Theatre review: Fluid by The Theatre Practice gently challenges notions of theatre

 An image of the experimental theatre production Fluid, directed by Liu Xiaoyi. -- PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE
 An image of the experimental theatre production Fluid, directed by Liu Xiaoyi. -- PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE

Actress Li Xie pulls back the heavy black curtains and enters the dark theatre as an usher would, flashlight in hand, its thin beam bouncing off audience members and the exposed scaffolding of the ceiling.

This opening moment of Fluid, directed by Liu Xiaoyi, is a sign of what is to come: the pulling back of the curtains on the art of the theatre, that tiny light in the darkness that attempts to examine, bit by bit, what this mysterious, chameleonic art form really is all about.

On one level, Fluid tells the tale of a certain elderly cashier named Wong, and his chance encounter with the art of performance. He glimpses a group of children singing and dancing in what appears to be a rehearsal and, on impulse, signs up for a six-day performance masterclass. Except that we never see Wong. His story is a 'radio play', unspooling from a whirring phonograph on stage.

But the beauty of Fluid, which clocks in at just over an hour, is its bird's eye view, so to speak, of what regular theatregoers may take for granted.

Wong's story, interrupted by various 'technical faults' and framed within an ongoing experimental production, details his shock at meeting 'artists types' in the flesh, his bewilderment at their bizarre rehearsal techniques and preoccupation with violence and nudity, as he questions his reasons for participating in this performance workshop.

There is a charming unaffectedness to this Chinese-language production that lulls one into believing it will adhere to a structure, only to gently and humorously interrupt these expectations time and time again. As all this unfolds on audio, the live performers on stage - actress Li and dancer Lim Chin Huat (who have both collaborated with Liu previously) - potter and whirl about the room.

Li toys with her flashlight, fiddles with her smartphone, and occasionally takes over narrating Wong's story when the vinyl begins to behave like a broken record. Lim, on the other hand, traverses a sea of rustling plastic bags on the other side of the stage in a quiet movement piece of his own, surfacing now and then with a striking series of gestures set against sound designer Darren Ng's complex soundscape.

There were a handful of moments where it did feel as though Liu was subverting theatre convention for the sake of subverting convention, using every charming trick in the meta-theatre playbook to reel the audience in.

But, by and large, these interventions do work. Liu never over-emphasises each break with tradition. Whether it is a subtle nod to the use of surtitles by delaying them in one scene, or audience participation, or questions as to how much a fleeting experience should cost, these moments are given room to breathe.

It feels apt that Liu should poke and tease at theatre so self-consciously within the context of the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, a festival created to celebrate this field.

All too often, art in Singapore is created in an echo chamber: by the usual suspects, for the usual suspects. What happens when one crosses over and views art from the 'other side'? It was refreshing to see both Li and Lim, as performers acting as performers, explore their agency within and around the narrative structure of Wong's story, and their ability to influence its outcome.

While many of the similarly 'self-aware' productions I have seen also pay close attention to the process of creation, and either poke fun at this process or analyse it to gain more meaning from it, many of these productions get stuck in simply looking at themselves, revelling in that image, and never going further. Theatre is not the art of one person or thing looking indulgently inward.

I'll admit that the vague, adamantly rhetorical tone of the writeup for Fluid (which demanded "Is this drama? What is drama? What is performance?") left me sceptical of what to expect. But Fluid itself is gentle with its questions, leaving little ripples to expand outward, in an attempt to go beyond itself and welcome others into the fold.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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Where: Lasalle College of the Arts, Flexible Performance Space

When: July 10 and 11 at 8pm, July 12 at 3pm and 8pm, July 13 at 3pm

Admission: $38 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

Info: In Mandarin with English surtitles