Capitalism and purpose are called into question in this surreal, offbeat new play.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Adeeb Fazah)||6|
|Script (Edward Eng)||6|
|Performance (Shannen Tan, Cheryl Ho)||7|
|Sound Design (Vick Low)||7|
What do you do when you can no longer stand the dread of living and the dullness of work? For most people, they end up quiet quitting. For others, they turn into rhinoceroses, at least, in the bizarro version of Singapore the characters of Gangguan!’s latest play find themselves in.
Directed by Adeeb Fazah, Edward Eng’s new play Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? continues his trajectory of addressing modern anxieties (after 2022’s The Change), and this time, tackles millennial concerns and existential crises, with the core question – how is it that we can still be so sad, as we live through what is objectively the best time in human history?
The way Rhinos does this however, is somewhat roundabout, as we find ourselves in a bedroom recording studio, complete with a neon ‘Live on Air’ sign. Here, friends Bella and Chan (Shannen Tan and Cheryl Ho) are performing their newest radio play, about the (fictitious) ‘rhinoceritis epidemic’ in the 1980s, while an actual rhinoceritis epidemic shakes the entirety of Singapore in present day. It’s an imaginative setting that completely recontextualises the original inspiration of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and still manages to find relevance, as bizarre as it may be.
Rhinos isn’t particularly committed to a specific storyline, meandering rather than putting a foot down on what it wants to say. The play shifts between the radio play itself, and conversations between Bella and Chan, as they discuss work, life and the future. By allowing us to see the mechanics behind the play, this structure acts as a double-edged sword, achieving two separate effects – the first being that it feels intimate, as if we truly are in the same room as these friends, and the second being that we never really commit to either world, charmed but not fully drawn in.
Between the two, the ‘radio play’ segment is more successful. Both Shannen and Cheryl get a chance to show off their range of character work without having to fully become experts (considering that they are positioned as amateurs putting on this play), and between the two, they perform characters such as irritable aunties, awkward scientists, nervous interns, and intrepid journalists. Character transitions are often unexpected and sudden, and part of the fun is seeing how abruptly they transform themselves with no costume changes, only their voice and physicality.
A large part of the charm of the ‘radio play’ is also how makeshift it all is, with only a simple laptop and mic set-up. Both actors also utilise a combination of pre-recorded sound effects, as well as live foley to help enact the scenes. Literal branches with leaves are shaken to represent traipsing through the forest, with a series of other props either strewn around the stage or revealed when taken out of a giant IKEA carrier bag. Both actors display a willingness to commit to their roles, and even in a snap moment, audience members feel genuine emotion for these fleeting characters. One particularly standout scene sees Shannen’s character transformed into a rhino, while Cheryl’s character attempts to deliver a public service announcement, her voice trembling in fear while Shannen seems to collapse into her new form. Intentional or not, there is something thematically resounding about the way they transform so easily into new characters, echoing the ease the way those with rhinoceritis undergo a physical change into their ungulate forms.
On the other hand, the conversations outside of the radio play are more downbeat and sobering, with both friends reflecting on their work lives and the ennui of existence. A shocking revelation towards the end of the play also threatens to break their friendship once and for all, and shows just how different both of their mindsets and attitudes towards life and living are. These also act as ‘breathers’ from the radio play, as if stopping to pause and reflect, though there are times it does feel like two separate ideas only joined by the existence of ‘rhinoceritis’. Both actors have decent chemistry with each other, and you believe their backstories as they tell them. In the same vein as the play’s original source material, there is a frustrating absurdism to how doom seems inevitable, and that they are stuck, unable to shift their fate. In a way, it harkens back to the time of pandemic lockdowns, when going to work would seem pointless in the face of the supposed end of the world.
Ultimately, the play reaches a kind of heavy acceptance, with its final, impressively choreographed, though overlong scene a bold attempt to celebrate friendship persevering, and representative of the decision to continue living in spite of all odds and obstacles. By the end of this off-beat creation, we’re still not entirely sure how to feel, with the play’s aim to be more reflective than intentional in its goals.
What is clear is that with this second play, Gangguan! writer Edward Eng is establishing himself as someone who is attempting to use his work to grapple with fear and uncertainty through humour and conversation. There’s a uniqueness to these fringe ‘bedroom plays’ within Singapore’s theatre landscape, offering a surreal response to modern anxieties, and reminding youths that perhaps, we’re not so alone in these intrusive thoughts after all.
Photo Credit: Gangguan!
Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? played from 4th to 7th May 2023 at Centre 42 in Singapore. It will tour to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 15th to 27th August 2023, at Summerhall. Tickets available here
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