Theatre review: Cloud Messenger travels the distance to find a connection

One look at the title Cloud Messenger and one thinks of photos, music, the fragments of people's lives stored in invisible clouds. -- PHOTO: INTERCULTURAL THEATRE INSTITUTE
One look at the title Cloud Messenger and one thinks of photos, music, the fragments of people's lives stored in invisible clouds. -- PHOTO: INTERCULTURAL THEATRE INSTITUTE

One look at the title Cloud Messenger and one thinks of photos, music, the fragments of people's lives stored in invisible clouds.

But the play has a much older provenance - it is based on the poem Megha Duta by ancient Indian writer Kalidasa, about a man in exile who asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife.

Written and directed by theatre veterans Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan respectively, and put together by a multinational cast which hails from as far as Bolivia, the play staged over the weekend is a multi-layered and multilingual look at loss, journeys and foreigners working in Singapore's midst.

Like its title, which references the classical and the modern, the play is both lyrical and topical. It is funny as well, its touch at times deliciously fluffy.

The play is performed by seven graduating students of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, an actor-training programme started in 2000 by the late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun.

The 70-minute show weaves in autobiographical elements from the performers' lives. By the end of it, one would have learnt of the trajectories of the seven, who have left behind children, parents and careers to take part in the three-year training that the school offers them in Asian theatre forms such as Noh.

In their own tongues, Bolivian Pedro Talavera, Filipino Denise Aguilar and Italian Giorgia Ciampi tell of the homes and kin they have left behind, as subtitles flash past the audiences' heads. But really, some emotions - seen in the shine in one's eyes as one speaks of home - need no translation.

Multimedia images, of clouds and of past selves glimpsed in old uniforms, add to the reflective mood in the intimate Black Box at the Drama Centre.

The play weaves in not just grand life narratives but also bits and pieces of the actors' experiences at the institute, be it glimpses of camaraderie or their take on Singaporean traits.

For example, an Indian student arrives at Changi Airport only to find the person who was supposed to look out for him engrossed with her smartphone.

It also invites the audiences to think about their relationship with foreign workers.

As the play starts, actors in white are putting on sarongs, later standing or sitting on metal racks that resemble double- and triple-bunk beds in dormitories.

Uniforms are put on; a security guard (Shakeel Ahmmad) and a cleaner (Jyothirmayi Kurup) share a lunch. He chats animatedly with his friend, offering her chapati.

But suddenly duty calls. He stands up, his face like a stone and his voice gruff. "Your name?" he jots down on a clipboard. "Sign here please."

Such is the perfunctory interaction that many people have with foreign workers here.

In another snippet, which is a tad heavy-handed, a French employer (Ciampi) consoles her Filipino maid (Aguilar), saddened by the vitriol expressed by some Singaporeans against plans to celebrate the Filipino Independence Day here.

The funniest segment is when the two Singaporeans (Lina Yu and Kalaiselvi Grace) play trainers taking rookies at their agency through their paces. Except the newbies are no maids but clouds.

One by one, the happy clouds - looking like Smurfs in frilly blue and white - swirl, twirl and line up after one another to get into "formations".

Through storms and high water, avoiding the "big metal bird", the clouds go far and wide to send their messages, just as the actors have traversed distances real and imagined to make meaning and ultimately connect.