Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Being 息在 by 微 Wei Collective

Sometimes escapism is the answer.

In the busy urban lives we lead, it can often be hard to find breathing space, keeping us stressed and unable to function well. Perhaps the solution to all that is to leave it all behind.

Written and performed by Neo Hai Bin, Wei Collective’s Being explores the concept of escapism as a means of regulating stress, through a surreal tale of one man and the sea. In the one man show, Hai Bin plays X, a man bogged down by his work life, as seen from how he drags around his laptop, a clock ticking in the background, as if reminding us of the unstoppable passage of time. When he goes to sleep, his breathing is laboured, and hampered by a face mask he wears, symbolising how stress has affected even his ability to breathe properly, before repeating the dreaded cycle again the next day.

When X begins to have dreams of being suspended underneath the sea, we hear a voiceover, telling us a story of how the People of the Land have forgotten that they used to be People of the Sea. The remainder of Being then, charts his decision to dive back into the sea, where he undergoes a series of adventures that sees him exploring the ocean depths, discovering ancient legends, and even finding respite when he washes up on an idyllic beach, living an islander’s life.

Much like previous Wei Collective performances, heavy emphasis is placed on spatial and experiential design, which is where Wei Collective’s other half, Liu Yong Huay Faith, and her collaborators come in. Staged at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, Yong Huay has cleverly used the usually obstructive pillars of the space to her advantage, where they act as dividers for three separate ‘screens’ behind Hai Bin. Audience members are seated on cushions that change our perspective, making us feel almost like innocent children again as we watch the scenes unfold (though the discomfort unfortunately distracts from the experience).

Being a professional lighting designer, this production gives Yong Huay the chance to explore more guerrilla design choices, such as a wall of silver streamers. In X’s dreams, their presence behind a ‘screen’ breaks the shape of shadows cast by a soft golden light, making it seem like light refracting on the water’s surface. Later on, when X is exploring the ocean, his torchlight’s beam is cut by these same streamers, creating an almost eerie sensation and fear of the unknown as the split beam darts across the stage floor. A giant moon hangs above, and the way the light strikes it reflects across the space, bathing us in either a sinister red glow, or a neutral white wash.

As for their collaborators, Jing Ng’s sound design is, as always, integral to crafting the mood in each scene and immersing us in the atmosphere, be it the muffled, dense sounds of being underwater, a mysterious melody that plays while X is dreaming, or the jaunty, tropical beat when he finds himself on the beach. Loo An Ni’s costume design comes through most strongly in a green patchwork costume X dons, making him feel like a deepwater mer-creature, complete with ‘fins’ and ‘scales’, while Daniel Teo’s multimedia design presents a simple but effective moving beach backdrop for the one scene.

Coming back to the performance itself, Hai Bin brings a sense of child-like enthusiasm and wonder when X finally takes the leap of faith to enter the ocean, particularly as he uses paraphernalia like a pump or long socks to act as his oxygen tank and flippers respectively, encouraging us to use our imagination to see the possibilities that exist in the everyday. We feel the joy and the lightness of his body as he speedily slices up (plastic) fish to cook, or the way he casts a ‘fishing rod’ out to sea, all while donning a cardboard crown, and his attitude and movements make us feel equally relaxed, curious to see where his adventures will lead him.

Being’s issue arises when it comes to the story itself, told through voiceover. The degree of detail the story goes into feels like it competes for attention with the visuals of what’s happening before us, and Being could afford to go even more abstract, and maximise its potential to evoke that dream-like quality.

All dreams have to come to an end, and as unwilling as X is to wake up from it, he is eventually roused from his reverie and forced to return to the real world (clearly seen when he fishes up a face mask while on the beach). But with this newfound ability to dream and let his mind wander back to the natural world, it becomes a possible form of escape in future from when real life gets too much to bear.

Being leaves us feeling like we’ve woken up from a lucid dream, rejuvenated with all the energy of a power nap with this temporary escape, something we often forget to do in our busy lives. A metaphorical reminder of how important it is to take time out for self-care, Being could even be seen as a form of restorative theatre, where we come out more relaxed than when we came in, and a reminder to let our worries disappear from time to time, into the infinite ocean of our minds.

Photo Credit: Daniel Teo

Being: 息在 ran from 20th to 22nd January 2022 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers ran from 12th to 23rd January 2022. More information available here

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