Prison tales retold

Dark Room, with multiple storylines of prisoners, is delightfully staged.
Dark Room, with multiple storylines of prisoners, is delightfully staged.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

REVIEW / THEATRE

DARK ROOM

By Edith Podesta/Esplanade Presents: The Studios

Esplanade Theatre Studio/ Thursday

This piece of documentary theatre about life in Changi Prison is delightfully staged, but somewhat draggy.

  • BOOK IT / DARK ROOM

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

    WHEN: 3pm tomorrow (all other shows sold out)

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Performed in English with some Mandarin and Malay and English surtitles. The performance contains some coarse language

It could have easily trimmed half an hour off its two-hour length and still made its salient point: When one is confined to a small space for a time set by a higher power, the minutes tick away in dreary monotony punctuated by brief moments of hilarity or horror.

Dark Room is commissioned by the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay for its The Studios 2016 season. An earlier version, Dark Room x8, was staged in 2014 for Raw, an incubatory platform offered by The Studios series.

In Dark Room x8, director-writer Edith Podesta used verbatim accounts from former prisoners to present the stories of eight men confined to a 5m-by-5m cell. The play received nominations for Best Script and Best Director at last year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards and won the prize for Best Ensemble.

Ensemble performance remains strong in this week's Dark Room. It expands on the story by including the memories of a single woman prisoner, played by Shafiqhah Efandi, as well as the accounts of prisoners' parents. Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu play the parents bit with poignant realism.

There are multiple storylines to follow from court to cell to day of release. Noor Effendy Ibrahim and Nelson Chia give stand-out performances as long-term prisoners who mentor the newbies. Also memorable are Mohd Fared Jainal as a deceptively nonchalant inmate, Ian Tan as a defensive ex-con, Timothy Nga as a prisoner brought to tears on letter day and Oliver Chong as an incomer shocked by the limited entertainment options.

The writer's desire to use as many individual accounts as possible leads to an overabundance of characters on stage. Those played by Pavan J. Singh and Erwin Shah Ismail could have been integrated into other inmates' stories without losing the plot. The story of the lone female could have been jettisoned as well. It is lost in the masculine uproar coming from the opposite corner.

Set designer Chris Chua isolates the men and women's prisons in two shockingly small and grey open-ended cubes, apparently the size of actual prison cells meant to house four inmates at a time. A dayroom, recreational yard and other prison areas are created through determined shuffling around of the cubes by stagehands who deserve a cast credit for also doubling up as stern prison guards.

Lighting by Adrian Tan adds to the realism, creating starlight through a window grating, the pre-dawn darkness of a prison cell and the bright underground lighting of the yard. Darren Ng's sound effects are perfectly blended into the background, whether it is the prisoners' singing themselves to sleep or the distant, muted sounds of caning that have audience and cast wincing in sympathy.

A directorial decision to leave the inmates' crimes out of the script means that Dark Room sheds light on prison conditions without engaging the audience's censure. It also means that the characters' plea for their past to be overlooked does not engage as much sympathy as it could.

How can we be sure that the punishment does not fit the crime?

Perhaps another version of Dark Room will answer such questions. Small or large, this is a space worth revisiting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Prison tales retold'. Print Edition | Subscribe