Arts Dramabox Preview Singapore Theatre

★★☆☆☆ Review: Assembly by Drama Box

Summoning ghosts of the past in the hopes of laying bullies to rest.

What school doesn’t have its share of ghost stories? From supposed paranormal activity or strange sightings after hours, students across generations have passed down these haunting tales from one batch to the next batch. But amidst the supernatural, school can also truly be a terrifying place to be a teen, with an overwhelming amount of stress, the confusion of growing up, and worst of all, navigating the complexities of interpersonal relationships.

In Drama Box’s Assembly, director Han Xuemei and writer Adib Kosnan attempt to use horror as a medium for addressing some of these painful school experiences. Aimed at students as part of the Esplanade’s annual Feed Your Imagination programme, Assembly takes the form of an immersive theatrical experience, with the Drama Box team taking over the Esplanade Annexe Studio, transforming it into a makeshift school compound where audiences experience the show.

Assembly attempts to emulate elements of other, more established immersive theatre companies, such as Punchdrunk in its execution. Prior to entering the space, we’re primed with some backstory, as we’re given a newspaper article about a school fire in 1997, caused by a teacher accused of having an affair with a student, and resulting in the death of 7 students and staff. Tragedy aside, we are then briefed on what to expect, supposedly taking on the role of ‘new students’ to the school, and oriented to the space, including a memorial dedicated to the deceased of 1997, the art room where the fire started, a stairwell, a toilet, and certain out of bound areas.

The main issue with this however is that in the briefing, Drama Box themselves seem unclear and unconfident of scene-setting and how audiences should be approaching the experience, resulting in confusing instructions and a lack of mental preparation. As a form of immersive theatre, one imagines having a certain degree of freedom to explore as much of the space as possible, and despite verbally mentioning certain out of bound areas, we are unsure if we should still attempt to open these forbidden doors, especially considering how the space goes from realistic to surreal the moment the performance starts, and the rules are never clearly enforced.

By relying on common sense however, it’s relatively easy to see where the action is taking place in such a small space, as we ‘follow’ performers to designated areas where they act out scenes. What Assembly gets right is the lighting and soundscape, where the flickering lights are cleverly designed to shift from warm to clinical to shift the atmosphere from realistic to spooky, and the speakers are strategically placed around the space to make it feel as if supernatural presences are located in specific spots.

The problem then lies in how such a large group of audience members is squeezed into this space, making it feel more like Battle Royale than Detention, where we are literally crowding around the performers as if it were a spectator sport, and losing the quiet intimacy of their conversations and pain. This is especially problematic for confined rooms, such as the bottom of a stairwell or the toilet, where you’ll find maybe twenty people trying to squeeze in at once, and the intensity and intimacy of emotional moments is somewhat lost in the process.

What is perhaps most damning is the storyline tying it all together in the first place. When the performance begins, we see three students waking up in the art room – Cydnee (Auderia Tan), Joe (Timothy Wan) and Sha (Nadya Zaheer). While Cydnee and Joe clean up the room, knowing that it is set for demolition, Sha remembers none of this and feels only confusion. Over the course of the performance, depending on which students audience members follow, the mystery of who these students are and their backstories are slowly revealed, with issues of bulimia, smoking, and vicious rumours coming to light. These are complex characters, but not interesting characters, defined by their problems rather than their personalities, making it difficult to root for any one of them, and ensuring we always feel emotionally distant.

Channeling these inner demons into violence and misplaced punishment, Assembly eventually devolves into a series of scenes intended to shock, including bullying and even suicide. But as an audience member, the more terrible things happened to these students, the more numb I became, and the less clear the nuances of the script and any real lesson to take away from it. Where were the teachers? Why was no one aware of what was going on? What was the point of making it a period piece when there may already be new systems to care for students in place in schools? Rather than simply showing a re-enactment or modern day students stumbling upon lingering spirits from the past, Assembly chooses to awkwardly smash these two ideas together, resulting in characters literally yelling ‘what is happening?’ for a large part of the performance, in an overarching mystery which, when revealed, results in very little payoff.

At the end of the show, students are tasked to take a moment to write their thoughts about what could have been done differently, before hanging it on the memorial wall. And reading their responses, it became clear that they too were left mostly stumped by how to respond, either giving generic answers such as ‘being nicer to people around them’, or blaming the system, claiming “the school shouldn’t have hired a mentally unstable teacher”, or that “the principal should suspend school for a week”. Few answers really seemed to show any kind of deep reflection as a result of the show, and one wonders if most of them will simply leave the theatre unmoved.

Ultimately, all this begs the question: why even choose such an ambitious immersive theatre format to begin with, when the complicated execution buries an already thin narrative, and loses the plot or lessons learnt in the process? Certainly it makes for a unique experience for students to remember, and maybe, with the resource guide provided, there may still be some post-show discussion yet. But at least for the time we were in the theatre, it feels as if this time, Drama Box may have experimented too much, at the expense of a clear learning outcome and leaving too many plot holes wide open. The ghosts of Assembly do little to shed light on what we can do to help those in distress, and offer few suggestions or possible resources as a solution or option, leaving us mostly paralysed with fear or worse, see it as a systemic problem we have little power to change.

Photo Credit: Zinkie Aw, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Assembly plays from 20th to 30th July 2022 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Tickets and more information available here (Schools) and here (Public)

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