The Necessary Stage
Drama Centre Black Box/Friday (Jan 23)
"I'm going to be a cow now," performer Sharda Harrison tells sound artist Bani Haykal in a playful, ostensibly unrehearsed moment at the opening of untitled women, a double-bill of short plays by Haresh Sharma and transported to heights of whimsical absurdity by his long-time creative partner Alvin Tan.
Those accustomed to the socially conscious brand of narrative storytelling The Necessary Stage has cultivated over the last ten years might have found this experience a bit of a shock to the system, like plunging neck-deep into the jarring dissonances of Philip Glass after having spent several years floating through Chopin. Both great innovators in their own right, but catering to widely different tastes.
This marks the start of an hour of wilfully, often frustratingly cryptic meditations on loss, limbo, grief and denial, with both the beautiful and the bizarre thrown into stark relief.
Harrison plays a widowed cow in the first half, untitled cow number one, where as a physical theatre performer she blends echoes of Indian classical dance, her own visceral translations of emotion, and Buddhist prostrations, repeatedly pressing her palms together, kneeling, and then pressing her forehead to the floor. As Harrison cycles through grief, denial, sadness and anger, she is shackled to a chair with a thin rope, the way a cow tied to a wooden post does not know her own strength, and that she can easily leave if she tries.
Sound artist Bani creates a sonic environment around her, looping various sounds (water droplets, a chair being dragged, a knife on a chopping board) and also playing live on stage, whether on a guitar or a chair converted into a guitar. Bani, also a spoken word artist, is the one tasked with reading the text, in a quiet recording played against the backdrop of their enactment of grief. The text is heavy with myth, with references to the Hindu deities Krishna, with his cowgirl loves, and Shiva, hurtling across the sky - and of course the cow herself, a symbol of life and maternity.
Sharma, who had little involvement in this revival apart from his two texts, wrote these playlets at the height of the company's forays into post-modernism and abstract work in the early 2000s. Here, his experiments with form and voice come into focus, bringing out the musicality of question and answer, call and response; the language is poetic, lyrical, often rhythmic.
The second piece, untitled women number one, brings to mind a cross between the absurdist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, set in a sort of bleak landscape marked by a sense of impending doom as 'something' approaches, from which the Younger Woman (Ethel Yap) initially wants to escape, and then fears leaving. She and the Older Woman (Edith Podesta, with great presence), are at once mother and daughter, student and teacher, doctor and patient, thrown together in an ambiguous relationship that never seems to end.
Their conversations circle ceaselessly around life and mortality (Older Woman: "This is the middle. Can you see? The middle. From here and beyond it's a different life, a different world..."), sexuality and sex, experience and a lack thereof, myth and tragedy, always open-ended and always elliptical.
One gets the sense that language alone is not enough for these unnamed women to communicate the depths of their sadness or confusion, that words themselves do not give order or create order from the chaos they are in.
The audience is left to make meaning of whatever little is scattered to them: the work is accessible in that nothing is prescribed to the audience, and they can interpret the plays in any way they wish; at the same time, they are also incredibly inaccessible. Tan and the various performers, who collaborated to make the work, have created their own world to the exclusion of others through a frenzy of excited exploration.
It is hard to peel back the layers. For instance, Tan tells the audience during a post-show talk that certain moments, including one where Harrison steps into the completely different world of the second play, came about by fortuitous accident. There is an intricate depth to the work and all the cogs and gears that have come together to make the work that we are all not privy to, and that I sometimes found difficult to penetrate, to appreciate as anything but a swirling mass of sounds, a handful of moments of visual impact, the melody of how a certain line might be spoken.
Like these untitled women, I was left scrabbling for toeholds, trying to make meaning of a world that constantly slipped beyond my reach.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan