Arts Review Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: No Particular Order (TRIP 2023)

Sim Yan Ying attempts to make sense of the chaos of war and conflict in this mood piece.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Sim Yan Ying “YY”)6
Script (Joel Tan)6
Performance (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, Karen Tan, Pavan J Singh and Shrey Bhargava)6
Set Design (Hella Chan) 6
Lighting Design (James Tan)6
Sound Design (Lee Yew Jin – Ctrl Fre@k)6
Total36/60 (60%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Since the dawn of time, humans have engaged in conflict. Whether a simple argument or an attempt to invade and annexe new land, at no point in recorded history have we ever been able to be completely free of conflict, whether fighting wars in our own country, or dealing with the aftermath of such traumatic experiences.

Presented by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, as part of their new TRIP directors’ residency, Joel Tan’s No Particular Order made its Singapore debut this weekend, as led by early-career director Sim Yan Ying “YY”. Set in an unnamed war-torn country, No Particular Order takes the form of a series of 32 vignettes performed by four actors, playing different roles in each scene, as we watch this country wrestle with its violent realities, and ultimately decide – is it empathy or power that endures when everything has been destroyed.

Due to the vignette style of the script, No Particular Order introduces us to a medley of characters, spending fleeting amounts of time with each one before being whisked away to the next scene, never seeing the same character again. While there is an attempt to take the opportunity for greater world-building and experimentation, Joel Tan’s writing has always been strongest when there is a central, focused story and characters at hand. Without that narrative to anchor him, the script leans all the way into the abstract. In essence, he drops breadcrumbs of details into each scene, intended to contribute to an overarching dystopian world, but these never feel important enough to piece together as cohesively as one hopes, and the resulting setting feels vague and generic, rather than real and actualised.

Without being able to fully immerse ourselves in the main setting, this makes it even harder for the countless characters he’s written to leave an impact. This is a pity, as the characters that inhabit this world, on paper, are diverse and varied enough to each bring something unique to the table, from blue collar bird exterminators, to soldiers on the warfront, to underground activists, and even members of a fashion haus deciding what’s in for the season. Rarely, if ever, does it seem like these characters inhabit a world that has stakes, with threatening moments glossed over or antagonistic characters lacking the extra sense of danger. One finds oneself constantly wishing that we had just a bit more of an emotional thrust to anchor ourselves to these characters and feel for them.

That is not to say the cast doesn’t try their best to commit to their roles, as detached as they seem at times (understandably, as they have to rapidly shift between roles within the span of a single blackout). Veteran actors Karen Tan and Pavan J Singh are at their best when they play extreme, almost caricature-like characters that toe the line between cartoonish and reality, such as Karen’s take on an exasperated bureaucrat attempting, or Pavan as a terrified extraterrestrial encountering humans for the first time. The younger set, Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen and Shrey Bhargava, are given roles that are generally less memorable, and often feel like they’re grasping for a way to define their roles, with performances that result more in stock characters that are either whining or in distress, than fully fleshed out.

Chaos is at the heart of No Particular Order, and that is evident even in the design elements. Hella Chan’s set sees chains strung from the ceiling, while sandbags, concrete-grey slabs and wooden furniture are arranged around the stage, forming areas for various scenes to take place. It’s a set that feels messy, and while it does line up with the central theme of strife and disorder, hinders the actors, with long blackouts to facilitate them walking from one space to another, or even pulling out props hidden underneath the slabs to set up for the next scene. Even Lee Yew Jin’s sound design is disruptive, with industrial noise arranged into sounds befitting an underground Berlin club that plays over blackouts, often feeling a beat too slow, and not always appropriately linked to the scenes that come before and after. The same applies for the more zen-like transition sounds in the latter scenes, in a post-war world, which again, are repetitive do not align well with every scene.

As a piece meant to show off YY’s directorial chops, No Particular Order feels like a markedly different work from her previous productions, and perhaps, posed multiple challenges for her, both in terms of the ambitious subject matter, and the vignette-style script. Too often, it feels like a work that was executed with emotional distance, with few peaks and valleys to create a more vivid flow throughout the show, and a sense of aloofness that characterises all that happens onstage. There is a message of hope amidst this bleak picture of eternal war that has been painted, where the end scene chooses to help rather than abandon those in need. But it is a message of hope that is merely told to us, and not felt by the audience. YY continues to explore her artistry in TRIP and beyond, one expects her to find a stronger voice in her next outing, and truly realize what she is capable of, by exerting more control over the vision for the production, even as she explores beyond her comfort zone.

Photos by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 

More information about YY available from her website

No Particular Order played from 1st to 2nd April 2023, while I am trying to say something true plays from 8th to 9th April 2023, both at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Find out more about TRIP here

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