Liu Xiaoyi, in his director’s message for Einstein in the Carpark, poses to the late renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein a litany of 33 questions, among them such pithy existential ones as:
“What do you think is the most important question of all?”
“How do I find simplicity in confusion?”
“Why do so many people know you, but so few people understand you?”
This thought experiment is rhetorical yet introspective in the face of Liu’s novel experiential production, which has been commissioned by the Esplanade for this year’s Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts. The stage is the stuffy Esplanade Basement 2 carpark, which Liu describes as having found to be “immensely oppressive, yet at the same time intensely lonesome” when he walked through it last year. Einstein in the Carpark is also Huayi’s first site-specific theatre performance in its 16 years.
Theatregoers, who are free to roam around the carpark during the 1 hour 40 minute performance, are given a bottle of mineral water and a foldable fan on their arrival. They are also handed a map of the carpark and some brief ground rules on interacting with the actors and props and to keep a look out for vehicles as the carpark remains operational during the show.
The audience is also told upfront not to expect any semblance of a narrative. It somewhat seems like Liu had wanted to channel much of Einstein’s kinesthetic imagination and genius into a production that looks, on the surface, to be an ode to the intellectual who gave the world the theory of relativity and the equation E=mc2.
Einstein visited Asia in 1922 – with stops in Singapore and Shanghai – and had also been a musical prodigy adept at both the piano and the violin. And in Einstein In The Carpark, this comes to life as East meets West, through a malleable time-space continuum that seems to flit between past and present.
It didn’t feel so much as acting for the two actors – Singapore’s George Chan, dubbed the “Prince of Musicals”, and Shanghai native Zhang Jun, dubbed the “Prince of Kunqu” – whom were instrumental in carrying the performance. Both men were essentially doing what they do best, with Chan’s Western musical roots manifesting in several numbers and Zhang’s Chinese opera background in others. (Kunqu refers to one of many styles of Chinese opera that is identified by delicate movements and harmony in song and dance). Yet they were laudable in never once breaking from their roles in spite of the numerous distractions from the roving audience and stifling humidity. And more often than not they were soloists, until the two actors eventually came together for the final act which showcased the stark similarities between the Western and Oriental art forms.
As Einstein had revolutionised physics, Einstein In The Carpark is perhaps a necessary experimental breakthrough in Singapore’s theatre landscape. The way it was staged might feel avant-garde with the roaming audience free to use their mobile phones to take photographs and videos, eat, and essentially do whatever they want. But this succeeds in breaking the mould of what has been the traditional notion of a captive audience – even if the novelty factor did wear off quite quickly.
What deserves plaudits was the remarkable job by Darren Ng, the sound artist, and Lim Woan Wen, the lighting artist, in bringing such a capacious stage to life. Mini-speakers playing words of wisdom and classical music, among other things, are embedded in traffic cones littered throughout the carpark that is the stage, while key performance areas are bathed in different hues to differentiate them from the typical harsh white LED lighting.
But without a clear plot, or giving the audience any notion of where the performers might appear next, the production feels in a way surrealist to the point of mind-boggling – just as Einstein’s theories would have been the bugbear for the less scientifically-inclined. At times it was a test of patience, as perhaps evident in the many audience members fiddling with their phones and from their very puzzled looks.
Yet as advised in the programme booklet: “If you get lost, follow your curiosity.” It goes on to add: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. You determine your own experience, which is also relative to fellow audiences on the same journey.”
And indeed, just as geniuses like Einstein would appreciate the beauty of order within haphazard chaos, this is perhaps the show’s “Eureka” brilliance – its superficial lack of direction masks a push for the audience to explore, discover and uncover what is otherwise an outlandish quantity.
By Walter Sim for Bakchormeeboy
Photos by Tuckys Photography, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 1/3/18, 8pm.
Einstein In The Carpark plays at Esplanade B2 Carpark as part of Huayi 2018 from 1st – 4th March. Audience members to meet at carpark foyer 15 minutes before show begins. There will be no surtitles, and audience members are advised to dress and travel light. Tickets available from the Esplanade