Mr Wong invited me back to that unearthly corner of Singapore for his graduation production, “Blood-Tree”, this week. As always when I go to watch these performances, I am always aware that I should put aside all expectations of what a theatrical performance should be like, and experience the performance as it unfolds.
The synopsis writes:
Five different stories tied one trunk story, all under the theme of family, viewed from different eyes and situations. The pieces are performed on the edge of absurdism, a large dose of comedy and a hint of tragedy.
Interestingly enough, my experience of the performance was a large dose of tragedy and a hint of comedy, which goes to show how this performance defied expectations – perhaps even of whoever wrote that synopsis! 🙂 There were many other ways in which this performance deviated from conventional modes of story-telling:
As was emphasized a lot during the post-show dialogue, a lot of the experiences, the emotions and exchanges were done not through words, but through the physical body – through posturing, their positioning and of course their facial expressions. The turmoil of being torn apart by various family demands, the reluctance to let go, to succumb to your parents’ expectations, to take ownership and resolve a problem – all these were issues only briefly spoken about, but elaborately portrayed through the movement of the actors’ bodies.
Although Mr. Wong later told him his practicum supervisor mentioned that the last performance needed more work, there was a particular segment of ‘physical’ theatre in that final piece which really spoke to me.
There was a moment where the father told the son to go call the grandmother for dinner and the son (acted by Mr. Wong) walks towards the grandma, who is seated a distance away from the family. He shouts for her, but there’s no sound made. The ‘shouting’ is instead portrayed by placing his hands next to his mouth and him moving his body upwards, then forwards (in a sort of anti-clockwise direction) like he is ‘throwing’ his voice, and then coming down again. The grandma didn’t respond the first time, and he had to do it a second time. In the second time, as he was ‘throwing’ his voice again, he stepped forward, closer to the grandma and she turned, smiled and held his hands and came for dinner. The scene worked so well, on a literal and metaphorical level.
There were many other moments like the play of the Big Bad Wolf and the ensemble running around the protagonist in “My Father” which really left an impression on me. I must say these moments were really impressively choreographed and kudos to the Ensemble for pulling it off. I could see they really put their all into it.
This is kind of a repeat of the above, but this ‘minimalist’ approach applied more to just their acting, but the overall production. I told Jasmine after the performance that I thought it was abstract, but after thinking through it more, I realised that ultimately this wasn’t that abstract a performance, because it is rather obvious what’s going on, but it is minimalist because a lot of ‘plot’ details have to be infered and reconstructed from the essence presented and even characterisation is drawn out not by costume or through ‘acting’ like the figure, but by simple elements like positioning, how high they are standing on the box, how they speak to the audience and not to each other (i.e. Land Division). Even in terms of props, the wooden boxes they had took on various forms in different acts.
I have to admit I was initially quite uncomfortable with it and wanted to see more. I wanted to see the background of each story, more about the character and his/her motivations, more about what was going on in the minds of each character. I wanted something to ‘analyse’, to look deeper into. The lack of explicit ‘psychologizing’ of the characters made me search deeper within myself to understand these characters, into my own experiences and my own understanding of family relations, and I believe this is what made this performance so personal.
In the post-performance dialogue, one of the respondents mentioned that she connected most with the Land Division story because it actually happened in her family – but I couldn’t connect with its key issues. Yes, on the surface I could understand the struggle for power in the family, but I didn’t identify with it and therefore that performance lost its impact onme. But the performance on My Father with the figure of the eldest brother really made me think not just of my present, but of what might happen possibly in the future and how I would handle it – which brings me to my final point.
The Third Eye
Although I knew that these stories were derived from actual experiences, the performance came across as being an interesting blend of detachment and engagement of these actors with the stories. Sometimes, it was even interesting to note that it wasn’t the protagonist in the piece who seemed the most engaged with the story, but possibly even one sitting at the side watching in or the one who was the most quiet.
The performance was arranged in such a way that the main pieces would take place in the centre and those who didn’t perform wouldn’t be off stage, but sitting on the side of the stage on their wooden boxes, looking in, providing a kind of ‘audience’ within the performance.
In the post-performance dialogue, one of the actresses mentioned that this performance served for them to be a kind of ‘third eye’, not just performing their own stories, but looking into at their own stories, detaching themselves from situations they are so involved in emotionally to take an objective stance, which applies to how we deal with our own family situations many times.
Simiarly with this performance, while I mentioned that the play on the Father generated some thoughts in me, I felt myself rather emotionally unengaged throughout most of the performance – perhaps it was because I was still trying to ‘fill in the gaps’, or the back story behind all these short vignettes of each story, where only the essence and not the details are all presented.
Thank you Mr. Wong for inviting me down for the performance. Congratulations to you and your team for putting up a great and thought-provoking experience which lingered on in my mind until this morning!
On a side note, it was good to be back in NIE again and it brought back some really good memories of my NIE days – yes I know, to the sacrilege of many – but I did have great memories of my friends in NIE. Met a previous lecturer there too and we spent sometime catching up. I do want to catch up with some of my NIE friends and lecturers sometime – hopefully we can do so this holidays.