Weaving a tangled web of shame.
Across the pantheon of Greek myths, the stories that have always stood out are the ones that deal with mortally unfair punishment from the gods, often taking the form of metamorphosis and the resulting body horror that follows. In the tale of Arachne for example, a talented but proud weaver is cursed by Athena after proving to be more talented at weaving than the goddess, her humanity lost when changed into a spider. The moral of the cautionary tale is to remain humble, keeping pride at bay, But when taken to extremes, one might interpret it to promote silence over showing off, to know one’s place in the hierarchy and not question the status quo.
Opening the 2022 edition of Esplanade’s The Studios series, Edith Podesta presents Inconsequential Goddess, a full length theatre production adapted from an episodic radio play that originally premiered at the 2020 Singapore Writers Festival. Inconsequential Goddess is a liberal interpretation of the Arachne myth, reimagining her as a weaver goddess in the underworld, using her tapestries to pre-determine the futures of dead souls on the path to rebirth. But when she enters the mortal realm out of curiosity, she encounters heretofore unknown feelings of inadequacy and fear. Worse – the daughter she births with her mortal lover undergoes an unspeakably traumatic incident that leaves her silent and in shame, a shadow of her former self determined to keep her head down and remain ‘inconsequential’.
Edith is a gifted writer, and the poetic script she has penned writhes with life and witty wordplay that lulls us into a dream-like atmosphere. As an adaptation of a radio play, the script is rich in its descriptions and scene-setting, where audience members are regaled with in-depth contextualisation of locations, and long, winding character backstories that ensure we are able to conjure up fully-realised versions of each one in our mind’s eye. This is further supported by design elements, such as MAX.TAN’s costumes, draping Edith in cloud-like white swathes of cloth that elevate her to an almost celestial being, while Koh Wan Ching, as Arachne, sheds a burlap-brown dress to reveal a severe, leather-threaded bodysuit reminiscent of a black spider, complete with additional arms she skilfully controls with strings. Brian Gothong Tan’s landscape projections also help immerse us in this surreal realm, from high-definition footage of rolling clouds, to sulphurous hellscapes evoking Hades itself.
This dream-like world that Inconsequential Goddess adheres to however, is a double-edged sword, and in line with its theme of weaving, the story too seems to loop in and out, like a needle pulling thread. Beginning with the inconsequential goddess’ childhood, her first experience of grief and loss, before shifting to a detailed account of the underworld and Arachne’s life prior to the mortal realm, Inconsequential Goddess takes its time with its world-building. Because there is so much focus on establishing backstories and presenting peripheral information, the work itself feels unfocused and meandering for a good portion of the show. Inconsequential Goddess is bogged down by its attempt to weave and connect so many ideas together, many of which are immensely clever and imaginative, but so dense that one believes, in going from episodic form to single non-stop experience, loses the breathing room required for audiences to take pause and appreciate all the work that goes into each scene in this theatrical patchwork quilt.
As the sole narrator, Edith has given herself the immense challenge of ensuring that the delivery of every word is pitch perfect, catching the rhythm of the rhymes and the ethereal world she has crafted. In taking on the bulk of the play’s responsibilities on her own, Edith at times also seems to buckle under the weight of carrying it all, and trips over some of the words. In addition, Inconsequential Goddess severely underutilises its set and space, with the three actors onstage never moving much from their central positions, leaving much of the stage empty for the majority of the play, and the atmosphere becomes colder and more hollow as a result. This is particularly egregious as it feels as if there is so much untapped potential from the sea of rags and cloth underneath the main platform, or in fact, any of the free space all around the limited area occupied by the actors, and they seem curiously alone, our attention focused but constantly distracted by the nothingness all around them. This dullness also feeds into the energy displayed, plateauing for the majority of the play, and lacking peaks and dips to pull Inconsequential Goddess into a truly arresting theatrical production. Even with supporting actors Wan Ching and Ian Tan, who feel like carefully sculpted figures silently miming each scene, there is not enough to fill the void.
When the script enters emotional territory though, is when it finally finds its feet, and gets audiences to invest themselves in the work. Much of this begins from when we hear the story of Arachne and her love for her husband, a mortal butcher who dabbles in the art of haruspex, or fortune-telling through inspecting an animal’s guts. In recounting the deep shame Arachne feels for her ‘monstrous’ form, there is a deep-seated humanity that emerges in the play in relating to bodily shame, closing the detached, almost distant narration from Edith (as underworld goddess of the crossroads, Hecate). We feel for Arachne when she fears losing the only man she’s ever truly loved, and mourn for her when she agrees to a terrible bargain struck with Zeus. In a similar vein, Arachne’s daughter, seeking escape from her emotional pain through a loveless, subservient affair with a married man, holds an all-too-familiar streak of pain for anyone dealing with so much trauma and pain that physical punishment is the only means of coping. It is when these moments of raw, unfiltered humanity emerge from the hurricane of poetry, that Inconsequential Goddess cuts deep with its needle, and finds much-needed connection with its audience.
Amidst the beauty and tranquility of the production, Inconsequential Goddess carries a brutal undercurrent of pain buried beneath. There are issues with its staging, in that it often feels like it hasn’t completely moved away from its roots as a radio play, holding on tightly to the written word and prioritising it over the visual, while also containing far too many ideas not given enough space to be developed or taken in by the audience. But if you’re willing to stay and listen, to plough away at the layers of shame, you’ll find a richly poetic mood piece that captures the weight of silence, and leaves us with an all-important message – that in no way are we truly inconsequential, and that we must find it in us to find a way to move, to speak, and empower those around us to break the cycle of trauma, in the hopes of healing.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
Inconsequential Goddess ran from 28th to 31st July 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here