Glass half empty perspective towards how a nation cares for its minorities.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Adib Kosnan, Yarra Ileto)||7|
|Script (Aswani Aswath, NAFA students)||6|
|Performance (NAFA students)||7|
|Sound Design (Alif Danial Ahmad)||7|
|Lighting (Tai Zi Feng)||7|
In a world where appearances are everything, it is far too often that we try to weed out the imperfections, accepting nothing less than the ideal. Deviations from the norm then would have to be dealt with in some way, either changed for the better, or hidden away from sight.
Co-directed by Adib Kosnan and Yarra Ileto, and devised by the students of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ BA (Hons) in Performance Making programme, Less Than Half imagines a future where citizens who do not conform to country ideals are subject to a rigorous training programme by the Sama Wholeness Centre. Those that fail must leave and cannot enjoy the same privileges as everyone else. But those who pass the programme may be giving up something much bigger – their entire identity.
With a massive cast of students, any kind of devised work that features all 19 of them is a challenge, and just creating a role for all of them is already a feat in itself. There is a large degree of inventiveness in how co-directors Adib and Yarra have chosen to bring out their performance skills, challenging them in pushing themselves physically and vocally, to which the students do their best to bring out. For the most part, the cast is divided into two groups, representing the facilitators of Sama, or the converted ‘whole’ citizens in white, and those who are ‘less than half’ in red and black.
Less Than Half goes through an interesting narrative arc, taking its unique framing to tell individual characters’ stories, and showcasing the diversity of ways people can feel invalid or marginalised, be it due to financial background or country of origin. These scenes are also interspersed with scenes from the ‘whole’ citizens and Sama facilitators, who reveal how even within their ranks, there are plenty of misgivings and hesitations too, showing the cracks within a supposedly perfect system. Among these, we learn various characters’ backstories, and these are told through anecdotes of the past, with the Sama employees having the most interesting, unexpected parts, due to their echoes of doubt over their decision.
Naturally, the overall unhappiness at giving up one’s entire identity in order to assimilate and conform reaches a tipping point, and a rebellion is set to ensue. For its fascinating premise though, Less Than Half takes too long to get to this climax, prioritising telling individual characters’ stories rather than focusing on the world-building or focusing on tighter character development. The stories as a result, feel fleeting and doubling down on the same point, with less emotional attachment to individual characters by having to divide our attention and investment across the whole cast.
Less Than Half‘s pacing is also overstretched by its decision to rely on too much literal telling, rather than showing and relying on more metaphorical presentation. By being so literal, so much of the show ends up in the student performers reciting long monologues or conversations, rather than capitalising on the visual potential of the show with their bodies. It is mostly when the physicality of the performers are used that Less Than Half shows its true potential, with performers becoming chimeric beasts conjoined at strange parts, walking in an otherworldly fashion (very similar to the work of Dimitris Papaioannou) that creates a visceral sense of fear at what might happen to those left behind.
While the set design comprises of relatively simple parts, there is a lot of creativity in how they are arranged, at times feeling like a Grecian temple hall lined with pillars, before transforming into a futuristic altar, waiting for some kind of human sacrifice. Overall, there is almost always a threatening, uncanny atmosphere created from the set and lighting alone that leaves us discomforted, always uncertain about the workings of this world and the sinister, invisible powers that control everything else. The actors share some degree of chemistry onstage, and work together in their various ‘groups’ to make it feel as if there is a clear us versus them dynamic going on.
Ultimately, Less Than Half still ends in a rather powerful ending scene, watching as the uprising fails and the rebels are duly punished, in a battle that involves almost every single cast member. This helps end the performance on a high note, with every cast member onstage getting at least some time in the spotlight. As the rebels lie dying, their mission aborted, we are left to reflect on the losses nations go through in the pursuit of success, both in the marginalisation of minorities and the pressure for them to reject such identities in order to conform. Can we truly say that we are all about meritocracy when the barriers to entry are already so high? Less Than Half seems to think not, but hopes that in its portrayal of tragedy, we find the strength and voice to shift the status quo for change.
Photo Credit: Memphis West Pictures/Joe Nair
Less Than Half ran from 5th to 8th January 2023 at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. More information available here
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 ran from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. More information and full lineup available here