The futility of life over and over again

Dimitris Papaioannou's Still Life (left). The life of 75-year-old Singapore-based flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas is enacted on stage by Vargas himself, eight actors and two musicians in The Last Bull.
Dimitris Papaioannou's Still Life (above). PHOTO: JULIAN MOMMERT



Dimitris Papaioannou

Victoria Theatre/Thursday

Precariousness features heavily in Dimitris Papaioannou's dystopian theatre, where there is immense thrill in the perilous, solace in the mundane and beauty in the grotesque.

Still Life, his 2014 creation, unfolds like a flip book with one arresting image seamlessly following the other.

Drawing from the plight of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology, the piece examines the absurdity of people's repetitive lives.

As a punishment for cheating death, Sisyphus was made to push a rock to the peak of a mountain, only to have it fall back down again.

Injecting humour through risk, Papaioannou's work is repetitive but never mundane. It is pervaded by precariousness at every turn, drawing occasional gasps from the audience.

The ensemble of seven, which includes Papaioannou, are in black suits. The blazers are stained with white wing-shaped marks from the gravel and dust they have weathered.

Staggering under the weight of a pseudo-concrete slab, the performers take turns to burrow in and out of what is a large foam block.

Creating moments of levity with the age-old illusion of splicing the upper and lower halves of two different bodies, they appear to levitate with their limbs impossibly askew.

The concrete flakes off under their weight, beating on their backs like lethal raindrops.

One man collapses under the block, his feet morbidly peeking out from under the rubble. Then his head disappears into the foam and a woman's appears in its place. She slowly emerges, with two legs then four under her dress, as though giving birth to the grown man who next appears through the slit in the foam.

These are the first surreal scenes of the show and there are more to come.

But in the cheeky defiance the ensemble emanates, they seem to say that this is life, still.

A man stumbles forward, his arms cradling a pile of rocks which obstruct his vision. He releases them one by one and they barely miss his feet. The last rock is caught just in the nick of time, almost to a collective sigh of relief from the audience.

Another performer appears with a ladder, which leads to a balancing game between the two. The tension escalates as they tip further off- kilter. It is a matter of time before they collapse, and one man uses the ladder as a crutch to exit the stage.

Throughout, there are hints to the futility of labour. One man tries to balance on a zigzag structure of four bricks. Another tiptoes forward, balancing a stack of bricks on his head.

The ensemble rips up the tape on the floor of the stage, making incredible noises akin to slurping, farting and kissing. The very last bit of tape is about to be taken off a performer, but he jolts back as though he is being electrocuted.

This all takes place under a large sac continuously being pumped with gas, like a mind being clouded.

Near the end, it is prodded with a shovel, conjuring a breathtaking image of a jellyfish pulsating through the air. The sac is punctured and reinflates. But the simplicity of the image never loses its magnetism.

The ensemble enters for the final time, taking its seats at a table set for dinner. Drinks are poured and plates are passed around. Nonchalantly, they dine.

The roles are ingeniously reversed and the precariousness is transferred to the audience. Is the show over? Whispers of speculation abound, but no one can tell.

Before long, applause rings out to break the awkward silence. It is a failure nonetheless, as the performers clink glasses and the stage darkens once more to reveal a reprise of the rock-dropping moment in a nod to the Sisyphus tale.

This - failure, futility - Papaioannou seems to say, is life. Still.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'The futility of life over and over again'. Subscribe