Arts Review Singapore Theatre

Review: Shook by NUS Stage (NUS Arts Fest 2021)

Chaotic energy and Gen-Z culture mark Shook as a bold step forward for NUS Stage.

As the times change, so does each passing generation’s lingo and concerns. As it implies from its title, NUS Stage’s Shook brings Gen-Z culture to the stage, fully intending to leave audiences shook with its form and content.

Written and directed by Sean Tobin, Shook combines original text, movement, video and sound, to create a groundbreaking new series onstage. Comprising a mishmash of sketches, video interviews and scenes, this show-within-a-show gives the many voices of the new generation a platform to be heard. The show begins with its ‘opening credits”, displaying a series of visuals that introduces audiences to its premise, expressing a need to solve the riddle and unveil the mysteries it holds.

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The primary focus of Shook is to highlight the concerns of Gen-Z. Already in the first segment, the cast deliver on shock value with a barrage of crude expletives. The frustration from both Isaac Tan and Melissa Peh in this scene is clear, as they broach rarely-discussed issues over heated conversation. The youth of today are angry at the injustice they witness in society. There are times we glimpse the silhouette of an old lady pushing a cardboard-filled trolley, and we wonder about the things in the background we don’t notice, amidst the protests and more ‘pressing’ matters we see everyday. How then can we learn to be more conscious of what’s going on around us?

In many ways, Shook feels so fresh because of how far the team is willing to push their narratives, touching on taboo topics such as religion, and bringing on a drag queen (Iliya Izzudin Jalil) to address it, daring to put it out there. She asks one of the most fundamental questions of all – how can one’s own family learn to accept these alternative lifestyles, and their relatives for who they are? Can we really be who we want to be? We wonder about the massive pressures on youth to do things ‘right’, As she now lip syncs for her life,

Even beyond these national issues, Shook hits the emotional notes with how it addresses the pains of the generation gap, constantly at odds with the adults who never seem to understand the youth of today. A son (Kwang Hao Yang) seeks acceptance from his father (Wee Jia Yi) in living the life he wants to; a tiger mother (Amelia Lee) has unrealistic expectations for her daughter (Ariel Lim) to become an overachieving student, regardless of her own wants; and an innocent ten year old girl (Joy Poon) tells her older cousin (Joshua Lim) about her unhealthy relationship with her tutor. There is the constant sense of uncertainty hanging in the air with how misunderstood and vulnerable the youths are, the work they put into being heard falling on deaf ears, or treated as inconsequential.

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These scenes are punctuated by segments that help contextualise and add depth to the main narrative, while also providing intervals for actors to get into the right mindset for their next role. These range from comedic video interviews with ‘experts’ sharing their knowledge on ongoing social issues (guest starring alumni members Nathaniel Aaron Tan, Ong Xue Min and Tan Shao Yun, who get a chance to still contribute to the performance despite not being physically present), as well as TED Talk-style lectures, where the speaker (Er Yuan Ren) is given only a minute to think and speak, highlighting how limited his time is in raising his concerns, or even bring up ideas of how little trust is placed on youths, whether it’s from the people they work for or even their own family. Comic relief also comes in the form of memes and absurd trains of thought – our national obsession with bubble tea, for example, as the answer (or distraction) to our troubles. Throughout, the cast were always professional and knew what to do, improvising or simply carrying on even when things didn’t work out as planned.

There is plenty of space and opportunity for the cast to play with the theatrical medium, such as breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience. In doing so, they extend their wealth of energy to the audience, allowing us to feel closer even with socially distanced seating. Watching the ensemble (which also includes Chloe Aw, Hsu Wenchi, Joshua Gareth Seow, Kerwin Chia, Manusha Galappaththi, Muskaan Kalwani and Ong Bing Jue) dance, rap and sing their original number ‘Shook’, it was evident that they were at their most natural, just enjoying themselves being onstage.

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Ultimately, we are left with this to ponder over – if it is so hard to be a youth today, misunderstood and silenced by the adults, then what’s the point of fighting, instead of just conforming? Far too often, we already judge a person before getting to know them, as Hannah Loh explains. We come with internal checklists we refer to, almost forcing everyone to put on a mask to conform to what is expected of them. We watch as they literally come out in different masks, from the gentle to the monstrous, as if pretending to be someone they’re not, or villainised for the way they behave and the words they say, wondering who they really are behind the mask. Perhaps the way to start understanding them better is to withhold judgment and see them for who they are, realising that they are here to stand up for what they believe in and willing to go the distance for their ‘woke’ ideals, and for us, to simply learn the art of acceptance.

It’s been some time since Sean Tobin has written and directed an original play, and with Shook, he has shown great finesse in bringing out the best of the students and the nuances of the performance. With its variety of stories told, each one resonating with us as they question the way we live our life, Shook ends up being a rude shock to our system as it questions our behaviour, and seeks to start a conversation. And with a willingness to showcase diverse forms of self-expression and identity, as well as tackle taboo hot-button issues, Shook marks terra incognita for NUS, and a bold direction for the stage club members to move in, regardless of conservative naysayers. Are the youth of today the future of our nation? Perhaps it’s time to actually listen to them without judgment, and hear for yourself what they have to say.

Photo Credit: TET Photography / @tetphotographysg

Shook ran from 19th to 20th March 2021 at the UCC Theatre as part of NUS Arts Festival 2021. Shook will also be screened online in high-definition format between 29th March to 11th April and is free for viewing upon registration.

The 2021 NUS Arts Festival runs from 19th March to 16th April 2021. For more information and tickets, visit their website here

1 comment on “Review: Shook by NUS Stage (NUS Arts Fest 2021)

  1. Thank you, Bakchormeeboy, for your support and the review!


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