Theatre review: Decimal Points 810 celebrates life and meditates on mortality

A production photo from Decimal Points 810, conceived and directed by Neo Kim Seng. The cast members from left to right: Chin Rui Yuan, Anita Set, Jean Toh, Rachel Poh, Yazid Jalil, John Cheah (standing on 2nd floor), Al-Matin Yatim, Chang Ting Wei,
A production photo from Decimal Points 810, conceived and directed by Neo Kim Seng. The cast members from left to right: Chin Rui Yuan, Anita Set, Jean Toh, Rachel Poh, Yazid Jalil, John Cheah (standing on 2nd floor), Al-Matin Yatim, Chang Ting Wei, Paula Sim. -- PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

This new addition to Cake's Decimal Points series - and the first without a decimal point - opens rather somberly to the melancholy strains of Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley, after Leonard Cohen).

In a sense, this gravity is to be expected; after all, this writing and directing debut by independent producer Neo Kim Seng was inspired by a moment of life and death, as he personally went under the knife for heart surgery to fix a mitral valve prolapse (in a nutshell, a faulty valve in the heart) last year.

It is a moment of keen introspection, and the nine performers scattered across the Substation Theatre stage slowly pick themselves up from the floor and leave the room, almost as if they were ending the show just as it was beginning. And then almost immediately, we are plunged into an over-the-top, gleefully cheerful prelude to a patient's impending heart surgery. He is surrounded by a cabaret chorus of flirtatious and unnervingly reckless medical staff prepping him for an injection of propofol, better known as "the Michael Jackson drug" which killed the late singer.

These unexpected juxtapositions and small revelations are what make Decimal Points 810 a joy to watch, even if the sum of its parts do not always cohere into a uniform whole - which, I suspect, was never the intention anyway.

After all, 810 is as much as celebration of life as it is a meditation on mortality.

The experimental production takes its cue from patients' hallucinations while in surgery. It strings together seemingly unrelated vignettes, from a re-enactment of K-pop group Crayon Pop's cutesy earworm Bar Bar Bar, to moving personal anecdotes by the show's young cast on the brevity of life. The nine actors do well as a collective whole, bringing out a remarkable sense of control in their movements.

There is a general looseness to this production, which never attempts to impose a narrative arc on its scenes, but allows each of them time to breathe. The result is an open-endedness and lack of resolution that some might find frustrating, as the production leaps wildly from one fragment to the next. But there is also a kaleidoscopic method to the madness as each scene stands on its own.

What I found most poignant was Neo's personal experience of others' mortality, in the form of gentle tributes to the late theatre luminaries Christina Sergeant and, to a larger extent, William Teo, the inventive champion of intercultural theatre and founder of the Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre.

Through scratchy video clips, we get a glimpse of Sergeant performing in To See (1999) in The Substation Garden, part of a series on women and war directed by Teo.

Teo himself appears on screen, aglow with excitement, as he points out the dilapidated house in Bukit Timah Road that will be the stage for his final work, The Painted House (2000), before his untimely death a year later at the age of 43 from tuberculosis.

As the young actors performed a reimagination of The Painted House (envisioned as a parable rich with anthropomorphic animals) and touched on Singapore's World War Two history, their contemplation of mortality and loss, framed by their own youth and vigour, was perhaps the most stark juxtaposition of all.

It was startling to see how these emerging actors had become conduits for a previous generation of performers (many of whom are long gone) who had blazed a trail for them. It was almost as if the iconic figures of Teo and Sergeant were in the room with us. And how apt to be in the Substation, a space that was set in motion by yet another late theatre pioneer, Kuo Pao Kun.

Having worked as a producer and programmer with many of these theatre figures, Neo seems to have become a bridge between old and new, and perhaps even living and dead, seeing how his life once hung in the balance.

One emerges from 810 with the unshakeable belief that mortality is something that binds us all - young or old; dead or alive; past, present or future.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan