How do you remember a life? In 1999, The Necessary Stage presented Completely With/Out Character, where Singapore’s first openly HIV-positive man, Paddy Chew, performed a true, heartfelt monologue about his life, unfortunately passing away a few months after the end of the production.
For those who have never heard of Paddy Chew however, his story remains unknown to them, and the chance to feel and experience it in person has passed. Performance artist Loo Zihan, notoriously known for archival works such as Cane (2012), in which he recreated performance artist Josef Cane’s controversial 1994 performance of Brother Cane, has decided to help Paddy live on and continue telling his story with With/Out.
First presented at the 2015 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, With/Out features actress Janice Koh as she performs the original Paddy Chew monologue. There are no tricks or illusions here – Koh isn’t dressed as Paddy, but is simply herself, using only her facial expressions , body language and voice to convey the same emotions and feelings from Paddy all those years ago. Breaking new ground for theatre, audience members are given headphones and can toggle between three audio channels during the performance, in which they are given free reign to wander around the space, because Singapore is a democratic country so we are given choices as to what to do. Lining up with the video feed on screens surrounding her, one channel presents the original Paddy Chew monologue from archival footage, another Janice Koh’s voice as she performs live, and the last one a combination of the two, whose screen displays neither Paddy nor Janice, but simply scenes and photos relating to the content of the monologue.
The inevitable question one would ask is why Janice Koh? Loo Zihan explained that he wanted to take the issue beyond simply recreating and re-presenting Paddy Chew as he was; and that HIV was not a gender specific issue, broadening the scope and widening people’s perspectives on the issue. It helps that Janice Koh is a strong, dedicated and disciplined woman, an ex-Arts NMP and a mother who’s had plenty of life experience, a characteristic that was particularly important for a script like this. And it’s easy to see that Janice Koh was indeed the right choice. From the moment she speaks, there’s an instant connection with the audience, and she brings something new to the table while paying respect to the original performance, which the audience can easily see how this new one builds on the old to continue the all important conversation about HIV and its stigmatisation in society.
But With/Out isn’t just about HIV. It’s also a celebration of Paddy’s life, and takes audience members on a roller coaster of emotions, telling us how he got to where he was, and all the ups and downs of his life. There’s a genuine earnestness to his story, and easily endears us to this man who, prior to tonight, was more or less a complete stranger to us. In between the performance, Janice would break character and talk about Paddy as herself, commenting on how brave he was for coming out as a gay, HIV positive man in an even more conservative time than today, where it still remains a controversial and contentious issue. By understanding that this was such a rare and potentially stigmatising action for Paddy to do, there’s a rawness and realness to the performance and the words spoken, and Janice respects the man for doing it, looking wistfully at the screen with his original performance, and an emotional silence that spoke volumes reverberated through the audience. Throughout the performance, Janice manages to mine and re-embody the emotions Paddy showed onstage in 1999 to the stage today, and this helped amplify the performance and make it accessible to a modern day audience.
Janice also conveys her research process at one point, explaining how she emulated Paddy himself and went to test coffins. The shops she approached mostly rejected her, until on finally said ok, and she recalls her heart thumping at the prospect of it. As she visited the shop and lay inside the coffin, she asked them to shut the lid, and a deep realization of how much she feared death dawned on her. It was almost like tempting fate to shut herself in the coffin, and she commented that Paddy really had balls to do that same thing.
Even during the Q&A later on, the screens continued to display footage from Paddy Chew’s performance, playing his Q&A session from 1999, which audience members could similarly tune in to on their headphones. At the end of it all, audience members were invited to take part in a candlelight memorial for Paddy, similar to the one Paddy attended himself years ago, perhaps prescient of his own death several months later. This was an extremely affecting moment, and some members of the audience had evidently been through the process before, and it was a particularly significant gesture, as candlelight memorials are often used to remember those who’ve been lost to AIDs. This was a period of complete solemn silence, and with the candles as the only light source in the entire theatre flickering away, showed how precious and delicate life could be.
Paddy’s legacy is immense, with Action for Aids even naming their fund the Paddy Chew Healthcare Fund, which helps patients with HIV cope a little better with life. WIth/Out lets the Paddy Chew story live on while respecting its source material, letting it spread to audiences even today, and emphasising the ongoing stigma of HIV positive people and how we should embrace and help instead of shun. Loo Zihan and Janice Koh have crafted a respectful and important piece of performance art, ensuring that it remains a topic that is spoken about and not swept under the rug, in a time where to speak about HIV and AIDs is still considered taboo by many. Even as medication has become more common, the conversation must remain open, and if Paddy were alive today, would probably have been very happy to see the way his monologue has been handled and the way his life remembered.
Performance attended on 23/3/17.
With/Out plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 26 March. Tickets available here.
Photo Credit: Esplanade and Tuckys Photography