Ruminations on local ways of grieving and coping with loss.
Back in 2020, when multiple artists were just dipping their toes into the digital medium, Sim Yan Ying (“YY”) already felt miles ahead of them. With not one but two full-length digital theatre productions, YY was firmly establishing herself as a young director to watch, with her work showcasing a unique millennial style, a willingness to engage with difficult contemporary topics, and the gumption to innovate and take her chosen medium to new heights.
Come 2021, and YY finally gets a chance to present a live work under Wild Rice’s Directors’ Residency Programme, with a brand new version of her work Where Are You? But the similarities between this work and the last end with their title; devised together with a group of seven local performers over four months, the two pieces are almost completely different works, connected only by their shared theme of grief and its responses.
Performed by Al Hafiz Sanusi, Hafeez Hassan, Deborah Hoon, Aiswarya Nair, Rachel Nip, Shanice Nicole Stanislaus and Zora Smith, Where Are You? presents a quintessentially Singaporean take on death. The set itself (by Johanna Pan) with its large tiled hole, is already reminiscent of a HDB void deck, a site where so many funerals are held. As the seven ensemble members arrive onstage, dressed in drab, loose, almost funereal clothing, they ponder over the nature of death, wondering about the afterlife, and the impact of this sudden sense of loss when a life is snuffed out.
What follows is a series of brief scenes that attempt to tackle death and loss as experienced by those still living. True to our multicultural society, the performance showcases Hindu, Catholic, Islamic and Buddhist funeral rites. But while detailed, these rituals often have no emotional bearing on the audience, mimed and narrated in poetic form as different ensemble members play the deceased and their mourners each time, seemingly educational rather than personal. These rites also begin to fade into each other after some time, and it becomes difficult to differentiate between them, losing their uniqueness due to the similar blocking in each scene.
Where Are You? is also peppered with other scenes that conflate loss with ideas of land scarcity and how our emotionless drive towards progress and the economy leads to displacement. YY flirts with the surreal and absurd, such as a scene where a wedding and funeral are set to take place in the same void deck on the same day, or when a woman and her grandmother discover that a zoo has been built over a cemetery, and her grandfather has been reborn as a snake. These are somewhat amusing, but still end up feeling empty, with the ideas almost shoehorned in for the sake of being more ‘Singaporean’, and again, lack that personal touch in favour of broad, emotionally distant nationalistic strokes instead.
YY has always shone brightest when given a physical scene to direct, and thankfully, there remain hints of this ability from time to time. Shanice Nicole Stanislaus, for example, performs an energetic, life-affirming choreography to Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’ in one scene, while we were transfixed by Rachel Nip as she performed a silent, forceful series of movements, going from amusing to devastating as Deborah Hoon narrates the loss of her best friend. In another scene, while grieving over loss, Shanice’s movements grind to a halt as she collapses onto the ground, while other ‘commuters’ behind her do not stop to help, only stepping over her as they carry on their routines. It is a pity that these do not form a more core part of the show, and compared to the physical work, the performers feel removed from their lines when they perform them.
At its heart, the big issue with this version of Where Are You? is its attempt to cover as much ground as possible without fully engaging with each topic. As a result, the pacing is uneven, and almost seems afraid to actually deal with the emotions involved in the grieving process, lacking sincerity and relatability in spite of being based on real stories. With three dramaturgs involved in the process, one wonders what feedback went into the work, and how YY processed and applied it.
One cannot help but compare this to YY’s previous work (Who’s There and Where Are You? (Digital) ), which felt like they had a much clearer vision of what she wanted to achieve, as opposed to the disappointingly circular motion felt here, the performers and performance lost while in search of a purpose. Adding little to the conversation of grief and death, it seems that YY may even have felt restricted by the live medium, ironically conforming to theatre standards as opposed to showcasing more of the unique point of view she discovered on Zoom. Perhaps she might even have been affected by the thought of putting up a production under the Wild Rice brand, with the resulting show not as bold or ‘out there’ as she might have wanted. One can only hope she learns to fall back on her strengths and show what she’s really capable of in future productions.
Where Are You? played from 4th to 7th February 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan. More information available here