Sifa 2022: Devil's Cherry is a strange, hallucinatory fever dream

Devil's Cherry at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARTS HOUSE LIMITED


Devil's Cherry

Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae

Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa)

Pasir Panjang Power Station, Friday (June 3), 7.30pm

Mo and Debbie are a middle-aged Singaporean couple. For several months, they have been travelling around Australia in a rented caravan, chasing new horizons in the land of kangaroos while fleeing their demons back home.

It was nice at first, but they are growing tired of the landscape and each other.

"A bush is a bush is a bush," says Debbie (Neo Swee Lin), frustrated that the place she had been dreaming of is not so great after all.

Devil's Cherry is a strange, hallucinatory fever dream from the minds of Australia-based couple Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae, who founded the theatre group spell#7 in Singapore in 1997.

Tan and Rae, who wrote and directed the show, make the cavernous space in Pasir Panjang Power Station work to their advantage.

The set, thoughtfully designed by Wong Chee Wai, is a large terraced platform that places the actors at a wide berth from the seated audience. But their voices feel strangely close, because we are hearing them via wireless headphones.

This combination of distance and intimacy finds an echo in the dynamic between Mo (Lim Kay Siu) and Debbie, who cannot quite escape from each other. "So much space and not enough distance between us," Debbie says.

Theatre stalwarts Neo and Lim, who are married in real life, slip effortlessly into their roles, channelling the undercurrent of tension between Debbie and Mo with terrifying conviction.

Their characters inhabit a mental wasteland where they come face to face with demons, personal and otherwise, in the guises of Rain (Raina Peterson) and bella donna Marlene (Liz Sergeant Tan).

Words and names are pregnant with meaning. Early on, the characters dance to The Zombie, the catchy, smilingly sinister tune by Australian blues singer C. W. Stoneking. And the Devil's Cherry, we learn, is one of many names for the deadly nightshade plant, an invasive species in Australia.

The programme notes that the show was developed in Melbourne, on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and that the Devil is also an "invasive species". There is much to wrestle with here, and someone unfamiliar with Australian history might struggle to comprehend what this production might be trying to say on the fraught topics of land, nativeness, colonisation and memory.

Neo Swee Lin (left) and Lim Kay Siu in Devil's Cherry. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

This 1½-hour production has many layers that reveal themselves but do not always coalesce. The effect is a kind of theatrical mood poem, something to be experienced rather than fully grasped.

There is some clever use of movement - from the sinuous physicality of Peterson, a dancer who morphs between human and animal with ease; to the fluid gestures of promising actor Liz Sergeant Tan, who has previously danced with Chowk Productions.

The troubled Mo, like Satan in Paradise Lost, realises that the mind is its own place, and can make in itself a hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell.

Shortly after he loses his way, the show unspools into strangeness as it takes an increasingly surreal turn. Some will find it disorienting. It is a trip in both senses of the word, enhanced by sensitive spatial audio by Darius Kedros, and multimedia from the capable Brian Gothong Tan.

While Devil's Cherry is far from perfect, it was a haunting experience that has planted seeds in my mind. May it be a foretaste of more experimental works to come at Sifa.

Book it/Devil's Cherry

Where: Pasir Panjang Power Station, 27 Pasir Panjang Road
MRT: Labrador Park
When: Till Sunday (June 5), 7.30pm
Admission: $48
Info: Sifa's website

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