Skilfully haunting

The Finger Players' take on Kuo Pao Kun's The Spirits Play is visually arresting and mentally evocative

(From left) Tay Kong Hui as The Man, Doreen Toh as The Mother and Tan Wan Sze as The Girl put on powerful performances.
(From left) Tay Kong Hui as The Man, Doreen Toh as The Mother and Tan Wan Sze as The Girl put on powerful performances. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

The Spirits Play by The Finger Players is an unvarnished take that stays true to the spirit of the late theatre giant Kuo Pao Kun's bleak 1998 anti-war work, which explores man's natural tendency to violence and the killings one undertakes in the name of nationalism.

For the most part, director Oliver Chong adheres to Kuo's original script, which was inspired by World War II, but still resonates today, in a world roiled by terrorism and civil strife.

Five Japanese spirits in limbo - The Mother, The General, The Girl, The Man and The Poet - tarry at their resting place on a secluded isle and recount the wartime atrocities they have each experienced.

Chong, who has carefully studied the play's previous stagings, succeeds with the liberties he takes.



    The Finger Players

    Drama Centre, Black Box/Thursday


  • WHERE: Drama Centre, Black Box, 05-01 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till Nov 15, Tuesday to Saturday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3pm, no shows on Monday

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: Go to

His decision to introduce three phantoms (Jo Kwek, Myra Loke and Jasmine Xie doing some first-rate physical theatre) enlivens the set with fluid, sinister movement. Moving as one entity, they whisper, hiss and coil around the characters like serpents at various points, personifying the demons and moral ambivalence that continue to plague these departed spirits.

The soundscape designed by Darren Ng is dream-like, going from the lush swoosh of waves which opens the play to abrupt discordant crashes which mark turning points in the play.

Praise should also be accorded to lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, who opts for a stark, minimalist style, bathing the characters in ominous glows, which heightens the eerie, ethereal quality of the production.

The use of shadow puppetry lends some much-needed texture to the backdrops as well.

One sees Chong's firm directorial hand in guiding the actors.

His cast (Johnny Ng, Tay Kong Hui, Alvin Chiam, Doreen Toh, Tan Wan Sze) deliver powerful, controlled performances which, thankfully, never erupt into histrionics. They also show incredible discipline by lying still on stage, enveloped in paper leaves, for a good 20 minutes before the show begins.

Ng, a theatre veteran who has acted as The Man in two previous stagings of the play, is sterling as The General in this production, capturing perfectly his hubris and blind fanaticism to the Motherland's cause to the very end.

Tay, Toh and Tan are spellbinding to watch as The Man, The Mother and The Girl, especially in a scene where they tell of how their roles in wartime exposed them to the Pyrrhic nature of war.

What starts as a calm, matter-of- fact narration builds slowly, but devastatingly, into accounts of unimaginable loss, starvation, rape and death. Lips quiver, faces crumple and bodies heave uncontrollably, racked by shuddering sobs.

I agree with Chong's call to splice the accounts instead of presenting them individually, as it leads to a more dramatic climax and expresses the characters' collective suffering as a sum greater than its parts.

One of Kuo's darkest works, The Spirits Play is not easy to sit through - it can feel ruinous and oppressive. But Chong's revival is a skilfully choreographed and executed piece that will haunt its audience even after the lights come back on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'Skilfully haunting'. Print Edition | Subscribe