Review: When We Dead Awaken by Intercultural Theatre Institute

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You’ve never seen Ibsen quite like this in ITI alumnus Sankar Venkateswaran’s stripped down, physical-focused interpretation.

When We Dead Awaken is often considered one of Henrik Ibsen’s most unusual plays. Set in a spa town amidst snowy mountains and mysterious women, Ibsen’s final play was also his most oneiric, along with being his darkest, in dealing with themes of unhappy marriages, artistic death and actual mortality. For the Intercultural Theatre Institute’s latest batch of graduating students, these premises provide the starting point for a far looser interpretation of Ibsen’s script, as ITI alumnus Sankar Venkateswaran strips it down to a few select lines and amps up its dream-like qualities with a performance that follows the original story through devised scenes.
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When the play begins, one is immediately struck by the sheer amount of silence one experiences. Aged sculptor Arnold Rubek (Lakshmana KP) and young wife Maia (Pooja Mohanraj) sit at a dining table, reading the papers and making tea. Neither say a word, and that silence is deafening in itself, allowing for the few times the actors do speak to leave a greater impact with their carefully curated lines. When Maia verbally and angrily expresses her exasperation with the stale marriage, a literal mound of dust comes crashing down onto the dining table, crushed beneath its weight, almost like an omen of worse things to come. One is led to think of the marriage as buried under soil, a visceral metaphor that reeks of death.
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Similarly, silence serves to draw attention instead to actors’ movements. Lakshmana KP in particular showcases extreme delicacy and control over his body, moving in slow motion across the stage scored to tracks from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Tony Takitani, further emphasising the immense solitude and distance he experiences, as if caught in a different stream of time from the rest of the cast and experiencing a gradual petrification. Lakshmana brings an intense melancholy to his performance, and translates that into a Thanatosian hopelessness as he goes through each motion, each footfall heavier than the last. One is led to understand his movements thoroughly through his facial expressions, showcasing a whole range of emotions as his navigates his new relationship with his ex-muse.
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Venkateswaran uses a couple of interesting images in the performance, such as having Caroline Chin (as ex-muse Irena) appear statue-like, literally becoming the statue Rubek has moulded in her image and a symbol of her stone heart, while white gossamer veils hang menacingly at the back of the stage (designed by Chan Silei), simultaneously bringing to mind both weddings and white sheeted ghosts. These sheets later on expand to become flowing white billowy seas, reminiscent of fog or even clouds, heavenly as the cast gets lost in the waves. In both these instances, one feels the play shrugging behind its mortal coil and entering a limbo realm that is neither completely earthbound nor quite so far away from the real life, creating an eerie, contemplative atmosphere to reflect upon death.
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When We Dead Awaken is by no means an easy watch, and its slow script is a challenging one for its cast to get just right. However, push past its initial difficulty and you’ll find a wealth of meaning lying within each movement and image on stage. With this production, Venkateswaran is certainly pushing the limits of excellence expected of ITI students, with the artistic risks paying off immensely in the moments they succeed and bringing out Ibsen’s themes in a whole new light. These cast members still have some way to go, but if When We Dead Awaken is anything to go by, their confidence will only improve and tighten each subsequent performance in the nights to come.

Photo Credit: Bernie Ng

Performance attended 15/3/18

When We Dead Awaken plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from 15th – 17th March. Tickets available from Peatix
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