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Singapore Writers Festival 2018: The Ghost In Your Head (Review)

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A novel idea with flawed execution. 

Immersive productions are all the rage these days, with audiences often demanding to experience art beyond the usual mediums. Naturally, one of these art forms would be literature, where one’s imagination is already subject to go wild as we visualise fantastic worlds and characters within their pages, and lends itself perfectly to theatrical adaptation, with our spectral thoughts manifesting into reality with The Ghost In Your Head, specially commissioned for the Singapore Writers Festival 2018.

In The Ghost In Your Head, co-producers Phan Ming Yen and Karine Tan have collaborated with co-directors Jeffrey Tan and Jeremiah Choy to transform the Arts House into a bastion for the spirits of authors past, where phantom authors and ghostly characters from their books linger. Comprising seven programmes across six spaces within the Arts House, audiences are invited to attend and participate in these scheduled programmes in any order they wish throughout the night, as they encounter dead authors and spectral characters they are encouraged to interact with.

A packed Play Den at at Dead Poets Society: Rest is Resonance featuring Poet, Performer and Sound Artist Rike Scheffler

The Arts House, as a historic colonial building with plenty of nooks and corners, naturally lends itself to such an art form, making audiences feel as if they’re entering a ‘haunted house’ (so to speak). There’s a lot of potential in the programme, each one a little spooky in their own right, from Eileen Chang in a game of mahjong, to Miss Havisham (Great Expectations) hosting a mad tea party. What results from The Ghost In Your Head however, is a rather mixed bag of results. Between both programmes happening in the Play Den for example, the fervently emotive “The Rest Is Resonance” by German poet Rike Scheffler emerges the far stronger performance, as she loops her voice and waves crashing and water flowing to form an immersive soundscape amidst her poetry, a strong direction both in its aesthetics and intent.

Co-director Jeffrey Tan as radio DJ at Dead Poets Society: Who Wants to Live Forever? Featuring Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai as Mary Shelley and Hang Qian Chou as Pu Songling

On the flipside, “Who Wants To Live Forever”, a radio play/debate, is the weaker of the two – playing a radio DJ, Jeffrey Tan directs the ghosts of Mary Shelley (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) and Pu Songling (Hang Qian Chou) as they discuss the titular topic using quotes from their signature works, Frankenstein and Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio respectively. While it was interesting to see Jeffrey utilise instruments to add effect to these readings, the concept and intent behind this work was confusing, as its medium of a radio play makes no sense, particularly with the ‘ghosts’ in costume, while if it posits itself as a debate, it never does manage to raise valid points to support either side of the argument, resulting in a frustrating work that meanders and does not understand what it is trying to achieve.

Attendees reading lines from ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte and ‘The Peony Pavilion’ by Tang Xianzu at Soundtracks of the Unseen, where sonic alchemist themptybluesky (Mervin Wong) transforms the readings into haunting soundscapes

Two art installations are featured in The Ghost In Your Head cover sonic and visual aspects, and while they feel like the beginnings of something interesting, they also seem incomplete in their execution. In Theemptybluesky’s (Mervin Wong) Soundtracks of the Unseen, audiences enter the Chamber and speak lines from Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights into microphones. These voices are then looped and manipulated to become otherworldly sounds, playing as the soundtrack to an video of abstract scenes.

Attendees creating their own poem at Heaven is A Place on Earth, a visual installation and poetry bar, featuring the works of Li Bai, Du Fu and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Meanwhile, the visual installation Heaven Is A Place on Earth projects a medley of psychedelic colours onto gauzy screens hanging from the ceiling, making for an alternative way of thinking about the conception of works of Li Bai, Du Fu and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while audiences get to arrange words into their own poem on an old school overhead projector. Both these visual art installations possess potentially powerful impact on audience members, but their intent is lost in their execution, with Soundtracks of the Unseen’s voice manipulation not having an apparent end or purpose besides translating ‘ghostly’ quotes into ghostly sounds, while Heaven Is A Place On Earth stops short of linking back more strongly to the poets featured, the psychedelia of the projections alone unable to capture the heightened state of mind they might have been in at the time of writing.

Miss Havisham and the Mad Tea Party featuring Shelia Wyatt as Miss Havisham

One particular segment we take umbrage with is Ms Havisham and the Mad Tea Party, where guests are invited to eat as many cakes as they want (from Butter Studio) in the Living Room, while Ms Havisham (Sheila Wyatt) arrives, a phantom in a white wedding dress as she flits around the audiences. When audience members attempt to interact with her, Ms Havisham does not respond, making it no surprise there are few responses herself when she attempts to ask audience members to ‘play’. Volunteers also break the atmosphere when they enter the room to replenish cakes in the middle of the performance.

Your Darkest Secrets, Her Bare Answers – Mahjong Love Therapy featuring Sharon Lim as Eileen Zhang

The effect of The Ghost In Your Head is also hindered by certain organisational choices. When one first steps in to The Arts House, the initial brief to the audience isn’t clear, creating a chokehold at the front door, while shows scheduled to start and end at specific times often start late and overrun their slots, leading to an inability to smoothly segue from one segment to the other. One does appreciate the efforts to decorate the venue with electric candles and tealights, and little quotes from deceased authors, but having a massive amount of audience members in each room also distracts from the work itself, and lessens the intimacy and effect of this atmosphere.

What all of this adds up to is a very odd house party, the Arts House itself feeling in-between worlds as audience members drift from room to room, a little worse for the wear, taking in smatterings of each performance but likely not to absorb or process their intent. The Ghost In Your Head then, is an innovative initiative that we still hope we won’t see the last of. But should it make its return, it must come back with a clearer idea of what it wants to achieve, a more engaging and better organised programme, and a stronger commitment to spiriting us away to a literary ghost world we never want to leave.

Photo Credit: Global Cultural Alliance 

Performances attended 8/11/18 (9.30pm slot)

The Ghost In Your Head played over two sessions at The Arts House on 8th November 2018, as part of the Singapore Writers Festival 2018. The Singapore Writers Festival 2018 takes place from 2nd – 11th November at the Arts House. To attend events, visitors must either purchase a festival pass, allowing access to over 100 events, or purchase separate tickets for specific events (to be released in September). For full ticketing details, check out the SWF website here, or their Facebook

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