Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: _T0701_ by Zeugma (SIFA 2021)

Black Mirror meets black magic.

The ‘toyol’ or undead infant frequently features in Malay folklore, used as a tool by bomohs (shaman) to conduct black magic and cause mischief. But in a futuristic world ruled by technology, is there still a place for outdated superstitions or magic to exist?

Blending cyberpunk with a quintessentially Singaporean flavour, local arts collective Zeugma’s new work _T0701_ imagines a dystopian future where people have ‘gone digital’, and society is ruled by corporate giant MegahCorp, with its giant logo proudly displayed on the screen when we enter the theatre.

Directed by Rizman Putra, with a script by Zulfadli Rashid (Big), _T0701_ is immediately reminiscent of similar speculative fiction such as Black Mirror, thanks to how possible this reality could be in future. Set in a surveillance state, _T0701_ zooms in on an oft overlooked member of society – the PMD rider (known as Delivery Personnel or ‘DePers’), each one known only by their ID numbers as they work to fulfil their endless jobs for MegahCorp, and mindlessly follow their GPS to their next destination through an apocalyptic city.

The more sinister aspects of this presents itself through MegahCorp’s tier system. Reminiscent of how so many apps and companies tempt users into loyalty programmes with the promise of rewards if they just follow simple instructions, MegahCorp’s tiers similarly ‘motivate’ DePers into fulfilling their daily delivery goals to progress up the career ladder, with minuscule benefits each time they go up a tier, along with even greater goals to fulfil if they want to maintain their status. Essentially, they’ve been reduced to cheap, easily-controlled labourers, willing to do their jobs for pitiful rewards in a capitalist nightmare.

Primarily, _T0701_ is about the differing beliefs between Cik Rabz (Gloria Tan) and her son Jati (Irsyad Dawood), and the how these escalate and eventually force them apart. As Cik Rabz, Gloria Tan commands the room as she steps out in a translucent raincoat and headscarf, her voice ringing out, while a crude avatar is displayed above her onscreen.

Cik Rabz then, is a modern bomoh who infuses tech and magic, as she chants spells and conducts rituals with the help of her ‘toyols’ – (phallic-looking) devices. These form the bulk of her business, where she sells them to DePers, allowing them to create ‘dropzones’ – safe spaces blocking MegahCorp from spying on users. Here, Gloria humourously switches up her accent to mimic salespeople conducting live late night social media auctions, as she ‘lelongs’ her goods, announces starting bids, and hawks her devices to anyone willing to buy them.

Jati, on the other hand, is a DePer who just wants to climb is way up the corporate ladder. He chooses to turn a blind eye to his mother’s business, instead relying on hard work as he goes about making his deliveries and prove he can make it on his own, just trying to get to the much-desired ‘gold’ tier. Irsyad Dawood does well to sell Jati’s innocence and simplicity, all while performing athletic feats frantically running and jumping around the stage while fending off digital enemies with martial arts.

This is further enhanced by _T0701_‘s immersive design elements. Brandon Tay’s media design takes centrestage, offering audiences a visual representation of the play’s world onscreen, as it projects the winding, burning megalopolis DePers navigate. Coupled with Safuan Johari’s electronic soundtrack, while Andy Lim’s LED lights running across the stage help add to the sense of frantic movement, making delivery scenes feel like action-packed video games. Thanks to Rizman’s direction and Brandon’s animation, the stage never feels bare, and there is always something to focus our attention on.

Worlds collide when Jati stumbles upon a dropzone, created by Versace (Izzul Irfan) and Azizah (Indumathi Tamilselvan), former ‘gold tier’ DePers who gave up on the rat race, and doing just enough to survive. Indumathi and Izzul perform their respective supporting roles with aplomb, playing off each other’s energy and bringing out the humour in Big’s script, as they bicker and show their disillusionment with the world. In seeing youths turn to such superstitions, it marks an interesting parallel with how millennials today increasingly turn to astrology and tarot as a means of guiding their lives.

More importantly, as they gang up on Jati to convince him of their point of view, it’s ironic that they’re making the dropzone an ‘unsafe’ space for him, further driving him away from his mother’s magic. The result is a bigger wedge between Jati and his mother, as he becomes a poster boy for MegahCorp in their ads, much to Cik Rabz’s dismay. The tension between Irsyad and Gloria is palpably felt in their mother-son talk, Gloria’s disappointment clear when she talks of being unable to lead him down the right track with her ‘ilmu’ (knowledge).

The only way all of this can end is with a climactic finish, as Cik Rabz’s toyols are hacked, and no longer work as intended. As we all know from films, black magic often involves a blood price, with her toyols turning against her, and nothing Jati can do to save his own mother. _T0701_ then seems pessimistic about the world, with our only choice to give in to the system and play the game if we want to succeed.

The future is bleak, as represented by a sobering haunting rock song featuring vocals from Rizman. Played loud over the speakers, drowning out the sound of everything else, the audience is left to reflect on the ambiguity of it all, from the dangers of dark magic to the seemingly hopeless resistance against an inconceivably powerful authority. We see a visual of Cik Rabz, now a digital penanggalan, cursed to roam cyberspace forever, while Jati presses on and achieves his dream of rising to the top, completely and utterly brainwashed to become a part of the system.

With _T0701_, Zeugma have dreamed up a terrifying vision of the future, and effectively uses Safuan’s soundscapes, Andy Lim’s lighting, and uniquely, Brandon Tay’s animations to bring it all to life. It is a rare work that feels refreshingly original in concept, while being competently executed by its fully committed cast. Under Rizman Putra’s charge, _T0701_ pushes at the limits of what black box theatre can achieve, effectively combining supernatural horror with technological fears, and leaves us hollow from its hard truths about labour and control. This is a work that excites us with its ambition, and like other stellar speculative work like Blade Runner, leaves us craving for even more information and stories about this world.

Photo Credit: Throbbingpixels

_T0701_ played from 28th to 29th May 2021 at SOTA Studio Theatre as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will also be available as video-on-demand. Tickets and more information available here

The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021. Shows will be available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here  

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