Arts Review SRT Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: C-O-N-T-A-C-T by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Getting back in touch with yourself, and those around you.

Solitude has become one of the biggest buzzwords to arise out of the pandemic. From self-imposed isolations, to lockdowns that limit socialising to online channels, loneliness has given us more time than ever to spend time with our selves. But perhaps one thing that few of us have really paid attention to is the quality of that time spent, as we wonder – how do we make sense of the countless thoughts swirling within our head, and really, truly reconnect with ourselves in a chaotic world?

Directed by Daniel Jenkins, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) new production attempts to provide a tool, or at least, some form of solace and comfort for those struggling with a mind crowded with noise. Originally performed in Paris in 2020, C-O-N-T-A-C-T has since been adapted into English by Quentin Bruno, and takes the form of outdoor, promenade theatre, where audience members follow the actors around outdoors, in a small section of central Singapore with members of the public all around, and follow their story.

What makes C-O-N-T-A-C-T a unique theatre production is in its execution. There’s been a rise in multiple theatre companies around the world dabble in audio-based immersive experiences, be it from overseas, or local theatre companies, where audience members plug themselves into a pre-recorded audio track, close their eyes, and let the performers’ words take them away. This is one element that manifests itself in C-O-N-T-A-C-T as well, where audience members are tasked to log in to the special app created for the performance. Encouraged to use our own personal headsets for maximum comfort, audience members are to listen to a pre-recorded track throughout the performance, featuring the soundscape crafted by Cyril Barbessol (from the original production of C-O-N-T-A-C-T) with the voices of Shu Yi Ching and Brendon Fernandez.

C-O-N-T-A-C-T could be seen as the merger of two genres – the promenade theatre performance, and audio immersive experience. It’s an experiment in form that produces interesting results; that one must have the suspension of disbelief and bridge the pre-recorded audio and the live performance taking place before us, tying in to the production’s overarching theme of connecting to our thoughts again.

Starting off our journey at The Arts House, the audience gathers to follow Sarah (Chanel Ariel Chan), a woman on the way home from work. We shadow her, unseen and unfelt, as she allows her mind to wander. With the app, we become privy to her personal thoughts, as if we have gained the power of telepathy. Watching her wander almost absent-mindedly from Victoria Theatre to the steps by the Singapore River, she sits and becomes consumed by her own thoughts, trying to find a moment of peace at the end of the day. It becomes apparent that she’s distracted by all that’s happening around her, constantly trying to overpower everything else around her by singing a song loudly, over and over in her head, as she tries to focus on diving back into a memory and find time to just be with her thoughts.

Sarah gets no respite however, when a supposed stranger tries to strike up a conversation with her. Introducing himself as Raphael (Keagan Kang), Sarah begins to let down her guard as he reveals he knows more about her than he lets on. What is initially an awkward conversation becomes a moment of genuine connection as Sarah chooses to open up, be vulnerable, and let this man know how she’s feeling now.

C-O-N-T-A-C-T‘s deliberate choice to be performed outdoors subjects it to the whims of nature and the public space. From the sultry, sweltering humidity, to the gaze of curious passers-by jogging past, there are distractions everywhere. Even just using our phones, there is always the risk of checking messages or getting lost in your own world – after all, who’s to stop you from using your phone in a park? But therein lies precisely the aim of the show – in this non-traditional theatre setting taking place ‘in real life’, it forces the audience to make a conscious effort to focus on what’s happening in both their ears and in front of their eyes, to intently watch these two plainclothes actors blending in with the crowd share a moment, and find that sliver of connection to latch onto the more we learn about Sarah.

Such a set-up then actively encourages us to settle our mind and focus on the performance. This seems to mimic Sarah’s own thoughts, as Raphael guides her towards recalling her memories despite the noise she is surrounded by, here in the CBD. Sarah listens to Raphael’s words, almost akin to an extended mindfulness exercise, as he guides her towards understanding her feelings. So much of his lines are about her learning to be in the moment, working through her anger, and accessing the most difficult parts of her self.

The beauty of C-O-N-T-A-C-T lies in how one does eventually learn to let go, to somehow allow the music to wash over you and turn our surroundings into nothingness, our eyes always on Sarah and Raphael. We make the choice to observe her, watching as her expressions change while the voiceover describes trauma from her past, and we feel the rigour and difficulty of confronting her deepest fears. It is in giving us the power to “read minds”, to make this decision to listen, to pay attention to her body language, that bridges the gap and creates intimacy between ourselves and this person who only moments ago, was a total stranger.

By the end of C-O-N-T-A-C-T, one may only have gotten a glimpse into Sarah’s life, but it’s enough to spark empathy and mutual understanding of her grief. Cathartic and thought-provoking, C-O-N-T-A-C-T is a reminder that in our busy lives, it can be hard to give ourselves a moment to be still and connect with ourselves. But when we do decide to grant ourselves that moment, we have to make it count, give ourselves the requisite time and space to focus our mind, and work through the knots of emotion and experiences.

And once we learn to do that, perhaps we will begin to notice that there’s a Sarah in every corner of every place we walk by every day, each person with their own rich, complex story you may not even know. You certainly don’t need the power of telepathy to hear them out – just take a chance to reach out and provide a listening ear. For all you know, you might just be the guardian angel they need at this moment in time.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

C-O-N-T-A-C-T plays from 29th April 2022 at The Arts House. Tickets available here

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