Review: The Vault: Rear View Mirrors by NUS Theatre Studies TS3103 Theatre Lab students (2021/22) [or “This Hurts”]

Photo credit: Centre 42

visceral /ˈvɪs(ə)r(ə)l/

adjective: visceral

  1. relating to the viscera.
  2. relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.

(from Oxford Languages by Google)

Unsurprisingly, it was the dramaturg of this particular show that impressed upon me one of the greatest truths that I believe help suspend my disbelief in the presence of a great theatrical work: “I am not a just a human being, but a human doing.”

Visceral.

What comes to mind when you see/hear this word?

Is it the tearing of flesh?

or the wellspring of tears in your eyes?

Or maybe nothing? Because the word isn’t something you recognise. That’s all it simply is: a word.

Visceral was the word that hung like a shadow over my head and over my heart even after having ruminated upon this ensemble piece by three separate groups from NUS’s Theatre Studies programme for two whole days.

And because of this shadow, I should point out that what follows after this brief forray into what visceral means to me does not (to me) qualify as a review. Rather, it explores what and how I reflect about a theatrical response after all attempts to elucidate and articulate my thoughts in a proper, structured, and “presentable” fashion have been thrown out the window.

Place for No One

In contrast to the displacement that the group desired to reflect and respond to, I felt most at home in being a spectator to the self-presentation of each’s character’s story in Place for No One. Though I didn’t appreciate the use of the “rehearsal-within-a-play” format (as the significance of such a form didn’t quite reveal itself to me) the level of connection which I felt to each character’s dramatic portrayal of their lived experiences did indeed eviscerate my heart, to the point where I could literally feel the sorrow and despair of each character’s moments of displacement.

The connection between the character played by Sheryl Wong, in particular, with their interchanging lines of English and Mandarin, in fact crushed me the most as someone who relates to feeling that the language I use most in daily life often times is insufficient to convey the depth of my emotion, and indeed my physical response to the lived experience of life. Using the interruptions of lyrical Mandarin idioms to interrupt her passage of English, along with Sheryl’s skill at embodying the intensity of her character’s conflicting emotions, paid off beautifully, and made me feel as if I was the one feeling trapped by the confines of English’s horrific grammatical structure much as her character was.

This same skill is replicated by the group as a whole, and for me, as someone who feels a sense of constant displacement no matter which stage of life I have come to, was what differentiated it from the other two; ironically, to displace your audience necessitates you as an actor (or you, as an ensemble) to first connect with their feelings at the deepest level of experience, before allowing them to feel the displacement which you wish to convey.

The Mama Medallion

Much as my heart was deeply touched by the depth of Sheryl Wong’s emotional connection and how it ached my heart, I was similarly skewered emotionally by the skilful and spine-chilling portrayal of a “tiger mum” by Nicole Tong, Celine Liew and Kennice Foo. The sacrifice of a mother, usually only represented in the little acts of service done within the confines of a day-to-day family life, was brought to the forefront by the ensemble’s use of symbolism near the end to represent the mother who was crowned the “victor” for her supposed “sacrifice”. Allegedly, her “sacrifice” is also the reason we don’t see her on stage despite her receving the “Mama Medallion”.

Chee Jin Ming’s iconic and admittedly slightly on-the-nose line of “If you want to do improvisation, go do theatre” ticked all the boxes and tickled me pink at its not-so-subtle jibe at the lack of sustainability, financial or otherwise, which most, if not all, Singapore theatre practitioners face in attempting to carve out a career for themselves.

20/20

20/20 initially felt to me a lot like an indulgent abstract art installation, one that was typically inaccessible and not understandable to the general public. You know, the kind that often gets put on display in white-cube museums, with fancy and glitzy receptions with pencil-thin glasses of champagne.

But perhaps 20/20’s disturbingly alienating portrayal of the ensemble’s response to Chang & Eng was exactly its point: does viewing our past indeed give us the much-needed hindsight we need to know what to do for the future? Georgia Sim’s embodiment of the emerging artist C.E. brought to mind how Chang and Eng as brothers might have felt in their later years, and indeed how they might have looked back on the travails of their youth as they lay ageing in North Carolina.

The Vault: Rear View Mirrors comprised three devised performances [Place for No One; The Mama Medallion; 20/20] by NUS Theatre Studies students from the module TS3103 [Theatre Lab] as a response to Chang & Eng: The Musical.

First staged in 1997 by ACTION Theatre, Chang & Eng: The Musical is based on the lives of the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined at birth and destined to spend every moment of their lives together. The musical traces the story of the twins’ childhood, marriage and their dreams of living separately.

The Vault: Rear View Mirrors was presented at the Black Box, 42 Waterloo Street, on 8 April at both 2.30 and 7.30pm respectively. Exploring and responding to the themes, issues, and dramaturgy of Chang and Eng: The Musical, Rear View Mirrors led audience on a journey to discover what was reflected, refracted, or remembered looking through rear view mirrors.

For more information on The Vault: Rear View Mirrors, you may visit https://www.centre42.sg/residencies/the-vault-residency/12762/the-vault-rear-view-mirrors/.

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Philippe Pang

Philippe Pang

A communicator at heart; a manager at hand, but always the speaker of the truth for those who cannot.