play thirty seven: the spirits play

Kuo Pao Kun is often acknowledged as the pioneer of Singaporean theatre.
Kuo Pao Kun is often acknowledged as the pioneer of Singaporean theatre.

Author: Kuo Pao Kun

Published: 1998

Translator: C.J.W.L.Lee and Lee Chee Keng

Synopsis: Five Japanese spirits – a General, a Man, a Mother, a Girl and a Poet – recall their life experience in the Second World War. They are collectively thrown into turmoil in the process of recollection and recall, and in their wish to “make sense” of the war and its atrocities inflicted upon them, not only by the enemy but also by their own government and army.

What moved me: Many things moved me about this work, least of all the bolt of shock when I realised the freedom that comes with the representation of spirits onstage. Although they will ultimately by tied by the corporeality of the performer, it allows the easy transcendence of time and space, as well as other limitations that come with liveness.

As an example, this stage direction:

The series of questions shock the Mother, the Man, the Girl and the Poet, first into stillness; then the stillness turns into severe trembling – finally leading them to emit an almost animalistic cry – as if their inner souls have been stirred and a long-locked beast of the wild is finally unleashed. Instinctively, impulsively, they begin to undress, revealing bodies painted in primal, savage colours. They all look the same. Tattoos bear individual designs of a unified primitive style.

They show a lightness like spirits, an awesomeness like ghosts, an honesty like children, a savagery like beasts. And their personalities have been reduced to a basic commonality of primal instinct.

The devastating image of a woman looking for her husband amongst the many thousand skeletons and, failing to find him, committing a funeral ceremony for each collection of bones.

play thirty three: oh, the humanity and other good intentions

the hindenburg
the hindenburg

Author: Will Eno

Published: 2011

Synopsis: This collection of five short plays is explained best the Writer’s Note.

“The five short plays that make up Oh, The Humanity and other good intentions move toward feeling by way of thought, and toward gratitude by way of loss. These largely sane plays feature people alone or in pairs, or both, attempting to present themselves in the best light, or ultimately, desperately, in any light. Inadvertently vulnerable, or unconsciously callous, or both, the characters here realise that they are stuck in a body that will fail, and they try to put the best face on it. They are, at times, like all of us, unsure of who they are, what they want, and what exactly they’re on the way to. Is it a funeral or a christening? Is it both or neither? Though this might all seem hazy and conditional, it might all in fact be painstaking and absolute. This is life, for the Problematical Animal.”

Will Eno

What moved me: Unaccountably, I googled “Oh, the humanity” to find a picture to accompany this post and came across this. It is a recording of Herbert “Herb” Morrison, an American radio reporter, reporting on the Hindenburg disaster, a catastrophic fire that destroyed the LZ 129 Hindenburg zeppelin on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people. If you go to the link and listen to the recording, if you listen to Morrison unravel as he watches this devastation unfold before him, the framework for this play crashes to earth much like the zeppelin must have.

What is joyous, though, is that being aware of this context is totally unnecessary to encounter this play. I find a lot of comfort in this fact – that every time we encounter the world meaning will be made, regardless of whether that meaning was intended.

play thirty one: babyteeth

Milla and Moses.
Milla and Moses.

Author: Rita Kalnejais

Published: 2012

Synopsis: Teenage Milla is dying of cancer when she strikes up a friendship at Central Train Station with Moses, a junkie who helps stop her nose bleed. Their flowering relationship is watched with apprehension by her parents Anna and Henry, who have their own problems with substance abuse. Ultimately, he can pose no great threat in these final months, and we watch as those in Milla’s orbit try to deal with her imminent absence.

What moved me: strangely, in this deeply moving work it was the food that moved me most. Attention is drawn to the figs ripening on the windowsill so we notice that time is running out. There is a moment where Anna – this highly-strung, very-lost mother – chokes on sausage rind, and another where she peels a boiled egg very carefully before smashing it into her mouth whole. There’s something about the irrationality of grief – the arbitrariness of what it throws into relief – that strikes a chord with these brightly-lit moments.

play thirty: brothers wreck

The fantastic Ms Alberts.
The fantastic Ms Alberts.

Author: Jada Alberts

Published: 2014

Synopsis: A Darwin family try to deal with their grief as it ripples out from the most recent death in their community. Young Ruben, Joe, and Jarrod had a good thing going with their patched up fishing boat, the Front Yard Challenge. Disaster strikes even harder, then, when Joe decides to kill himself. Ruben is unable to shake his sense of responsibility for Joe’s decision and it takes a great coming together of his family to not let his grief chew him and spit him out as nothing but sad bones.

What moved me: I heard Chris Mead speak recently about the importance of understanding dramaturgy more dynamically than we currently do – that we should think of it as the membrane of a living organism rather than as a slab of meat that can be sectioned into plot, character, themes, etc.

Reading ‘Brothers Wreck’ immediately brought this image of an organism to mind. This play is a living, breathing beast, a working muscle pumping blood that is covered in a fine membrane of grief, grief which also shoots its roots (or tentacles) down into the beast itself. I had to wrestle with this text. I know Darwin – the sticky air, and the people who have had to deal with death every day of their lives. As I read, I cried, in sadness but also in wonder at how alive it was, at its vitality, at its youth and its sad-bone-weariness. Alberts made the strength of the “skin-ship system” of the play beat as steady as a heart and made me long to be part of something with such a close weave.

play twenty seven: cleansed

Sarah.
Sarah.

Author: Sarah Kane

Published: 1998

Synopsis: this is the first Kane that I have read and I find it difficult to articulate the explosion of images that it created within me. I’m going to fall back upon Mark Ravenhill’s fantastic Guardian article about his relationship with her as a writer, in which he said the following about Cleansed.

“[It] had been triggered in Kane’s imagination after reading Roland Barthes’s line that “being in love was like being in Auschwitz”. She had found his comparison morally repugnant but discovered that it stayed with her, and decided to write a play that explored her reactions to the idea. Cleansed draws a group of characters – a twin brother and sister, a gay couple, a peepshow dancer – into a concentration camp, overseen by the figure of Tinker, who is part Prospero, part Nazi commandant.”

I will note, though, that because of my understanding of Kane’s life I presumed that the framework was a psychiatric institution and that Tinker was the sadistic head doctor. I guess the beauty of theatre is that both of these understandings can rub shoulders comfortably.

What moved me: I have never read anything like this. I’ve never encountered a work that makes the idea of taboo seem superficial and unimportant. I’ve never read a text in which its theatricality exists on such a challenging scale: make a field of daffodils appear, or a giant sunflower; perform backyard transsexual surgery; have an army of rats carry human limbs offstage. What a dark dream to have to deliver.