Theatre review: Four Four Eight, a choose-your-own-adventure experience that works

Four Four Eight will run in and around The ExciseMan Whisky Bar at the Esplanade Mall until Feb 23, 2019.
Four Four Eight will run in and around The ExciseMan Whisky Bar at the Esplanade Mall until Feb 23, 2019.PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

SINGAPORE - Inspired by the late British playwright Sarah Kane's last play, 4.48 Psychosis, this new work, which explores themes such as isolation and the artistic process of creation, is much more palatable and accessible than previous work from Liu Xiaoyi, a China-born theatre practitioner who moved to Singapore in 1998.

Part of this year's Huayi - Chinese Festival Of Arts, presented by the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay, the show runs in and around the The ExciseMan Whisky Bar at the Esplanade Mall until Saturday (Feb 23).

It is the third instalment in a series whose works - 2017's Offending The Audience and last year's Einstein In The Carpark - were previously noted for interesting ideas but an inability to connect with some audience members.

Third time's a charm, it seems, as Four Four Eight strikes the careful balance of bold boundary-pushing without alienating or befuddling theatre-goers.

Not merely a theatre performance, it feels more like a series of mini-experiences with the artist, challenging the limits of theatre beyond the performance's time and space.

For example, before the show, participants are invited to write to Liu via e-mail, and the reply I received was a nostalgic anecdote about his first Chinese New Year spent in Singapore, drinking alcohol on the grass field.

The start and end of the performance is decided by the participant; it is also almost entirely a choose-your-own adventure experience in and around The ExciseMan Whisky Bar, guided by instructions in a book containing poetry in English and Chinese.

One set of instructions takes participants to a small room within the bar, where Liu is writing messages on post-its and drinking wine.

As with such experiences, you get what you put in. Skim the text, go through the motions, and you won't gain very much.

But during a performance on Tuesday (Feb 19), I dwelt long and hard on some stanzas - re-reading and comparing how they were expressed across both languages - and the whole encounter took me almost three hours.

And what an illuminating, if confronting, experience it was. Some instructions directly ask participants to ponder aspects of themselves, or others, which can be uncomfortable, and I found myself doing something I have not done in a while - thinking about a former boss who passed away a few years ago.

That such reflection could be done at the participant's own pace allowed the work space to breathe and unfold. That it was staged in an actual bar - with other participants and non-theatre patrons having a relaxing night out - gave the encounter added dimension, with everyone's spontaneous gestures and mannerisms on display.

They were the actors, and so was I, homing in on the message that in life, we are all performers.

This work is also perhaps Liu's most personal, featuring several documents and articles from his life, seemingly as an invitation to contemplate one's own.

The result? An innovative, interactive dialogue which challenges the audience, but does not leave them in the cold.


BOOK IT

HUAYI 2019: FOUR FOUR EIGHT

Where: The ExciseMan Whisky Bar, 02-27 Esplanade Mall, 8 Raffles Avenue

When: Until Saturday, 6 to 11.30pm daily

Admission: $58 from Sistic (includes one whisky, wine or mocktail)

Info: For ages 16 and above. This is a durational piece where audiences may enter and exit as they choose.