In moulding the future of our nation, have we forgotten that our children are only human too? Using abstract, physical theatre, Split Productions’ latest piece Deaf is a bold attempt to bring up and discuss such issues with the education system and society as a whole, taking its name from how students’ cries for help too often fall on deaf ears.
Written by and directed by Darryl Lim, Deaf takes place in the strange 谁来的 Secondary School (bearing the eerie, dystopian motto To Love, To Frame, To Protect), where an enthusiastic trainee PE teacher (Lexus Quek) is due to start work. While there, he bonds with a student (Fadhil Daud), who soon enough finds himself in deep trouble. In his blind fumbling trying to make sense of all that has happened, he finds that he can neither rely on his strict principal (Mabel Yeo) nor senior teacher (Teresa Chen), and not even his own mother (Jasmine Low) to guide him to the right path.
The student’s tale is framed by an explicitly Samsonian narrative, to the point that Regina Spektor’s song ‘Samson’ is both played and sung in more than one scene. In this warped, Singaporean version of the Biblical tale, the student takes on the role of Samson, equating his strength with the length of his hair and eventually ‘imprisoned’ and punished for his misconduct. Strange as this may sound, it’s a narrative that works surprisingly well to base Deaf around, filling audiences who know the tale with dread for the inevitable doomed ending right from the very start, and focusing the play less on the end result and more on the journey leading up to it.
And what a kooky, darkly entertaining journey it is too. Darryl Lim’s somewhat absurd script is chock full of hilarious moments that poke fun at school culture, from the principal and senior teacher ‘bitching’ about their colleagues literally breaking out with a bad case of barking, while also keenly parodying recent real life events, such as a misprinted banner during the school’s open house, possibly a reference to the recent botched tagline during the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The PE teacher and student’s relationship is portrayed through the most extreme lengths of ‘bro culture’, with juvenile sounding mantras repeated over and over and an almost homoerotic comparison of their muscle growth, perhaps a hypermasculine attempt at overcompensating for fear of emasculation from the disapproving ‘tsks’ from the female cast members. The exaggerated humour in Deaf works to highlight the hypocrisies and ridiculousness of the everyday, raising doubt and questions about our own unconscious actions and routines.
But besides the satire, Deaf also disturbs with its corruption of innocent scenes and familiar songs. An unnerving scene between Jasmine Low and Teresa Chan, playing a mother and daughter respectively, comments on the culture of raising children in a highly competitive environment as Teresa becomes increasingly hysterical at being unable to colour within the lines, while Jasmine’s tone curls into a snarl. Popular Chinese ditty 對面的女孩看過來 becomes a furious cacophony of noise as the cast bombard Fadhil Daud with it as a makeshift form of punishment in a dark, nightclub-like room (complete with neon lights) in school, uncovering the sinister landscape of bureaucracy by defamiliarising a familiar environment.
Throughout the play, Ignatius Tan’s lighting was a highlight in every scene, appropriately illuminating each scene with the necessary amount of lighting to set the mood just right, from a dim spotlight that cast a grim shadow across Mabel Yeo’s face to red lighting set to the cast beating out a rhythm on their chairs. Hong Guofeng’s choreography also shone through to create interesting shapes and formations, such as the cast utilizing the wooden benches to form a kind of bridge for Jasmine Low to walk across in one scene.
Each of the cast members delivered on the requisite amount of seriousness while committing entirely to the weird world of the play. Mabel Yeo was a standout as a dominant principal capable of commanding attention with a single glance, yet showed vulnerability in her fear of losing that power, while Lexus Quek delivered in his role as an energetic, rookie teacher, still free from the burden of years of following school protocol and not entirely sure of the boundaries of a teacher’s role in a student’s life.
In Deaf, Split attempts to cover a wide spectrum of issues over the course of its one hour runtime, and as an abstract play, the meaning isn’t always entirely clear. One feels that Deaf might have done well to pinpoint their selection of issues to highlight in their performance, making for a tighter, focused production. Nonetheless, Deaf is a highly ambitious play that hits the nail on the head multiple times, proving Split Productions’ clarity of the ultimate message they want to deliver through the play. Split Productions is a company who knows exactly what they’re doing and hold plenty of promise, and are certainly one whose progress we’re looking forward to follow in the years to come.
Photo Credit: Chen Zhirong
Performance attended 6/8/17.