Theatre review: With/Out pays a moving tribute to the late Paddy Chew

In the dark, cosy womb of Centre 42's Black Box, the grainy, almost holographic image of Paddy Chew hovers on a translucent scrim. Over the fuzzy static of audio and video that was recorded 15 years ago, playwright Haresh Sharma's disembodied voice (he is downstairs, in the room directly below) reads out Chew's lines, sticking as closely as possible to rhythm, tone, inflection.

Multimedia and performance artist Loo Zihan's With/Out is as much a faithful reconstruction of the late Chew's 1999 monologue, Completely With/Out Character, as it is a deeply moving homage to a man who chose to do the brave and extraordinary in the face of certain death. He died several months later.

Chew, the first person in Singapore to come out as HIV-positive, flickers back to life in a production that is a reading, a screening, an installation and a documentary all at once, on the opening night of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Loo has painstakingly spliced together video documentation of Chew's performances into a whole that is far from seamless, but that allows audience members to revisit an iconic production with the sobering measure of distance and a thorough context.

While this composite performance plays across three screens in the second-floor black box, audience members are free to split their time between watching the reconstructed video and exploring the control room below, where Sharma (who wrote the original script) is reading and a nucleus of technical crew carry out sound and light cues and monitor the production's live stream on YouTube. Copies of the original script, as well as the transcription of the performance by Chew, where he might go on tangents or ad-lib, are available for browsing.

The general sense is one of fierce, careful reverence, allowing audiences to see the piece unfold as a work of documentary, behind layers of technology, to pore over the newspaper and magazine articles that line the wall about Chew's life and death. Or the viewer could also remain upstairs, seated on the floor, soaking up the palpable sense of being at a memorial or a remembrance ceremony.

Loo has long held a fascination with re-enactments, questioning the authenticity of "reproducing" a work: "as a practitioner you wish to interpret a past work with respect, yet not be burdened by the weight of it", he wrote in an interview with online journal Singapore Poetry. This was also clear in his previous "recreation" of Josef Ng's controversial performance art piece Brother Cane for the 2012 edition of the Fringe, which responded to an anti-gay entrapment exercise by the Singapore police in 1993.

In With/Out, Loo is almost over-zealous in his attention to detail and to the deluge of information surrounding Chew's performance and his death, almost as if he were afraid to deprive an audience of any shred of information. Moving through the production feels like one is sifting through its "making of" process, privy to the cogs and gears of this memory of a memory - a strange, newfangled shrine of sorts to Chew.

But despite the overt, deliberate use of several layers of technology, and the clinical fluorescence of the control room, and despite Loo's earnest self-consciousness, With/Out manages to retain its emotional impact.

Could this piece have been performed by anyone other than Paddy Chew? Playwright Alfian Sa'at, in reviewing this play in 1999, thought not. I agree. Completely With/Out Character gains its power and urgency from its temporality. Chew - who was a generous and affable performer - wrestled with the meaning of life, the value of life and the pain of living, in a time when the media callously described him as "the Aids man", in black, bold headlines, and when audience members were afraid to sit in the first row, just in case his saliva landed on them.

With/Out, on the other hand, gains its strength from the permanence of its tribute, and from its futility. It cannot summon Chew back, and it cannot regain that sense of impending loss. But it looks at how we memorialise iconic figures, and its footage is available for all to see on YouTube, not just the dozens of audience members each night. A member of advocacy group Action for Aids Singapore is present to answer questions; he himself is HIV-positive, but this time, no one shuns him.

Throughout the production, a candle glows on a small pedestal, the original candle used in the 1999 production to profound effect. And as Chew's images flit from screen to screen, and it feels as though his presence is lingering just a little longer in the room.

With/Out is sold out, but you can watch a live stream of the performances (till Jan 18) on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzdEF_jl9GY. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/Centre42

corriet@sph.com.sg