Theatre Review: Terra Incognita misses the mark with hodgepodge of ideas

Terra Incognita was everything that people hate about experimental theatre.

Gratuitous Latin title? Check. Walking around the stage aimlessly for minutes, shouting random numbers? Check. Sudden, excessive emotion and shouting? Check.

Pat Toh's Terra Incognita (Latin for unknown land) is the evolution of Homogeneous, a presentation which was part of the Esplanade's The Studios Raw series in 2012.

After Toh's grandfather is hospitalised, she is confronted with the frailty of life, and "embarks on a journey to ponder on her daily act of walking beyond its practical means", says the programme booklet.

What the installation performance needed to do was to get rid of all the bells and whistles, and to focus and simplify.

It could have been a quiet, straight-from-the-heart story about a girl and her dying grandfather. It could have been focused on walking, and the rich implications and meaning that can be derived from the simple act itself.

Instead, the work suffered from a bad case of taking itself too seriously. It was littered with overly dramatic intonations and unnecessary devices which detracted from what was supposed to be a deeply personal journey.

After stretching and limbering up, Toh rattled off information about a study which showed that Singaporeans are the fastest walkers into the world, and that the speed of walking has increased by 10 per cent globally since two decades ago.

It was an interesting experiment, and it would have made a decent entry point into the exploration of what walking says about us, and how putting one foot in front of the other is not just a physical act but a projection of something deeper.

Instead, she changed tack, and began to march back and forth across the stage, straight-backed and eyes facing resolutely forward. "One thousand, five hundred and fifty six!" she shouted as she walked. "Two thousand, two hundred and forty!"

For the first few minutes, it did elevate the act of walking to something more. I observed Toh's erect carriage, her steady strides, and the way she planted each foot firmly on the floor. I kept track of her pace, wondering if she was speeding up or slowing down.

But after five minutes of this, it became, quite literally, pedestrian.

After finally coming to a halt, she began to talk about her grandfather. We learn that he loves to walk aimlessly, rambling and exploring. We learn that he wears sandals on his jaunts, and that he is sometimes mistaken for a bum or loiterer.

Toh's recollection of him is sweet, and we want to know more. How did they grow close? What did he enjoy about walking? What did they do together?

But instead of painting us a fleshed out portrait, Toh leaves her grandfather as an unfinished sketch, and ambles down a path potholed with platitudes about life.

"In order to be happy, you have to be ordinary", she intoned. "I am unexceptional...I blend in and I disappear. I feel indifferent about it."

Despite her words, you got the sense that she felt anything but ordinary, and at this point, a particularly uncharitable audience member sitting right behind me groaned and whispered something derisive to her friend.

The show chugged towards the finish line as Toh recounted her grandfather's time in hospital, his body and mind slipping away. Stripping down to a sports bra and underwear, she began a rigid, jerky dance, accompanied by high-pitched screams and guttural growls. Literally beating herself into a frenzy with her hands, she roared: "My mind cannot contain what I see!...Civilisation is expanding inside me!"

By the time the show was over, my mind could not contain what I had seen either, and I was glad to be out of the unknown land back to civilisation.

lting@sph.com.sg


Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio

When: Jan 15, 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)