There exists great anxiety about the power of art to comment on and represent real human tragedy - especially when that tragedy is recent and has not yet been turned by the passage of time into history. Art is artisanal and artificial: it is created by human minds with the intention to exaggerate, to abstract, to narrate; its purpose is to make stories with morals out of random, amoral events. And when you apply art to tragedy, it often looks like it is telling lies in the face of the dead, or that its creators are seeking public glory out of private grief. It looks like exploitation.
The anxiety is exacerbated when the chronicler of a tragedy did not experience the tragedy himself: when he is creating art out of lives he did not live. This makes it very easy to accuse him of opportunism or, even if one does not accuse, the suspicion of opportunism leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, especially when the artist stands to make money out of his creation.
But it is a shame that this anxiety exists because art can help. The lies it tells are in the service of a greater truth. People have always told stories as a means of understanding themselves and the world. It is how we convince ourselves that our seemingly arbitrary lives are meaningful; it is one of the ways we deal with loss.
Still, any artist who chooses to represent a recent tragedy would be politic to wield his art lightly - to avoid hyperbole, metaphor and abstraction - and to focus on capturing unadorned truth almost journalistically.
A part of me protests at this, saying that theatre should be used to express human tragedy theatrically and dramatically, that it should not be impotent in the face of real disaster. But another part of me recognises that should theatre fail in this, the resultant melodrama would be utterly abhorrent. So perhaps it is wiser to keep things simple and choose documentation over interpretation and embellishment.
And this simple path is the one taken by The Necessary Stage's Boxing Day: The Tsunami Project. The company employed the Verbatim Theatre method, which relies on accurate transcripts of interviews, to present the words of actual survivors of the tsunami as they spoke them. Writer Haresh Sharma made no attempt to forge a narrative out of the disparate monologues that resulted, merely editing them and arranging them as might the producer of a TV news special, so much of the production was simply a series of verbal snapshots, unconnected save by what they all discussed.
This put great pressure on the actors: they had to be as real as are the real people you see being interviewed on TV. That's hard enough as it is, but the difficulty was increased by the actors' having to transmit their performances to a four-hundred-seater auditorium, which ran the risk of making their performances seem exaggerated and impersonal. Fortunately, the cast managed very well indeed. Malaysian actor Nam Ron and Thai actress Jarunun Phantachat were particularly strong in this respect. They told their stories with unforced earnestness and a total lack of adornment, and they made it seem like they were speaking to you, personally, and no one else. It was very hard to remember they were acting.
Aidli "Alin" Mosbit was also surprisingly good at this. Too often in the past, Alin has acted self-consciously, as if her performances are a shiny shell you'd have to crack to get to the person below or a clown suit she puts on for the kiddies. But here she dropped her defences and stopped "performing", which allowed her humanity to show through and generated more sympathy than could any amount of presentational acting.
Yeo Yann Yann and Natalie Hennedige were slightly less real and slightly more perceptibly acting, though in neither case was it a problem. Yeo played her characters - a middle-aged Singaporean volunteer and a Penang man - as natural storytellers, themselves excited by the tales they had to tell. This worked because neither of her characters had experienced the great losses that some of the others had, so her verve and eagerness felt natural and infectious rather than off-putting and superimposed. Hennedige, on the other hand, played a man who had suffered: a museum curator whose life and livelihood had been destroyed, yet who remained too proud of his family's reputation to ask for the help he sorely needed. It felt like Hennedige had created this character rather than lived it - her speech rhythms were not quite as fluent as they might have been, and it seemed as though, unlike some of the others, she had learned her lines off the page. But the fire she had used to forge the character still burned with fierce anger, and gave her performance a powerful impact. She was particularly strong in silence, when a video camera close-up revealed that her frame could barely contain the hurt within it.
And, completing the acting ensemble, Thai actor Pradit Prasartthong went the other way from Hennedige, deflecting attention from himself and becoming almost part of the background, which gave his roles a certain poignancy.
But Boxing Day was not entirely dictated by the Verbatim Method. Sharma and director Alvin Tan had chosen to infuse more explicitly theatrical elements into the play that commented on the survivors' monologues or showed sides of them that would otherwise remain unseen. And it was these threads of art that wove colour into an otherwise monochrome tapestry of truth.
My favourite scene showed much of the ensemble typing furiously on laptops while Yeo (the Penang man) and Hennedige (the museum curator) alternately delivered their monologues. The words the ensemble actors were typing appeared on a wide screen above the stage. It seemed that they were journalists, taking down the survivors' accounts for publication in their newspapers. But what the journalists wrote was not a simple transcript of the interviews. They interrupted themselves to think of witty headlines or to ask themselves rhetorical questions about the interviewees. They misinterpreted what they were hearing (they became convinced, for example, that the Penang man's Peranakan slippers were somehow important). They seemed more interested in their story than in the truth.
This was a brave and fascinating directorial decision. It was brave because one could not help comparing the journalists to the theatre company staging this play: how much of what they had heard from survivors could The Necessary Stage truly understand and capture? How much were they concerned about the story they wanted to tell at the expense of the truth? And it was fascinating because it called into question not just the politics of staging this production, but also the value of journalism, of news. "If journalists are going to get the stories wrong anyway," the scene asks, "then why even bother?" But simply by continuing with its reconstructed monologues, with its quiet exercise in necessarily compromised truth, the play answers all these questions. We feel by the end that we do know something real about what happened in the tsunami, even though our knowledge cannot be perfect; and we feel that we must strive to know more.
Another touch of art came in one of the few traditional theatrical scenes in the play, by which I mean that the characters spoke to each other and there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Hennedige played an English-speaking journalist attempting to interview a Thai-speaking survivor (Phantachat) with the assistance of a bilingual Thai government official (Prasartthong). Except that the official seemed to be hindering rather than helping the journalist: he condensed the survivor's lengthy replies into monosyllabic answers and he focused almost exclusively on how pleased she was at the government's efforts to help her get back on her feet. The survivor's responses were, for once, not subtitled into English, so we in the audience shared the journalist's frustration at not being able to understand what was said and at receiving a transparently false translation of it. At the end of the scene, the journalist is left alone with the survivor and, when she is unable to comprehend anything the survivor says, the only thing she can think of is to hand over her business card. The actors play the moment beautifully: Hennedige, giving the card, is painfully aware of the inadequacy of the gesture but knows she needs to reach out; Phantachat, receiving the card, does not even know what it is. Again, we feel the impossibility of connecting with another culture or with experiences alien to us. And yet we know we must continue to try to connect, no matter how futile the attempt.
Although the vast majority of the production relied on the spoken word, it did not neglect its visuals. Vincent Lim's set - wide platforms mounted on castors - managed to look makeshift while actually being extremely solid, and was perfect for portraying damaged villages or hastily erected food-distribution centres. It was also used to striking effect to portray the sea. At one point, one of the platforms was invisibly pushed back and forth, mimicking the bobbing of a fishing boat on calm waters; and at another point, all the platforms were shoved forcefully and chaotically around the stage by a screaming cast, capturing the violence of the tsunami. The contrast between the calm and the storm was total.
The play ended with a final, powerful image: the cast members slowly walked on to the candlelit stage and stuck copies of apparently authentic missing persons posters on the walls of the set platforms. Then, just as slowly, the actors left the still-dimmed stage and did not return for a curtain call. The audience waited for a long time, looking at these pictures of people who are almost certainly dead but whose families still await them, before eventually leaving. It was the perfect non-ending to the play, a recognition that the tsunami tragedy is not yet over: there is still loss, still need, still hope, and there is still the reliance of the human soul.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /