The outback becomes both nightmare and dreamscape for a couple running from their own problems.
The name ‘devil’s cherry’ brings to mind a great many things – ideas of temptation, of evil, and perhaps, the loss of innocence. The moniker itself is an alternative to its more common name ‘deadly nightshade’, a poisonous plant and invasive species to Australia, bearing black, cherry-like fruit. Just a little taste is medicinal and hallucinogenic, any more, and you’ll suffer the often fatal consequences.
Playing as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae’s Devil’s Cherry is sees Mo and Debbie (Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin), an older couple seeking an escape from their past life in urban Singapore, running away to the Australia’s wide open spaces to fulfil a lifelong dream of riding along in a caravan and exploring the wilderness. But the more time spent outside, the more cracks appear in their relationship, and the more lost they get. As they encounter curious wild animals and what may be the Devil herself, Mo and Debbie find themselves drifting and confused, as old wounds are re-opened and new vulnerabilities exposed.
Playing in the vast, high-ceilinged space of Pasir Panjang Power Station, Devil’s Cherry gets its haunting atmosphere right, feeling as if we’ve entered a large cave, where creatures lurk in the darkness all around. Wong Chee Wai’s set resembles a three-dimensional topographical map, comprising multiple steps that vary in steepness alongside a few plateaus, allowing for the environment to feel hostile or welcoming according to where each scene plays out. The set itself is also fitted with neon-hued lights under each ‘layer’, and when they all light up at once, bathes the space in eerie, almost supernatural illumination.
In a similar vein to past work by Kaylene, Devil’s Cherry also utilises binaural headphones for the entire duration of the performance. This feels like a move that was done out of necessity, due to the nature of the space, and pre-empts the actors’ voices from getting lost in the echo, instead delivering it straight to our ears for clarity. In addition, the headphones allow us to better hear Darius Kedros’ naturalistic soundscape, with the occasional twittering of birds or the buzz of insects, or at times, a more surreal track that fills the space with an air of mystery.
Over the course of the performance, audience members get the sense that Mo and Debbie are getting further and further from reality itself, after spending months in the Bush. What is initially a source of relief from the stress of urban living becomes a flood of ennui, and the two begin to bicker more, nursing the traumas of their past. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and much like a horror film, the two separate, and face their own personal demons in the Bush. Debbie befriends a canine creature (mohiniyattam-trained Indian-Australian dancer Raina Peterson) who takes her on a vision quest, using dance to tell her a story of fleeing and refuge. On the other hand, on the verge of heatstroke, Mo finds his way towards a mysterious girl (Liz Sergeant Tan) who may or may not be his daughter Marlene. Worse, she might be the devil herself, as she lures him in with sweet innocence before plunging the metaphorical dagger deep into his soul.
Through it all, we are treated to various elements that plunge us into a bizarre version of the Australian Bush. Brian Gothong Tan’s hypnotic visuals are projected on the big screen above the stage, and immerse us into trippy visions of pink lakes, monochrome memories of their lives in the city, and devil’s cherries spiralling in a loop. From time to time, we hear the sounds of a radio show by Kiki O’Brien (Marlanie Haerewa), as she speaks of lost things and how she came to find them again, or moody blues by Australian singer C.W. Stoneking. A drone hovers into view – could all of this just be an elaborate experiment, or is it all just a horrible nightmare?
Rae and Tan’s script occasionally dips into pure poeticism, using evocative metaphors and myth-making to bring us to the edge of our emotion. This is also largely due to the strength of the cast – charismatic veterans Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin exemplify the quirky odd couple, adorably endearing in their banter, but capable of performing sudden switch-ups to much heavier, disturbing material that jabs at the heart and brings you to the verge of tears, the darkness hitting that much harder when it subverts the silliness. Raina Peterson’s dance is ethereal, but it is Liz Sergeant Tan that really shines in this performance, bringing with her a mysticism and sinister air where we’re never quite sure of her intentions, and her sense of physicality almost sorcerous in the force she puts into her movements.
But amidst these great design elements and strong cast, overall, Devil’s Cherry suffers from a case of a meandering script. Far too often, it touches on ideas such as Thanatos and the death drive, the inability to leave a toxic relationship, regrets and guilt over bad parenting, the trauma of colonialism or even the futility of escapism, but never dedicates enough time to exploring these topics besides a brief musing. The same applies to its form. Refusing to adhere to a fixed form can produce spectacular results, but in the case of this show, never leans in enough to any one idea to really leave an impact. It shows signs of horror but never follows through on its promise to deliver the bloodshed it suggests, while Mo’s storyline about an absent daughter is left hanging as an abstract feeling of guilt.
All of this is frustrating because Devil’s Cherry genuinely has some great ideas that are left as fleeting as a dream. By its end, it doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up these myriad storylines or make them make sense in relation to each other, and leaves it far too open to interpretation. There is an intimacy and aching pain that is felt in every scene, but its significance and meaning fades to a whisper, as yet another new idea comes into play. At its heart, there is a poignant story of fight or flight, learning to confront the ghost of one’s past that haunt personal and national histories, but in this mass of ideas, all we can do is relegate ourselves to simply taking in the sparse, savage beauty of it all, and pray we don’t find ourselves on the wrong side of the devil.
Photos courtesy of Arts House Limited, Images taken by Debbie Y.
Devil’s Cherry ran from 3rd to 5th June 2022 at Pasir Panjang Power Station as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.