There’s always something innately exciting about watching a collaborative devised work. Providing fertile ground for seeding new ideas and pushing collaborators beyond their creative comfort zones, there was plenty of hype surrounding The Necessary Stage’s latest collaboration, this time with young Japanese theatre company HANCHU-YUEI with their newest work: Sanctuary.
Ending off their 30th Anniversary season with Sanctuary in many ways feels appropriate for TNS. The eponymous title referring to a futuristic social media platform in which users completely immerse themselves in a virtual world, Sanctuary is rife with familiar concerns of TNS’ previous works, but with HANCHU-YUEI’s input feels at times, electrifyingly fresh and diving deep into new, unexplored territory, simultaneously drawing from their past strengths while boldly hurtling towards the future. No stranger to the digital realm themselves, HANCHU-YUEI in fact first came to attention with their seminal play Yojo X in 2013, and established themselves as keenly able to represent the e-mail/texting addicted new generation through theatre.
Sanctuary marks one of TNS’ most forward thinking plays yet as it delves straight into a fictitious, speculative future where more than ever, the outside world has embraced conflict and the only refuge left is the comforts of cyberspace. As Sanctuary opens, audience members are immediately greeted by a computerized voice and 8-bit style video, walking them through Sanctuary’s global presence and its mechanisms. Of particular note is the S.P.Y. system it employs, where users utilize near-futuristic technology to completely map their physical bodies into the digital world of Sanctuary, while completely sacrificing their personal data to the system, and subjecting their every online activity to constant surveillance, from subconscious thoughts to entire histories. Having immersed the audience completely into Sanctuary, we are then introduced, in time, to several users of the channel, as they stream videos and implore us to follow their lives and understand their motivations for flocking to Sanctuary.
For many of these users, Sanctuary is a haven, a form of refuge and escapist fantasy from the real world where they draw strength and meaning from a greater online presence. Crocodile Ricky (Sachiro Nomoto, in a spirited performance perfectly encapsulating his character’s physicality and restless energy), for example, finds solace in the 24 minutes a day he gets to spend online streaming the 1986 film Crocodile Dundee, a far cry from his bleak, unhappy reality. For others, such as fortune teller ‘Mademoiselle’ Meg (Mikie Tanaka), one never quite feels comfortable enough in the digital world under constant watch, and set to a string of frustrated texts and emoticons, Tanaka performs what feels like an angry, rebellious dance in protest of the new normal, succinctly summing up her inner thoughts through movement alone.
Meanwhile, android personal assistant Mac (Kan Fukuhara) suffers the double-edge of social media, facing cyberbullying and an initially low number of followers. There is a familiar truth that rings out as Kan declares ‘My followers are my faith’ to an unconvinced Tracy (Ellison Tan Yuyang), and we’re reminded of the widespread phenomena of social media obsession, counting happiness in followers and likes. Later on, we see their interaction develop into one of missed connections, and issues relating to artificial intelligence and the ability to feel and form genuine relationships are brought up in the ensuing scenes. For all his robotic nature, Kan delivers a truly emotional performance as he desperately attempts to reach out to Ellison Tan’s Tracy, while Ellison shines in her monologues, deliberately closing herself off from interaction despite her presence on Sanctuary, which becomes a safe space away from the perils of real life for her.
In a sense, the world of Sanctuary ends up a playground for playwrights Haresh Sharma and Suguru Yamamoto as a testing ground for a plethora of ideas surrounding futurism and technological advancements in the digital world. Some of these issues already exist in our current time, such as the relinquishing of personal data and cyberbullying, while others, such as complete migration of mind and body to a digital realm, feel like they could well happen in the not too distant future. Audrey Luo, for example, in recording a series of ‘legacy’ video messages for her children, evokes strong emotions from the unequivocal despair emanating from her expression alone, wondering if her digital presence truly can substitute for a physical absence as she repeats singing happy birthday to each of her children in an increasingly absurd, depressing video sequence.
The non-linear and almost metaphysical way language is used in the script works to create mood rather than communicate meaning directly to the audience. Language, for example, is consciously utilized to varying effect, and Yazid Jalil, as one of Sanctuary’s foremost social media influencers, has one of the most powerful speeches in the entire play. Taking on a leadership role towards the end, Yazid’s character Merah abruptly switches his spoken language from English to the deeper, sonorous language of Arabic, ushering Sanctuary’s users to welcome the dawn of a new age and fully embrace all that the platform encompasses. Yazid handles this delivery with aplomb, and there was a collective shiver as we felt the history and grandeur of the language imbue the speech with ancient wisdom.
As wide and diverse as these ideas are, one wishes that Sanctuary could have gone on a little longer and more in-depth into some of these characters’ backstories, which at times felt too brief, leaving viewers hungry for more insight into this vast but fleeting universe TNS and HANCHU-YUEI have created. That being said, Sanctuary also work partially because of its determination to show glimpses of its world, but never completely reveal its inner workings. Fumi Kumakawa plays a blind girl always equipped with her trusty ukulele, singing a quaint, off-kilter song about non-living objects being naked, while Audrey Luo repeatedly insists that she used to be the ocean.
One would classify Sanctuary as the kind of performance that works better when viewed as loose interpretation rather than literal, and manages to create a fantastic hypothetical yet plausible world perched between becoming an Avalon-like kingdom of salvation, or potentially falling from grace, a dystopia where Big Brother is always watching and locking out non-believers. Neither TNS nor HANCHU-YUEI ever clearly state which side of the fence they’re leaning on with Sanctuary, instead leaving the final reading purely up to audience members as characters both lament and worship Sanctuary itself.
Sanctuary also owes much of its success to its simple yet effective design elements. Set designer Vincent Lim utilizes sliding screen doors at the back of the stage as both projection screen and a means to show cast members as almost spectral being walking behind as videos played onscreen. These sliding doors were also reminiscent of Japanese shoji doors, fitting in nicely with the aesthetic of Sanctuary’s two tier centrepiece, a mobile hollow square panel fitted with lights used as a video ‘screen’ for characters to occupy and ascend, while also bringing to mind Itsukushima Shrine’s famous ‘floating’ torii gate. The videos designed for the production felt appropriately tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at Internet culture, while sound designer Bani Haykal provided live music, as he coded music sequences and commands on a Macbook in real time, before performing a catchy yet dark song on a ukulele. Together, the meeting of these traditional and modern aesthetics worked to create a fascinatingly atemporal world perfectly suited for Sanctuary’s virtual reality.
Ultimately, Sanctuary is a visually impressive and daring collaborative work that challenged both TNS and HANCHU-YUEI, birthing some truly thought-provoking concepts brought to life via innovative theatre techniques and bringing out some of TNS’ most exciting new ideas to date. The future we see in Sanctuary is etched out in intrusive advertisements and pompous influencers, possessing a sliver of darkness. Yet this is a future that is undeniably forward thinking and a distinct possibility in the real world. Even as they hit 30, Sanctuary is a promising step forward for TNS, giving audiences a hint of much more to come as they watch the tip of their creative iceberg continue to reveal itself through this production, and as they approach their 2018 season, we’re convinced that they’ll continue to remain one of the cornerstones of the local theatre scene far into the future.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Performance attended 1/11/17
Sanctuary plays at The Necessary Stage Black Box from 1st – 12th November. Only tickets for 9th November are currently still available, and can be purchased from SISTIC
Sanctuary will then be travelling to Yokohama, Japan and plays at Wakabacho Wharf 1 from 30th November – 2nd December. Tickets to be released soon on the Wakabacho Wharf website