Theatre review: Ho Tzu Nyen's Ten Thousand Tigers shows off its stripes

So, the story goes that the Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama saw a lion strut through Singapore's forest at the turn of the 14th century and decided to name this island Singapura, the lion city.

Except it probably wasn't a lion, this creature with an orange body, black head and a white chest. Studies indicate that it was likely his majesty had seen a tiger instead, a predator native to this part of Southeast Asia and the subject of many a monstrous myth.

Picking up from his previous experimental outing at the Studios season, The Song Of The Brokenhearted Tiger (2012), artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen has pieced together a dramatic (and more coherent) series of dynamic dioramas that reconstructs the mythos behind the elusive tiger - feared, fought, and mistaken for another, slipping in and out of its striped skin.

Like an archivist peeling the dusty sheets from long-lost artifacts in the recesses of a museum, Ho takes a certain pride in unearthing the various tales surrounding the tiger. Whether in portraying the tiger as metaphor, supernatural creature or macabre nickname (as in the case of war criminal General Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya"), Ho reserves a measured reverence for this king of beasts.

There is a mesmerising air to this one-hour act, which compacts several of Ho's recent artistic explorations into a single performance installation.

The narration-heavy production begins with the curious case of Lai Teck, a shadowy figure in the Malayan Communist Party who, as rumour has it, defected twice to different parties, became a triple agent, and had dozens of aliases.

Then there is the story, told by a Japanese soldier (played by Hiro Machida) trapped in a freezeframe, of the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II, and the ruthless troops headed by General Yamashita that overran what had once been "an impregnable fortress".

Almost as if they were museum exhibits coming to life, other narrative strands begin to pull together (some more glacially than others), including the lyrical tales of two storytellers (Rizman Putra and Bani Haykal), hunched over and on a low squat, invoking the terrifying spirit of the mythical Malayan weretiger.

More than just a meditation on the concept of the tiger, Ho's piece attempts to explore the ways in which metaphor seeps into reality, and examines the authority of folklore and its subconscious impact on the local psyche - which made me re-evaluate why Singapore was dubbed one of the Four Asian Tigers due to its high economic growth. There are large arcs that address the eternal struggle of man versus nature, and while heavy-handed on the symbolism, Ho offers a more poetic approach to an everyday allegory.

There is a deeply cinematic quality to Ten Thousand Tigers, with its careful use of light and shadow to frame images and objects. Beams of light cut through the darkness to isolate, say, a single hand moving eerily through a mass of static appendages, or a hollow skull. As the storytellers conjure up the image of a tiger moving steadily through darkness, heads of lalang nod in an invisible breeze.

These larger-than-life dioramas, juxtaposed against intricate models and a cascade of images on video screens, are the most deeply satisfying elements of the work. The visual reveals are surprising and, at certain moments, breathtaking - particularly when a neutral wayang kulit-esque installation almost magically absorbs a full set of colours with the clever use of projections.

In an echo of one of Ho's recent exhibitions, Pythagoras, at the Michael Janssen Gallery in Gillman Baracks, there are hypnotising scenes where projections of curtains onto a set of automated curtains pull back to reveal even more curtains - the authoritative figures behind the curtains are buried behind so many layers of curtains (both real and imagined) that it is difficult to distinguish if they are cowering behind them, or if they prefer to remain removed, at an arm's length from the unfolding action.

Just like the elusive Lai Teck, swaddled in layers of mystery, the tale of the tiger seems to have no beginning and no end, a Moebius strip of layers that only serve to perpetuate this mysteriousness.

The visual cleverness of the work, however, is marred by a sort of curatorial indulgence on Ho's part - he milks this production to its very last drop, almost as if he were taking so much time to savour each mouthful of poetry, so compelled to keep the sentences unfurling, that the words gradually lose their flavour as they are chewed dry.

But while the work can sometimes feel like a passive facsimile for the aggressive real deal, the tiger - captured in film, photography and in storytelling - still manages to send a prickle down one's spine.

corriet@sph.com.sg

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TEN THOUSAND TIGERS

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio

When: April 19 (Saturday), 3 and 8pm

Admission: $28 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: www.thestudios.com.sg

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