Huayi 2018: Cut Kafka! (咔嚓卡夫卡!) by Nine Years Theatre and T.H.E. Dance Company (Review)

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Nine Years Theatre and T.H.E. Dance Company take audiences on a nightmarish journey that explores the chaos within our minds.

When Nine Years Theatre and T.H.E. Dance Company come together, it’s almost certain that something incredibly out of this world will be born from the collaboration. And when you add a heavy dose of surrealism, you’d probably get something along the lines of Cut Kafka.

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Photo Credit: Bernie Ng

Joining forces for the very first time, Nelson Chia and Kuik Swee Boon head this experimental movement piece that responds to Czech writer Franz Kafka’s life and works. Kafka is best known for his haunting, surreal stories, and Adrian Tan has designed a space with lighting that would seem perfect for a Kafka adaptation, and likely, resembles the state of his mind, dark and pulsating with dim light, and even the occasional ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. With performers moving under cover of darkness and playing with shadows, the setup naturally lends itself to extraordinary transformations and strange occurrences. Nothing is quite as it seems, and even the simple prop of a table surprises when its legs are easily dismantled and transformed into a push-cart.

 

Cut Kafka itself is a mindbender of a performance.Loosely following the story of a writer attempting to come up with a new story, the audience is given the chance to get a glimpse into the chaotic mess that lives inside his very skull. These wild, manic thoughts manifest themselves in the form of the performers, who spend the duration of the piece attempting to undergo the fabled ’72 Transformations’ popularised by monkey king Sun Wukong.

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Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Familiar images from Kafka’s stories frequently make appearances in the highly abstract piece – we see human bodies distorted into various shapes, some resembling beetles (referring to The Metamorphosis), and acting as a metaphor for the way we awaken and attempt to force ourselves into daily grind. Billy Keohavong was a standout here, leading the onstage movement to find order amidst the chaos of metamorphoses. There’s a wry sense of humour at hand too – in facing writer’s block, the first line that comes to mind is the hackneyed opening line using ‘Feng He Ri Li’ (风和日丽), to the laughter of the audience. In another story, Hang Qian Chou plays a man desperate to undergo the 72 transformations after witnessing the miracle of metamorphosis from a ‘butterfly’ emerging from a giant tarpaulin cocoon, leading him to incur the ire and mockery of shadowy figures around him.

The inherent meaning of these stories reveals itself in a particularly poignant, visually arresting scene. A giant chair emerges from the wings, and the performers scramble to climb atop it, representing the desperate rat race that society has somehow pressurised us all to join and obsess over. The chair itself obscures our view of all the action that’s going on, the only thing apparent being the cacophony of noise and disturbance created by the cast, further emphasising the chaotic noise in our minds as each individual thought fights for attention, preventing us from seeing the big picture at times. And perhaps, learning to accept that we are not omnipotent or omniscient is part of the Kafka-esque experience in realising our own limits.

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Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Both Nelson Chia and Kuik Swee Boon have done well to mould and direct their cast to produce such a well-coordinated performance, a joy to watch as one seamless movement after another is produced. Neo Hai Bin and Brandon Khoo for example, perform an intense sequence body to body, and showcase an inherent trust in being able to support each other’s body as they move. In fact, the entire cast showcase feats of strength and flexibility, the sweat on their foreheads evident but the emotions on their faces raw as they channel this effort into stylised group poses, helped in part by Chong Li Chuan’s atmospheric, period-appropriate music and Loo An Ni’s costumes, which helped accentuate each performer’s characters.

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Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

By the time Cut Kafka ends, the tables are turned on us as the cast dons white lab coats, ‘dissecting’ the writer and lights shine onto the audience. Cut Kafka’s themes take on an immediacy when the question falls to us, as abstract choices flash across the screen, reminding us of the nightmare of society, just how exactly we plan on navigating these contradictions and restrictions. Do we run from society, or do we change to adapt to circumstances? Through the production’s movements, it’s thoughts like these that are activated, putting everything we know into perspective, and perhaps, helping us move that much closer to finding a kind of order within the chaos that is both within and without us.

Photos Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 1/3/18

Cut Kafka! plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of Huayi 2018 from 1st – 4th March. Tickets available from the Esplanade

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