Kaylene Tan encapsulates the art of living in the in between in an innovative, sensory experience.
The term ‘between living and dying’ can be interpreted in a great many ways. You could literally be on the brink of death, fully paralysed and barely breathing, yet still completely alive. Perhaps you’re already dead and gone, but your spirit and memories linger on in the space and people you’ve left behind. Or maybe, the people you used to be closest to have assumed both of these forms, and you yourself have become a shell of your former self, finding yourself growing more and more detached from the world each day in their absence.
It is in In The Silence of Your Heart that Kaylene Tan has managed to bring all three of these characters together in a single sensory experience that meditates on how one can possibly live on when struck by an impossible amount of grief. Kaylene is a master of experiential theatre, and here, she’s decided to put on a spin on the usual means of consuming a show by providing audiences with in-ear audio, as the voice of Thian (voiced by Lim Kay Tong) speaks directly into our heads. Paralysed for the last 13 years, we’re invited to listen to him describe a day in the life he’s left behind on his dead daughter’s birthday, as his wife (Jalyn Han) goes through the mundane chores of the day.
Kaylene has gathered a dream creative team to work on the visual aspects of the show, with visual media designer and engineer Jasmine Ng and Wu Jun Han, set designer Ling Hao and lighting designer Lim Woan Wen coming together to create an oneiric, oceanic atmosphere for the play. Set in a wooden stilt house in the sea, perhaps the way Thian views his own home, one feels the ebb and flow of the tides as Jalyn Han shuffles about, hearing as the waves crash against the shore and the floor swirls gently, breathtaking in every moment. As rain falls, you can hear sound designer Chris Wenn’s ‘pitter-patter’ sounds of precipitation while the floor shows signs of ripples, and one can almost feel one’s own skin getting wet from the ‘raindrops’.
Kaylene has managed to bridge the audience-performer gap further with the medium of hearing Thian – where one feels distance when listening to sound played over a speaker, through the in-ear audio experience, Thian is quite literally inside of our heads, fully inernalizing his very being inside of us as he describes his day. Kay Tong’s voice is soothing, and the audio track continuous, leaving even his natural breathing audible in our ears, as if he truly was there with us, filling the entire space with his lingering presence as he goes through each moment. Every effort has been made to draw out all five of our senses – as Kay Tong describes how his wife makes coffee, she follows suit, its thick, black strength filling our nostrils with caffeine with the hint of just a spoonful too much of sugar (just the way she likes it), while traditional Indonesian folk song ‘Burung Kaka Tua’ plays in the background, the very image of a domestic breakfast moment. Jalyn’s movements here are precise and deliberate, and one can hear each and every one of her steps as she paces through the kitchen, such as cooking actual rice and allowing its fragrance waft through the space.
Besides Jalyn, there are occasions where an unnamed girl makes an appearance. Played by Tan Hui Er, the girl’s movements are spectral as she floats, untethered across the space. These help to accentuate Thian’s words as he reminisces about his daughter, while Jalyn’s own movements become stiffer and more robotic as she dejectedly prepares ‘birthday noodles’ (mee sua and two eggs) for her deceased daughter. Jalyn’s character leads an incredibly simple life, and the amount of attention Kaylene Tan has spent on making sure each and every action is emphasised and made clear to the audience. In a sequence in the kitchen, Jalyn spends time actually and audibly pounding rempah, before chopping up carrots, cabbage and bangkuang (Chinese turnip). She then proceeds to cook them, adding in the rempah, water and coconut milk to whip up some sayur lodeh. While preparing the dish, Hui Er assists her with the washing of the cabbage and some chopping of the vegetables, stealing away bits of bangkuang and munching on it innocently, in a nostalgic moment for Jalyn, as she remembers how own daughter used to help her out in the kitchen. Despite the simplicity of the dish and the mundaneness of the process, one is struck by how her ordinary life is made complicated by the immense baggage she carries in her heart.
Eventually, during the meal itself, seated across a table from Hui Er, Jalyn stares into her eyes, and the eponymous silence in her heart is deafening as you feel her complete and utter solitude in the house. Everything comes together as we see years of regret and depression well up inside of her and express itself when Jalyn attempts to piggy back Hui Er, Kay Tong yelling ‘save her!’, and the immense guilt she’s been saddled with for so long becomes clear when she begins hitting herself over and over in her anguish.
Gloriously sensorial and evocative, in its final moments, In The Silence of Your Heart slows to a standstill. But this is not a heart that has stopped; it’s a heart that chooses to beat boldly on as Jalyn is finally convinced to let go, while Hui Er paces the perimeter. Our journey through the land of grief finally feels over, as we close our eyes by the sea, listening as each foamy wave cracks and rolls over the ocean, and Thian assures us: “1, 2, 3, it’s time to let go.”
Photos by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 5/4/18
In the Silence of Your Heart plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 5th – 8th April. Tickets available from The Esplanade.