Justice always catches up.
In James M. Cain’s hard-boiled novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, the title acts as a metaphor for how perpetrators will eventually answer the call to justice. With a title like The Bride Always Knocks Twice – Killer Secrets, The Theatre Practice’s (Practice) latest production similarly deals with issues of justice, where all truth eventually comes to light, no matter how much one tries to take secrets to the grave.
Directed by Kuo Jian Hong, with a script by Liu Xiao Yi and Jonathan Lim, Killer Secrets is Practice’s first attempt at crafting an online mystery, as viewers play detective and solve a murder. Unlike other murder mysteries however, Killer Secrets stands apart for its highly unusual and original premise. Set in a house that exists outside the laws of space and time, seven women from various time periods have gathered to seek refuge, each one hiding their own secret or running from fate. There’s the Bride (Ang Xiao Ting) from the 2000s; a Soldier (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) from World War II; a faded film Star (Su Chun Ying); a Samsui woman (Ng Mun Poh); a Student spy (Jodi Chan); a Majapahit Concubine (Suhaili Safari); and finally, a Police officer (Isabella Chiam) from the present day.
With its strange setting, Killer Secrets adopts a magic realist approach, where there are plenty of things that would be deemed illogical, yet are calmly accepted by the house’s inhabitants. How in the world did they all get working iPads, connected to an unknown network that lets them send messages to each other? How exactly does time work here, where years can go by and pregnancies magically disappear? None of these questions are answered, as the denizens while their time away playing ‘Moon Ball’ (complete with a glowing, spherical ‘moon’), all just thankful that they get to escape their fate out there in the real world.
But while the women have lived together for ages, they are still unable to trust each other with their darkest secrets. This mistrust and underlying tensions come out in the form of tussles over topics ranging from Singapore’s colonial masters, to upsets over being left out of the history books. Most damning of all is the insistence that there have only ever been six of them in the house, and their constant ostracising of Student. This then is the set-up for the crime: when the Student threatens to out all their secrets, it’s not long before she’s found murdered in her room, and for Police to figure out which of the five remaining women was the culprit.
As a murder mystery, audiences are practically required to do investigative work, making it a prime opportunity to learn more about these various historical figures, from members of the oft-forgotten Rani of Jhansi Regiment, or the humble samsui woman. In Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiao Yi’s script however, it is evident that there is too much ground to cover, resulting in many of the issues only mentioned in passing, and never amounting to a more focused theme or message that the production delivers. In addition, as one can infer from their generic names, we never do get a firm grip on any of these characters’ personalities, resulting in them coming across as caricatures, whose primary purpose is to act as red herrings in the mystery.
Because of how these characters are set-up as one-dimensional, even the investigative segments of the production are limited. Take for example the second segment, where we get to ‘interrogate’ two characters of our choice. The methodology is novel, where audience members pose questions in a chatbox, whereupon the actors will come up with a response in real time while on camera, in character. While certainly testament to each actor’s stamina and improv skills, at 30 minutes per suspect, the interrogation phase lasts a little too long, affecting the show’s pacing, and taking its toll on viewers as they break down the suspect’s defences. The choice to limit actors to their characters’ languages, while realistic, can also result in a complete waste of time for viewers who do not comprehend the language of the suspect they’ve chosen.
Even if the interrogation proves unsuccessful however, audience members are still given an opportunity to search the crime scene for clues and substantive evidence for their case. While initially intended to be done in real life at Hotel Soloha, the experience was instead relegated online due to COVID-19, with virtual rooms designed by James Page. Respect has to be given to Practice for quickly adapting to a digital format for the experience, with each room containing necessary items audience members could zoom in on and interact with, from iPads containing incriminating evidence, or secret notes that could reveal the culprit’s motivation, enough to indict a chosen suspect.
After a week of investigations, it’s no surprise that audience members were anticipating the final reveal. Feeling like the climax of a cinematic mystery, Police systematically breaks down of how each of the suspects could not possibly have done it, while revealing their secrets, and even managing to debunk a problematic confession. But even when the culprit is revealed, one is still left to reflect and linger on Student’s death, and wonder whether it could have been prevented, if only the house was more open with each other. Most frustrating of all is how there is no justice for the murderer, due to the unusual circumstances of the house, and how no legal system can possibly prosecute her for the crime.
Ultimately, Killer Secrets feels more like an experiment for Practice to explore a new format of theatremaking, than a complete work in and of itself. Plaudits go out to director Jian Hong and Practice for gathering the sheer number of creatives involved in this work and bringing it to life in spite of all the challenges the pandemic has brought, but by its end, we are still uncertain what exactly it’s trying to achieve or say, especially with the lack of consequence for the culprit. They say secrets are stains, but if Killer Secrets is to be believed, even if the truth comes to light, given the right circumstances, even murder is forgivable enough for the slate to be wiped clean.
The Bride Always Knocks Twice – Killer Secrets ran online from 31st May to 6th June 2021. More information available here