A voice of the living

For her new play, playwright and director Kaylene Tan will have viewers don headphones to hear a recorded narrative in a male voice, while two female performers act on stage.

In The Silence Of Your Heart is one of four new plays commissioned for the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's annual The Studios season. It runs at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from April 5 to 8.

The story is about a paralysed former politician, Thian, who relives his earlier days and the death of his daughter. Lim Kay Tong speaks as Thian, without ever appearing on stage, while Jalyn Han and Tan Hui Er play the women in Thian's lives.

Asked about the format of the play, Kaylene Tan, 43, laughs over the telephone from Australia where she is based.

"Who doesn't want to listen to Lim Kay Tong?" she says. "There's a kind of gravitas and how his voice has aged over time is wonderful to listen to."

This is the latest audio experiment in a career that has included audio walks in the noughties along Little India and the North-East MRT Line. Those were created with her husband Paul Rae, co-founder of the now-defunct theatre group spell#7.

For In The Silence Of Your Heart, the headphones offer a "stream-of-consciousness" narrative that makes the experience personal for listeners.

Also, she adds: "The audience is in a similar state to the man, where they're trapped and can't escape this voice (in their head). That works in the context of the show."

Tan's starting point was her interest in her late maternal grandfather. He had been a politician and led a colourful life, but was paralysed by a stroke when she was a child.

"At the time I knew him, he was this body in a bed that couldn't speak," she recalls. "There were all these stories about him and I never got to know him before the stroke."

In The Silence Of Your Heart is not her grandfather's story, but it is about the stories people choose to tell themselves.

Last year, Tan worked on a family history with relatives in Malaysia and was struck by how "families curate history" to present the best picture of themselves.

"We choose to put in only the good things. There was philandering, bankruptcy and all these things got swept under the carpet," she says.

"I was very conscious of the kind of nostalgia that we retreat towards when we're trying to present our past for our future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline 'A voice of the living'. Print Edition | Subscribe