These other photographs are harmless, reminiscent of happier moments: a horse, a banana, a boy swimming, a girl dancing. Finally, the woman points at us and asks the painful question, "These people, they are not the Khmer Rouge, are they?" In that instant, we who are watching the watched are made complicit. It is a powerful moment.

But this new sense of awareness quickly grows stale. The terse dialogue, filled with long, contemplative pauses becomes tiresome; there is never really a shift in tone; the frequent pauses make any emotional outburst appear incongruous and unnecessary; and the relationship between the characters feels contrived. Whatever strength was to be found in the performance came from the words.

Two historical events, one more personal in origin and the other made into a public exhibition, are recreated in this produciton to teach us that their seeming distance in time and space do not wash our hands clean. Our responsibility to them lies not merely in acknowledging their existence; rather, our responsibility lies in remembering that history can and will repeat itself. Moreover, they provoke us to question the limits of our sympathy and the obligations of our conscience when confronted with images of trauma.

But these questions did not come into my mind as a result of the performances; they came into my mind simply from the concepts behind the two pieces - and then the performances themselves merely played out the obvious. The programme of this year's M1 Fringe Festival, of which this production was a part, says, "Powerful Art dislodges us from stasis; it liberates and delivers us." The performances failed to "dislodge" me.

But they did make me wonder: were they made more meaningful because of their Khmer Rouge context? If this specific context had been removed and replaced by a general one, would the production have been able to sustain itself and still provoke? No: in this case, context and conception took precedence over craft, and the performances were simply long and drawn-out reiterations of an idea.

Karl Marx once said, "People may make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." These stories of suffering under the Khmer Rouge may have been resurrected in order to remind us of how we made our history, but I left the theatre that night no heavier for being reminded.

Guest reviewer Nizhen undertook the dizzying task of re-orienting herself back in Singapore after living in New York for 6 years. Having been a dilettante for most of her life, she has since buckled down and is currently at Elle. Always restless, she has performed onstage, worked as a doorman, taught poetry to female prisoners, read for the blind and reorganised rolodexes for overly bohemian writers.

"These stories of suffering under the Khmer Rouge may have been resurrected in order to remind us of how we made our history, but I left the theatre that night no heavier for being reminded."

Second Opinion
Unmoved by Horror by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.