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★★★☆☆ Review: FIVE by Intercultural Theatre Institute

Screenshot 2020-10-27 at 1.25.46 PM

Hybrid devised piece from ITI’s graduating students reflects on their lives and mental state during lockdown. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a myriad of problems and effects, something that’s likely to be felt just as strongly, if not more so, than the five graduating members of the Intercultural Theatre Institute’s (ITI) latest batch of graduating students. Not only did they have to cancel their mid-year performance; as foreign students away from their immediate family, and locked down in isolation, their mental health certainly took a toll over the last few months, leaving them worse for the wear during the initial stages of the circuit breaker.

However, with the lifting of live performance restrictions, graduating students Kyongsu Kathy Han, Li-chuan Lin (a.k.a. Aki), Prajith K Prasad, Ramith Ramesh, and Rhian Hiew Khai Chin have been given a chance to redeem themselves and make good with their graduating show. Directed by Kok Heng Leun, FIVE is a devised, hybrid live/Zoom work that takes inspiration from each student’s deeply personal works developed during the pandemic, as well as Virginia Woolf’s short story The Mark on the Wall, serving as a culmination of the mental hell they’ve gone through in isolated living.

FIVE is framed as a Zoom rehearsal between the five performers, roughly structured according to a series of ‘tasks’ to help them devise the work over the course of the show, from coming up with a piece that deals with ‘swiping’, to ‘even interviewing themselves. In the live version at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, the production attempts a ‘360 degree’ experience, with the 15 audience members seated in the middle, surrounded by the set and cast. Each of the five cast members are given their own unique space to perform in, plain rooms comprising little to no furniture, save for basics such as a bed, a chair, or a mirror. All five are dressed in casual wear, representing the same outfits they’d probably wear at home, as they communicate with each other via the laptops in front of them using Zoom. Both sides of the audience also feature identical projections showcasing what audience members at home would be seeing via Zoom, offering a more limited scope of what’s happening in the theatre, but amplified using distortions and other special effects to add meaning and depth to each exchange.

In an early scene during the performance, Aki and Kathy begin to read The Mark on the Wall out loud in both Mandarin and English respectively, a source of inspiration that is further emphasised by Rhian’s room, which features a distinct green marking on her wall she continually scratches at throughout the performance. In a similar fashion to the short story, the reading gives way to a more stream-of-consciousness narrative, where each performer takes turns to present snapshots of their lockdown life through speech and performance. Prajith, for example, worries if his failure to be anything like the greatest performers is in part due to his laziness, rattling off names of well-known singers and actors while moving from ‘room’ to ‘room’, while Ramith begins to break down as he video calls his wife back home in Kerala, uncertain how to resolve his dreams of starting a theatre company there and take care of her while he can’t even fix his broken air-conditioning in Singapore.

ITI’s productions are best known for their decidedly more obscure aesthetic, but with FIVE, most of the movements combined with the narration make sense. Of the five, it is Kathy that excels at this with the level of comfort she displays with her body, and her clear enunciation, consistently the performer our attention is drawn to each time she moves. There is a constant lithe quality to her body as she moves with grace, regardless of whether she is puppeteering a makeshift doll, or standing atop a chair, playing with a long scarf.

It is evident that for most of the cast, the primary feeling in lockdown is a gradual but certain mental break. Rhian, for example, becomes increasingly obsessed with the mark on the wall while transcribing an interview with an Indonesian ‘Kakak’, slowly but surely being taken over by the spirit-like voice of this character. Aki ends up spending time running to go outdoors, and encounters a mysterious tent she ends up occupying, perhaps a metaphor for her cluttered mind as she violently clears it out. Guo Ningru’s sound design stands out, with a near-constant dripping sound one hears in the distance, and voices that echo in the dark, helping create a distinct sense of the apocalypse the five are each experiencing in their own way in their battered minds.

As a devised work, FIVE does suffer from too many ideas that are often competing for attention. There is some degree of variance to these images and interesting use of the medium, such as Ramith performing a scene with his eye pressed up close to a camera, fearfully looking around, or the innocent game the cast plays as they hide and show their faces on camera. But often, this flood of ideas feels overwhelming, as if the cast is still figuring out what exactly it is they want to say, devising more and more ways to express their broken mental state through their bodies that lacks focus.

Still, for a performance that was devised during lockdown about the ill effects of isolation and solitude, the graduating batch of ITI students has done a creative enough job that certain scenes do linger even after the show. Towards the end, with the main lights turned down, there is a firefly-like light that flits across the cast’s rooms, as if offering a glimmer of hope in the dark. The cast come to the end of their ‘rehearsal’, repeats it, and seem relieved at their ability to find a way to still do what they do best. Snapping their fingers in sync and performing a musical number together at the end, it seems that while the going may be tough, but things will take their natural course, and as performers, their art will see them through even the darkest moments of the pandemic into the future.

FIVE ran from 12th to 14th November. 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and online. More information available here

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