HIV performance engages on multiple levels

Janice Koh.
Janice Koh.

REVIEW / THEATRE

WITH/OUT

Loo Zihan/ Esplanade Presents: The Studios

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Thursday

The question of ownership and authenticity when reinterpreting a deeply personal work is cleverly answered by With/Out.

The show conceived and directed by Loo Zihan plays out on and between three slanted, translucent screens in the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Two screens show footage from a 1999 docu-theatre monologue titled Completely With/Out Character. It was performed by the late Paddy Chew and was based on his experience living with HIV in Singapore.

The third screen shows real-time footage from the present-day production, where actress Janice Koh performs the script that Chew's show was based on, and often deviated from. The script was devised by Chew with The Necessary Stage's playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan. Viewers wear headphones and can choose from three audio channels. One broadcasts only Chew's performance, the second, only Koh's; and the third, both.

The obvious flaw in this design is when Koh projects sadness and a viewer focusing on Chew's humorous delivery of similar words laughs. Yet the flaw turns out to be the production's strength.

Comparing original and present performances, it is clear that Chew used camp comedy to distance himself from the bitter reality of his approaching death, as well as the isolation he faced as an HIV carrier. Unlike Chew, Koh does not use humour to soften incidents such as an HIV patient's ineligibility for a housing loan.

The show was designed for the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay's season of The Studios, an annual programme that encourages experimental work and which focuses for the first time on redeveloping the text of a single playwright: Sharma.

With/Out engages viewers on different levels, through multiple perspectives. The audience can view the video from the sidelines or move around and view the footage from different vantage points - or engage with Koh close up. It is an echo - faint, but still an echo - of how audiences for Completely With/Out Character must have had to confront their prejudices by choosing whether to go for the show and whether to interact with Chew during a live question-andanswer session.

The show adds triumphant resonance to Chew's exhortation to himself: to speak up, to refuse to be silent even from the grave. The choose-your-own experience element alone makes this a production that viewers will want to engage with multiple times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'HIV performance engages on multiple levels'. Print Edition | Subscribe