Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Offending The Audience by Emergency Stairs and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Flawed revival of Handke’s classic fails to find a place in the contemporary world.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Ang Gey Pin)6
Script (Peter Handke and devised parts by cast)6
Performance 7
Lighting Design (David Li)7
Total26/40 (65%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Since premiering in Germany in 1966, Peter Handke’s Offending The Audience has gained a reputation for being a quintessential work of ‘anti-theatre’, a play that refuses to conform to any kind of expectation of theatrical convention, with no plot, no fixed characters, and no care for the audience.

In Emergency Stairs’ new version directed by Ang Gey Pin, with performers from NAFA Diploma in Theatre (English Drama), Offending The Audience is re-worked and re-devised for the massive cast of 16, as they bring the then-controversial work into contemporary times. But by virtue of it being known for its anti-theatrical slant, and its provocative title, audiences then come in already expecting to be pushed beyond their comfort zone, and perhaps, even offended.

Offending The Audience begins even before the audience themselves step into the theatre, with the performers milling about in the lobby and interacting with us, at times calling us out for our looks, or prodding us with a lint roller. As a work of epic theatre, the performers are deliberately artificial in their delivery, and we become keenly aware of how everything they do is merely a performance, forcing us to feel alienated from the work and engage with it on a metatheatrical level.

When we step into the performance space of the black box, Offending The Audience continues to play with the breakage of theatrical convention, offering leeway for theatrical experiments at the expense of our time. These range from what seem like ‘live’ rehearsals watching the students figure out their lines, to bringing the house lights down onto the audience, before coaxing them to leave their seats and shift to the other side, sometimes even helping performers read certain lines from a script. This latter movement in particular allows audiences to confront themselves by seeing fellow audience members on the other side, and invites us to gaze upon their reactions as the performers continue to wreak havoc on theatrical form.

The most exciting of these experimentations probably results when the students are at their most ‘natural’, as they sit in a circle waiting for something to happen. Whether gleaned from reality or completely fictionalised, it is not clear, but when they begin to engage in play-fighting that appears to become actual fighting, complete with throws, wrestles and beatdowns, that is when Offending The Audience brings out the tension and danger of theatre no longer being a safe space. The lanky Sean Loo, in particular, is a fascinatingly bold figure to watch, foolhardily taking on the much more muscular Corey Lum or stronger Riky Suzairhie in hand to hand combat, resulting in hilarious and unexpected results when they grapple, while the other students cheer on or hold their breaths.

Elsewhere, other standouts include Jazlan Kamal, for always playing the voice of reason, and in possession of a crisp, clear and confident voice; Anoushka Rachel Sam for bringing out a degree of sass and personality in her portrayal of herself, and Cidrick Kyle Lim Loh for being a bundle of energy in somersaulting, cartwheeling and leaping across the stage. In many ways, the students, while acting as an ensemble, are almost still competing with each other as performers for the spotlight, with certain boundaries of theatre and the expectation of the theatre student simply impossible to fully escape from.

Perhaps where Offending The Audience becomes most blurred is when director Ang Gey Pin herself emerges onstage, where it feels like anything and everything could happen. In our performance, she invites an audience member and student she recognises to come onstage and perform a theatrical exercise, chasing and running alongside a performer while she barks criticism from the side, the other performers watching as audience becomes performer. The intent of this isn’t particularly clear, especially as Ang understands the safety of inviting a trained performer onstage as opposed to one completely in the dark, and in turn highlights the further limitations of such a piece – that in resisting the urge to immerse audiences, it poses a challenge to invite audience members into the space where they would willingly participate in acts that would offend them or draw them out of their comfort zones.

By the end of Offending The Audience, there are no clear conclusions to be drawn, save for the fact that theatre remains in a constantly evolving state. Considering how much theatre has grown to encompass forms such as immersive experiences or participatory theatre, Handke’s anti-theatre model no longer feels as disruptive or boundary-pushing as it did decades ago, and in this production, is insufficiently updated for the modern audience to feel remotely shifted from their comfort zone, beyond being mildly amused, and still convinced that we remain in a safe space.

As a work that was created in line with the upcoming University of the Arts in 2024, Offending The Audience represents a work that questions the very nature of the various artistic disciplines our country practices, learns, and teaches. Even if it does not outrightly offend or shift the needle, Offending The Audience is a timely reminder that art as a creative medium is not set in stone, and remains open to all possibilities, and hopes that students keep this in mind as they continue to devise and enter an industry-driven, practical world of commercial theatre. One only wishes that this was a work that truly rose to the challenge and gave students the opportunity to completely subvert their idea of theatre and performance, rather than keep it within safe boundaries to be worthy of a title as ‘Offending The Audience‘.

Photo credit: Memphis West Pictures/Joe Nair

Offending the Audiences ran from 10th to 13th November 2022 at the NAFA Studio Theatre. More information about the work and cast here

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