The O.P.E.N.’s productions tackle taboo topics

A scene from the theatre production Ibsen: Ghosts, which deals with assisted suicide.
A scene from the theatre production Ibsen: Ghosts, which deals with assisted suicide. PHOTO: KOMUN CH

From euthanasia to conflict in the Middle East, The O.P.E.N. festival takes on difficult and taboo topics

In 2014, a healthy 81-year-old woman named Margot travelled to Switzerland to die.

A German theatre collective accompanied her and documented her final days, until she died in an assisted suicide facility.

This story forms the basis of Ibsen: Ghosts, one of the productions at this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts' The O.P.E.N. pre- festival, which kicked off on Wednesday and runs till July 9.

It is a multi-disciplinary showcase including dance performances, concerts, plays and movie screenings. Difficult themes and taboo subjects make repeated appearances: Euthanasia, in the case of Ibsen: Ghosts, and in other shows, war and conflict, especially in the Middle East.

At the festival's launch, the exhibition I Know Why The Rebel Sings, by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, attracted media attention.

We didn't say goodbye once. We've performed the show about 40 times now in theatre festivals, so we say goodbye in every show we have.

ARTIST MARKUS WENZEL, who interviewed an elderly woman who travelled to Switzerland and died in an assisted suicide facility

The Media Development Authority had requested that photographs depicting Kurdish female soldiers who had joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria be removed. In response, the festival replaced 15 disallowed photographs with black cards.

The documentary performance Ibsen: Ghosts is presented by a five-man German theatre collective Markus&Markus, which was started in 2011 and known for delving into political issues and blurring the line between performance and reality.

Its show features actors performing to archive video footage of Margot in the background.

The show's title was derived from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1881 play Ghosts, in which the protagonist, Oswald, stricken with venereal disease, pleads with his mother to help him die.

Markus&Markus wanted to make a play discussing the ethics of assisted suicide. It reached out to many assisted suicide organisations but was told it would be hard to find someone willing to share his or her last days with it.

  • BOOK IT / IBSEN: GHOSTS

    WHERE: School Of The Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: July 6 to 8, 8pm

    ADMISSION: The O.P.E.N. pass costs $45 and allows entry to all events. Registration is required for all events.

    INFO: Go to www.sifa.sg

In an e-mail interview, artist Markus Wenzel describes the discovery of Margot as "winning the lottery".

She was very open in sharing her experiences and gave them hundreds of letters, photos and artefacts from her flat.

When the time came to say goodbye, it was understandably difficult for the group - and each performance is a revisit of those raw emotions.

AddsWenzel: "We didn't say goodbye once. We've performed the show about 40 times now in theatre festivals, so we say goodbye in every show we have."

Exploring human mortality and fragility in another way is Riding On A Cloud, a mixed-media theatre piece by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue which features his brother Yasser, who barely survived a sniper shooting in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, in 1987.

The bullet pierced his skull, leaving him with partial paralysis and aphasia - he was unable to understand words or speak, due to brain damage.

It also robbed Yasser of the ability to understand representation. For instance, he can recognise a pen, but not a flashcard with a pen drawn on it.

In the production, Yasser plays audio and video clips that narrate and meditate on moments in his life. He presents a moving self- narrative, but a question soon emerges over whether he is presenting a performance or reality.

Rabih made a conscious decision to not focus specifically on his brother's ordeal, but to deal with the larger themes of memory, language and representation.

"I wanted to go towards a poetic or contemplative space," he adds.

His previous works deal with the problematic nature of re-telling history, especially in Lebanon, which has experienced years of sectarian conflict and civil war.

He wants to deal with versions of histories told from different perspectives in a non-judgmental way.

"When we talk about the history and events of a country, there are some facts highlighted and some kept out," he says.

"The danger comes when we have a dichotomy, that someone is right or wrong, bad or good, black or white. That kills the conversation. That's why I'm interested in the grey area, to explore what's inside, beyond this rumour or that lie."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Of death and war'. Print Edition | Subscribe