More playground than play

More playground than play
Profile photo of Gao Xingjian.

11: Gao Xingjian Devised 
The Theatre Practice
Stamford Arts Centre/Wednesday

SINGAPORE - Whether by coincidence or by design, this production opens just before Nobel Prize-winning writer and artist Gao Xingjian comes to town for the Singapore Writers Festival next Friday.

I believe he would have appreciated this unlikely precursor to his arrival.

The Theatre Practice's hyper-abstract production mulls over a handful of the strongest themes running through Gao's various works of literature and theatre. The tension between the collective and the self comes into play, as does a deconstruction of language and a strong sense of ambiguity and constant questioning.

From Soul Mountain (1990) to The Other Shore (1986) and Dialogue & Rebuttal (1992), among others, director Liu Xiaoyi and the members of The Theatre Practice's newly-minted Practice Lab tumble through a series of Gao's works, picking up on fragments of story and fleeting images.

The work stars Felix Hung, Ric Liu, Isabella Chiam, Lv Lin Xuan, Neo Hai Bin, Zachary Ho, Edward Choy, Rei Poh and Fervyn Tan in an assortment of unnamed roles.

There is a harried fisherman (Neo), a bumbling salaryman-type of character (Poh) and even a fish (Tan). I doubt I could name every reference, but each of the nine characters on stage essentially undergoes iterations of the same journey.

There is mention of a story being told, of a great flood, in English and Mandarin, and later various characters declare to an invisible partner, in turn, a variation of: "I'm not leaving you. But..."

What follows is a site-specific work in the second-floor studio of Stamford Arts Centre with the bare bones of a narrative structure, where characters occasionally ignore each other or pretend not to notice the other's existence, or dive straight into over-engagement - chasing each other, tussling with each other, washing each other's feet.

There are also incessantly overdone references to water. Characters drink water, attempt to swim in it, are drenched in it, spit it out the window and are bathed in the ambient sound of waves.

Some moments are bizarrely humorous, including a call-and-response between two characters in English and Mandarin that is lost in translation. And an instructional on how to survive out at sea, in a storm or on a desert island is absurdly funny.

The creative team has a knack for strong imagery: rumpled heaps of clothing rise and fall, shadows are thrown against the wall, windows and doors open and close and flap in unison like pairs of wooden wings.

But between these moments of beauty and humour, the devised work meanders repetitively, leaping from one brief set-up to the next with abrupt references to Singapore and the Bugis people of the past, which I am inclined to think is more to do with the setting of the work and the perfect view of the Bugis+ shopping mall through the studio's windows.

Characters appear and disappear, dispensing rhetorical questions and wordplay. They exchange outfits and steal props frequently, inhabiting the lives of others despite their own very individual existences.

It is a style reminiscent, perhaps a little too much so, of the first two instalments of "11" (2012), named then for its 11 collaborators, which were both rooted in the oeuvre of Kuo Pao Kun, losing that spark of new discovery that occurred when those works were first staged.

In retrospect, the influence that Gao wields over director Liu is deeply apparent. Liu has a penchant for the existential and absurd, whether in a recent theatrical interpretation of the philosopher Zhuangzi and its brush with urban alienation, or mining Kuo Pao Kun's characters for identity crises.

The Practice Lab was set up as a platform for training and for experimental work, and so it is not surprising that this devised work uses Gao's writings as a springboard for eclectic musings and meditations. In this vein, the creative team appear to prefer toying with types and exploring the limits of their physical vocabulary and use of space.

11: Gao Xingjian Devised feels a lot more like playground than a play. Which is not always a bad thing but one might want to go prepared.

Book it

11: Gao Xingjian Devised 
Where: Stamford Arts Centre, 155 Waterloo Street
When: Till Nov 3, Tuesdays to Sundays, 8pm. No shows on Mondays
Admission: Pay what you want. Registration is required (call 6337-2525). No admission for children under six years old

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