Arts Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: ASYLUM by Intercultural Theatre Institute

Going mad over the isolation of quarantine.

During the pandemic, all of us have experienced what it’s like to be locked down, and isolated from society. In being forced to see the same faces day in, day out, settle into a fixed routine in a highly confined space, and little contact with the outside world, it’s enough to make anyone go mad.

Exploring this idea, the Intercultural Theatre Institute’s latest graduating batch presents ASYLUM, an original work devised with playwright Jean Tay and director Oliver Chong. Inspired by the long-forgotten histories of Singapore’s old quarantine sites, ASYLUM at times feels like a horror movie, with patients told that they are not allowed to leave, and doctors using unorthodox, unproven methods to ‘cure’ these patients.

One of the key themes of ASYLUM is distance and segregation, which is exemplified both in the set, where the patients are housed in an area separated from the staff, and at the very beginning of the performance, where the ensemble extends and paste tape all around the set to indicate boundaries and limits. There is a distinct ‘us versus them’ mentality that is developed over the course of the performance, where staff treat patients as disposable and are more invested in their own agendas, while patients grow steadily more unstable and anxious in their little silos over their fate, even forming distinct ‘tribes’ within the greater patient population. This only serves to further divide them and produce an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, reliant on rumours and hearsay to get any news of what the future holds.

While it is topical and thematic to this pandemic era, ASYLUM is wobbly in its execution and ideas, and the 12-person strong ensemble (Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing, Ismael Gallaza Pantao, Jemima Dunn, Kaleem Zafar, Karlwinn, Ng Yuan Ci, Oliver S. K. Wu, Peh Jun Kai, Ruthi Lalrinawmi, Wan Ahmad, Will Wong Keng Ip, and Wong Jin Yi) has their work cut out for them. There’s a veritable variety of character tropes that show the spectrum of people who wind up in quarantine, adjusted to match each ensemble member’s personality and ability. But because of the amount of time split between each storyline, it never quite reach the emotional peaks that allow us to feel or care for these characters. Certainly, there is a degree of pity for the circumstances the patients find themselves in, often coming with their own baggage of familial abandonment or reasons for escape, but nothing powerful enough to warrant shedding a tear over.

On the other hand, the facility staff are given more enticing material to work with, positioned more as overt villains weighed down by bureaucracy and other external forces that leaves their hands tied. Of the cast, Jemima Dunn does an especially good job playing her role, as an objective, detached staff member doing her job and obsessed with her experiments, her voice clear and pronounced. Meanwhile, it is fascinating to watch how the staff maintain their cold approach when one of their own is bitten by a patient, and forced into the same fear and quarantine as well.

Eventually, upon hearing they’ll be moved to a different, even worse facility, the patients band together to escape from the asylum itself. Only, with each smaller group devising their own plan, the stage is set for miscommunication and fumbling the escape itself. Director Oliver Chong does a brilliant job in the resulting sequence, chaotic and well-choreographed, where alliances and enemies established over the scenes that came before it finally clash, with misguided actions and even death ensuing. It’s a surreal, horrifying end to an otherwise slow-moving play, proving that this batch of students is capable of producing powerful teamwork when given the right direction, and drives home the idea that it is only together that we pull through, rather than as individuals isolated and quaking in fear and ignorance.

Photo Credit: ITI

ASYLUM played from 26th to 28th May 2022 at the SOTA Studio Theatre.

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