Arts Review Singapore

Review: TM by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and Ontroerend Goed

Dissolving the borders between us and them with a reassuring, hopeful personality quiz.

In a year where physical performances are slowly but surely becoming the norm once again, it can be off-putting or daunting to go back to the world of digital productions, unless there is something truly special about the piece. For Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed however, there is something enticing enough about the mystery that surrounds their new digital work TM.

Produced and presented in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, very little is revealed to us about TM before we enter. All we know is that it has something to do with the slew of diametrically opposing views that’ve emerged in the last few years, from COVID-sceptics to climate change deniers, all of which add to us retreating further and further into our silos and echo chambers.

TM seems to offer a solution to that problem, as a ‘mysterious organisation that is as old as humanity’. Entering the virtual room, we are greeted by a TM employee, watching as other participants slowly make their way in. While there is a degree of anonymity offered (you get to choose your display name), it is necessary to turn on your camera and microphone, and it is recommended that you’re in a quiet place with no distractions to fully immerse yourself in the moment. There is a degree of vulnerability in doing so, with the fear and apprehension of revealing one’s face to total strangers on the internet somewhere at the back of our heads.

As digital work has shown us over the last year, the virtual realm opens up the possibility for people from all over the world to ‘be’ in the same space at the same time, something TM capitalises on as we meet other audience members from as far-flung as Finland, or Germany. The choice is ours if we want to interact with them in the waiting room – it becomes an avenue for forging a new bond with a complete stranger, as brief as it may be, as we chat about why we’re here, what we’re doing, and how life has been for each other – reassuring somehow, in the normalcy of a regular conversation.

The experience itself begins, naturally, with a pre-recorded ‘corporate video’, as we glimpse videos of TM members and staff explaining what the company is all about, giving testimony to the greatness of their work. It all sounds very cult-like, as if they are god-like in some way, omnipresent and ascended beyond regular humans. There is the sense that we are about to experience something divine or simply out of this world, as we brace ourselves for the trip.

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Here’s where the experience really gets into the thick of things. Once the video comes to a close, the rest of the participants are gone, and we’re left in a one-on-one experience with a TM employee to guide us. It’s an intimate experience – we can no longer see our own video feed, so our focus is entirely on the person on the other side of the screen, in a blank, white-walled room giving no hints as to what to expect.

What follows is a series of abstract questions, not unlike a personality quiz, as they test us for our eligibility to join TM. They don’t mince their words either, quickly delving into questions of perception as we are asked about how ‘good’ or ‘evil’ we view ourselves and others, our propensity to kill another person, and even our desire to watch death unfold on our screens. These questions poke and prod at our conscience, and leave us wondering if there is a ‘right’ answer to these prompts, and whether we truly are as good as we think. From multiple choice to open-ended questions, we are kept on our toes and constantly thinking throughout the experience, always engaged and always reflecting on these provocations.

By the end of it, our fears about ourselves are assuaged. We are welcomed into TM, as they unveil the true meaning behind the abbreviation, and the mission its members have undertaken upon themselves. Even as a digital work, as the screen zooms out to showcase everyone who took the test (and made it through) today. What initially seemed like a one-on-one experience is elevated, thanks to the sheer number of participants revealed, as we realised how we’ve all gone through this shared journey as one. That in itself is the power of theatre, to remove the isolation and walls we’ve put up for ourselves over the last year, finally beginning to fade away.

Listening to their persuasive manifesto, resistance is futile. But in the case of TM, that’s not a bad thing, and for the first time in a long time, we are left feeling like a part of something far greater than we can ever imagine. We are not alone, but stronger together, supporting each other in this journey of life, no matter where we are in the world, as one TM.

Photo Credit: Guinness Frateur

TM runs online till 2nd May 2021. Tickets available from Esplanade

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