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Duets 2




Ng Yi-Sheng






Guinness Theatre, The Substation



A Solo Expedition

Paul Rae is a brave man. Time and again, he and his wife Kaylene Tan have tested the limits of theatre with their experimental group spell#7, and never in the bigwig, razzamatazz manner of Theatreworks's Flying Circus Project, either - their pieces have always had a distinctly humble, domestic touch to them, paring down the theatrical experience to its core.

Usually, this strategy has worked, earning spell#7 a substantial and devoted fan base. Occasionally it doesn't, as in the case of Duets 2.

The first Duets, performed last year, was terribly successful - Substation director Lee Weng Choy called it his theatrical experience of the year. Already, it was based on a pretty bold premise, as an autobiographical show to be performed annually, based on true household interactions between Paul and Kaylene, musing on the clashes and odd harmonies of their relationship. But with Kaylene on sabbatical this year, Paul's taken the incongruous step of performing Duets 2 as a one-man show. In another daring act of bravado, he's even avoided performing multiple roles, in favour of the honesty of singular self-presentation.

This disarming simplicity actually works at the play's opening - as Paul just sits there, in a set that's been minimalistically arranged to duplicate the verandah of his house, speaking in a voice that sounds neither careless nor declamatory, but somehow nonchalantly rehearsed. He tells a charming, bizarre story of a Thai maid he's met, who nibbles the toes of his baby daughter while he puzzles over whether it's hygienic, then meanders onward to a proposal to invite ex-Prime Minister Thaksin to the house. We laugh, and we're entertained, as much by the sense of being a houseguest as an audience member.

But Paul isn't content with simply regaling us with anecdotes. He's also embarking on investigations of space and semiotics. This is fine when he's playing with props and cunning set design, common staples of interesting theatre: pointing out the one area on his verandah where a candleflame will not blow out, shifting the bamboo galas pegged with laundry hanging above his dining table. It's less entertaining when he waxes philosophical, discoursing at length on the unlimited love of children or Magritte's This is not a pipe. As a lone man onstage, largely stripped of dramatic tools and gimmicks, Paul can't quite sustain these prolonged flights into the abstract, which soon become boring. Having pared drama down to its bones, it becomes difficult for him to make it carry great ideas.

And even on occasions when Paul does resort to dramatic devices, there's little profit. When he speechifies on the nature of age and putting on roots, pretending to be pompous, it's barely demarcated as a different personality. When he uses folded laundry to create a live videographic puppet-show of a child in bed- a profoundly original medium of play - it only holds our attention for a while before becoming tedious. The banality of non-theatricality catches up with him, and pulls down the show with its weight.

Thematically, the play's also troubled by a lack of focus. Duets 2 appears to have been initially conceived as two separate acts, Enfold and XO, presumably discussing life with baby and dinner with Thaksin respectively. The blending of these two disparate halves, though amusing for its juxtaposed contrasts, makes it extremely difficult to grasp a holistic vision of the piece, a unifying idea behind the themes. Moreover, it shortened the piece to just over an hour, disappointing even hardcore spell#7 fans, let out early while missing a sense of resolution and closure.

It's truly a waste that Paul's remarkable theatrical imagination's loses its way in this production. People were certainly awed at the end of the show, with his beautiful gesture of revealing a glowing garden of potted plants hidden beneath the Guinness Theatre floorboards. I've a feeling that his new status as director, writer and solo actor of the piece (though aided by others in the credits) made it difficult for him to critically judge what could and couldn't work in his performance.

I'm not saying Paul should have called it off for the sake of his wife's non-participation - this has been a step in an ongoing experiment of dissolving the barrier between life and theatre that's bound to yield some great shows in the future, as well as some duds. I'm simply hoping that in the future, whether solo or accompanied, the actors focus on the bilateral dynamic of the duet, avoiding the obsessive focus on a single voice that can lose the audience when it reaches too far in its explorations.

"As a lone man onstage, largely stripped of dramatic tools and gimmicks, Paul can't quite sustain these prolonged flights into the abstract, which soon become boring"


Writer/Performer: Paul Rae

Additional Texts by: Kaylene Tan

Directorial Assistance: Claire Wong, Ben Salter, Tan Beng Tian

Production Manager: Yap Seok Hui

Production Assistant: Carol Chan

Lighting Designer: Ken Ikeda

Previous Productions by spell#7

More Reviews 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.