Meditation on time in surgery

Creating Decimal Points 810 was a matter of life and death for independent producer Neo Kim Seng, 50, quite literally. He had a different production in mind when first commissioned by Cake Theatrical Productions to create a work last year.

But that changed when he underwent heart surgery nearly a year ago for a mitral valve prolapse, one of the causes of a heart murmur. One of the valves in his heart was faulty, leading to a leakage of blood flowing in the wrong direction.

This life-changing event prompted him to do research on his surgery.

He tells Life!: "When I decided to go for surgery, I thought, why not take this personal experience and try and turn it into some kind of performance.

"I'd read that some people had hallucinations when they were under general anaesthesia. I was hoping that would happen to me, but unfortunately, I couldn't remember anything. I woke up 13½ hours later, which is the 810 minutes in the title, the time I was unconscious."

The intimate piece will run at The Substation Theatre this Friday and Saturday, featuring a cast of nine actors, including John Cheah and Yazid Jalil, who worked closely with him to devise certain segments of the work.

Neo, who has worked extensively in the industry as a programmer and producer, is collaborating with dancer- choreographer Joavien Ng for the movement portion of the performance. Artist Vincent Leow is handling the visual design.

While 810 is a meditation on time spent in surgery, where Neo's life hung in the balance, it also wrestles with the idea of memory, and he presents this by paying tribute to theatre practitioners who have influenced and inspired him, including Zai Kuning and the late William Teo and Christina Sergeant.

Neo has re-imagined certain interactions with these practitioners and there are nods to actual events and people.

But he is confident the material will stay relevant to an audience unfamiliar with these references.

"There's fact, fiction and fantasy. It's up to you to pick up which is the real stuff, which are recreated memories and it's up to you to reinterpret them in your own way," he says.

810 is part of Cake Theatrical Productions' Decimal Points series, a varied line-up of art and performance experiments helmed by artists who are not often seen on stage.

Last September, the first round of the Decimal Points series concluded with a colourful celebration of two years of work by Cake's associate artists, including multimedia artist and film-maker Brian Gothong Tan, composer and sound designer Philip Tan, designer David Lee and performance artist Rizman Putra.

This second round, presented in partnership with The Substation, will also feature lighting designer Andy Lim and design collective Neon Tights.

Cake's founder Natalie Hennedige says Decimal Points will continue for as long as it can, in some shape or form: "It has been a vital arm of Cake and continues to be, deeply encompassing our beliefs of being bold and artistically adventurous."

Of 810, she adds: "In one deeply poignant segment of the show, Kim Seng becomes a conduit for past artistic giants such as William Teo and Christina Sergeant. This is a rare insight for audiences and emphasises the transience in art and life."

Neo's brush with mortality also led him to marvel at the complexity of the human body. Before his surgery, he watched a video about it and saw how the surgeons would cut through his sternum and open up his heart. In fact, his heart stopped for about two hours as they put him on a heart-lung machine.

He says: "It was actually a very scary thought at first. But later on when I thought about it, it was actually quite beautiful. The human body is so amazing. After going through all this trauma - they cut up your muscles, they cut up your bone and sew it up again - the human body can survive and grow back.

"So that's life, you see. And since Cake gave me this opportunity to do the show, I wanted to be alive to do it."

This article was published on April 23 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.