Chilling encounter with painful side of war

Actor Johnny Ng (in white) is surrounded by three phantoms played by (from left) Myra Loke, Jo Kwek and Jasmine Xie in The Spirits Play.
Actor Johnny Ng (in white) is surrounded by three phantoms played by (from left) Myra Loke, Jo Kwek and Jasmine Xie in The Spirits Play.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

REVIEW / THEATRE

THE SPIRITS PLAY

The Finger Players

Victoria Theatre/Last Friday


Entering the dark, ghostly world of this anti-war production, performed in Mandarin and directed by theatre practitioner Oliver Chong, one does not expect a pleasant experience. After all, war is not pleasant.

Instead, it is the horrifyingly destructive aspect of such conflict that is analysed and deconstructed in this latest performance of the play written by late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun.

First staged in 1998, it has been performed several times here, most recently in 2015, also by The Finger Players.

While I did not see the previous versions, I can understand how past reviewers have described previous stagings as "draining" and "not easy to sit through", possibly owing to the uncomfortable subject matter.

In this production, five spirit characters, dressed in white, are caught in a limbo in the aftermath of war, struggling with the meaning (or lack) of it all.

Three characters - The Man (Tay Kong Hui), The Mother (Doreen Toh) and The Girl (Tan Wan Sze) - were victimised, either by being raped or having lost loved ones to war.

Another two characters - The General (Johnny Ng) and The Poet (Alvin Chiam) - responsible for the violence and bloodshed to varying degrees, have to exist with their choices.

At times heavy-handed in its treatment of wartime atrocities, seemingly milking the horror from lurid details of decomposing corpses and wriggling maggots, the production gave voice to a loss so overwhelming, and reasoning so perverse, the narrator cannot recall it without quivering lips, uncontrollable convulsions or nervous laughter.

Kuo wrote the three victims' experiences as separate monologues, but this production smoothly weaved the encounters into a single narrative building up to a devastating climax. After all, what the three have in common is pain.

Particularly striking were several tableaux struck by the cast - visually arresting snapshots of war, frozen in time, or reminders of old wounds that cut so deep, can they ever really heal?

Three phantoms, dressed in black and played by Jo Kwek, Myra Loke and Jasmine Xie, provided some respite from the trauma-filled recollections, as did using some first-rate puppetry to convey scenes such as troops marching and bombs falling from enemy planes.

One wonders, though, about the purpose of their sinister, maniacal cackles, apart from presenting the over-simplistic idea of war as a malignant evil.

Set against an eerily discomforting soundscape created by Darren Ng, full of ominous thumping and discordant effects, the stories of these spirits are probably more chilling than any haunted house you visited during the Halloween weekend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Chilling encounter with painful side of war'. Print Edition | Subscribe