I dedicate this review to my friend, YY, who was a friend to me, through a time of contemplation, struggle, sometimes unseen grief, but also a time of growth, of stability, and of familiarity.
Out of order comes chaos. And from chaos is order born. These are two sides of the same coin, yet often it is hard to conceive of one when in the throes of the other.
I remember the first time I was deeply introduced to the concept of war and the importance of peace, overstated as it is by the establishment and overarching autocracy our society endures within. It was while watching (and in the aftermath of) both Gundam Seed and Gundam Seed Destiny (its sequel). One famous line from one of its characters, Cagalli Yula Athha, goes something like this (translated from Japanese):
One kills because another is killed!
Then [they] get killed because he kills! How the hell is that going to bring us peace?
Crude though it is, it encapsulates the cycle of hate, conflict, and destruction that often persists in times of war.
No Particular Order shows little, if any, of such bloodshed. True, a civilian and a (perhaps not so) innocent soldier are shot, and so is another refugee of the conflict, but we as the audience are not privy to the wide, alarming displays of conflict and brutality that we often see in the news these days, perhaps more so, now that war and “justifiable” killing has even become a possibility in this day and age.
What it does show us are snippets of the small and often unseen interactions between the survivors, those who struggle, those who live in the everyday, of a conflict-stricken land; the conflict itself however, is not described to us as audience, save that we know an unfavourable ruler has come to power, and this ruler was overthrown and secret underground networks of guerrilla resistance fighters helped to make it happen. But is that more often than not the case? That the bigger conflict which caused the war in the first place matters not to lives of those whom it affects?
Although arguably, some conflicts could be worth the immense destruction and disruption to the lives of the everyday person, this story isn’t here to debate that. As stated in the synopsis, it asks the simple question, “is it empathy, or power, that endures?”
Clip #1: The Cashier
A casual shopper stocking up on groceries and interacting with a supermarket cashier seems almost unthinkable in the midst of a rampant conflict where evidently, everyday folk are keenly aware that danger lurks around every corner. But this was one of the many vignettes presented to the audience in No Particular Order, perhaps as a reminder to us that, even in war, people need groceries. Shrey Bhargava’s portrayal of the on-edge shopper paired with Karen Tan’s character, the seemingly emotionless cashier, gave audience a brief glance into how humans ostensibly still have the capacity to do life in the midst of having to be constantly on high-alert, fearing for one’s life.
Yet within this constant feeling of insecurity, the need to be heard and to be listened to persists. As Shrey’s character drones on about his day and his struggles, the nameless cashier responds at first only with silence, then with single words, then phrases, until finally, the scene ends with her saying, “You’ll be fine.” Does she feel numb to the struggles that the shopper relates to her, perhaps even having similar ones of her own? Or has she purely no interest in them, the constant need to be watchful and attentive in case of another life-threatening act of war having drained all the life and energy out of her, such that she can no longer have vested interest in the life of another human being within the wastes that the war has turned the environs into?
For me, the highlight of the scene came when the sound of police sirens drowned out all else in the scene, both the visuals and the conversation, and even after it had faded, still lingered like a bad taste. It brought back the familiar sirens I heard from outside my bedroom window in New York City, that famed land in which such sirens are a constant refrain, and also the police car sirens of London, from which I had recently returned.
Clip #2: The Comfort
“Chanting, lamenting, crying, prayer, nonsense”
I don’t remember from which part of a scene these words came from, but I do remember them striking a chord within me as they embodied not just physical acts that, when pushed to the brink and to the very limits of what the human entity can endure, we succumb to, but also states of mind and states of emotion.
We often associate these manifestations of emotions with those still going through conflict and chaos, but what of the aftermath? When war is all said and done (which seems hard to even imagine), how do both the onlookers and those drawn into the conflict, willingly or unwillingly, deal with the fallout?
As audience and spectators to characters living out lives in the aftermath of a conflict, and dealing with it, sometimes even profiting from the memory of such an experience, how do we react to the display of people, and lives, attempting to “do life” after a long drawn-out and emotionally/mentally/physically taxing ordeal?
Jennifer Doyle in Chapter 1 of her book “Hold It Against Me” speaks about her reaction (or in fact, avoidance of having a reaction) to “work engaged with more ordinary forms of relational intimacy, for things that ‘feel’ like life and therefore cut too close.”
Is the opposite then happening with the artmaker, who meets his old friend surrounded by works of art that emerged from his experiences and contact with the aftermath of conflict? Who, perhaps, in an effort to divest himself of the memories of battle and destruction, immortalises them into art, in an attempt to distance himself from these memories much like how in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, memories can be removed from each person by magic?
If so, it is interesting then how the character still chooses to meet an old acquaintance surrounded by his art, reminders of a dark time in his life. Perhaps, like many of us, we share a double-edged relationship with the memory of trauma and hurt; we wish to forget them, yet sometimes still wish to keep them within our hearts.
Or is it simply his means of turning a traumatic time from his life into something that would at least bring some form of good to him, for all the bad he has experienced, as his old friend accuses him of?
Clip #3: Condescension
One of the vignettes in No Particular Order that perhaps seemed to resonate the most with the audience in which I sat (based on badly stifled laughs and snorts of derison that I heard, anyway) was where an educator (Shrey Bhargava) approaches his superior, a curriculum planner and clear bureaucrat (Karen Tan), about the prospect of including some forms of contentious poetry into his classroom curriculum. I attach here some snippets of the conversation between both individuals which may seem familiar to the average Singaporean theatre-goer (or even just Singaporean):
“how is it right to talk about our leaders in this way?”
“peace is fragile… that is the sentiment upstairs”
Perhaps it matters less that such words (much less sentiments) are familiar to those who have come into contact with authority figures in the education sector locally. Or that such sentiment is familiar with any who work in larger, corporate, and organisational structures that have ties to the ruling government. What struck me the most, however, was the transition from bureaucratic conversational deflection, which the bureaucrat began her exchange with, to the change in tone and attitude nearing the scene’s conclusion, in which the bureaucrat not-so-subtly accuses the educator of having more-than-friendly relations with the poet whose writings the educator is attempting to introduce to the classroom.
Interestingly enough, it made me wonder if, after conversational formalities have been exhausted as a weapon of deflection by the autocracy (e.g. the constant reference to and refrain of “upstairs”), and upon the realisation that such conventional modes of rebuffing proposals and propositions from the proletariat are no longer working, are personal attacks and attacks on character then the go-to of authority figures?
In essence, Joel Tan’s writing was both cutting and bone-chilling; the notes of viscerality and how, despite the setting, place, and time of the overarching conflict not being stated, an audience could collectively feel specific emotions in reaction to specific displays of violence being enacted yet also quietly contemplate the larger and more abstract questions surrounding conflict and disorder, was a testament to writing that transcends not only borders but also time.
I was especially appreciative of Lee Yew Jin’s (Ctrl Fre@k) use of sirens and anxiety-inducing transition music to induce, simulate and maintain a heightened sense of alarm and the feeling of needing to be constantly on-the-lookout within the audience, thus further catapulting and situating the audience better into the world of No Particular Order.
This deeply convoluted reflection would be incomplete without mentioning YY’s masterful direction in setting up the space and highlighting both physical and social boundaries between characters where it matters, but yet leaving room for audience members to quietly (or not) contemplate the fragile yet significant moments of intimacy where conflict is occasionally absent, especially in moments where they matter as well.
Arielle Jasmine van Zuijlen was especially noteworthy in her (to me) outstanding ability to portray a wide-variety of roles, and being able to acutely give life to a myriad of (and sometimes very different) lives, despite being much younger than her fellow peers.
All of these elements condense into a multiplicitous display of the complexities involved in large-scale conflict — not those of the larger powers-that-be, but those of the people who still need to live lives despite the gunshots and destroyed homes and deaths that happen all around them.
No Particular Order was the first-year production directed by Sim Yan Ying “YY” as part of The Esplanade Co Ltd’s TRIP programme, which aims to provide early-career directors with the opportunity to direct their own productions and showcase their work at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Written by Joel Tan, it was first staged in London’s Theatre503, and was shortlisted for the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award as well as the 2022 George Devine Award. This performance marked its Singapore premiere. It ran from 1st to 2nd April 2023, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
For more information, refer to the progamme booklet here.