Tuesday, May 26, 2009

(D) Toilet

Toilet – Not Flushed
20-24 May 2009

When I read that theatre director Loh Kok Man’s earlier work Untitled featured in 2003 received rave reviews, I was eager to see how it’s new version, now titled Toilet, turned out. Toilet featured a mix of original and new cast comprising mostly dancers. Apparently, the former was primarily a theatre piece while the latter infused more dance.

Loh recently bagged the Best Director award with his interpretation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and also the Best Lighting Design for the play Air Con at the recent Boh Cameronian Arts Awards (Cammies).

Despite these accolades, Loh’s directorial brilliance was not evident in his latest production. Loh’s intention, when he chose the less-than-appealing title for this performance, was to suggest, rather crudely, topics of taboo and problems in our society. It is the metaphor for all things ‘dirty’ and represents that which society expels. He took a huge risk in using this approach, and I guess luck was not with him in this gamble. I prefer a more subtle direction, purging the grouses of society without being lewd or distasteful.

The very notion of Toilet suggests privacy and meditation. On the ‘throne’ of undisturbed contemplation, we empty our minds (and bowels) only to have it filled afresh with new aspirations.
Alone in the toilet, our minds are free to drift into a private, ideal world. The opening dance seems to reflect this best. On the surface, it seems to be a coordinated dance uniformed by wooden benches, a childish theme, and object-inspired movements. But on closer inspection, the oblivious looks and cold contact hinted that the five dancers, while moving in common space, were indeed in a world of their own.

This aloofness and detachment carried through in Amy Len’s solo performed against a narrative that describes the essence of being human. The four readers, seated at each corner of the stage, droned on until the collective voices became a comfortable, lulling murmur. Amy reacted to these sounds with strong, accented movements interspersed with contractions. Sequences were repeated with increasing speed until she collapses, breathless. Despite her technical competence, the lack of interaction and association with the context of the narrative rendered the performance rather soulless. Within that square space, it is possible to explore the various human dimensions and the underlying social processes or driving forces behind the individual and the society; but this opportunity was not exploited.

Gan Hui Yee and Tin Tan had the unenviable task of tackling the more mundane scenes where time seems to pass with difficulty. This include a dreary slow-motion scene in a park where Gan plays a woman sitting on a bench polishing off one banana after banana while Tin Tan plays a girl walking with her balloon with her mouth perpetually ajar. In another scene, the duo stretched their vocal chords to feverish pitches as they competed for vocal space and talent recognition. While I admired their patience and their vocal strength albeit a bit off-key, I could not really tell the meaning and purpose behind these two vignettes in relation to the main theme.

The duet rendered by Leng Poh Gee and Louise Yew explores the complex dynamics that surround human relationships using contact improvisation technique as their main vocabulary. Using this language, we witness the paradigms of social exchange in motion where the operant and respondent are players in a consequential relationship. It is a conceptualization of relationships or social interactions among two (or more) people. All human beings feel the need to have and develop relationships, yet, while in these relationships, individuals strive to maximize their rewards – and this may be anything that satisfies human needs or desires.

What Toilet could have been, is a platform to a richer understanding of the complex dynamics that surround the individual and his or her relationship with society. When radical social conditions are mentioned, apologists for present practice take a philosophical turn and defend their own conception of human nature as the final explanation of the predatory competitiveness of our age of waste and greed. It should mention the truth that we don’t want to hear – that as humans we have always been greedy, grasping creatures, entirely absorbed in ourselves. All human ties of love, affection and social unity are really manipulative appearances that conceal the sheer private opportunism that actually motivates us. And, these traits of individualism are the social diarrhoea that needs to be flushed away.

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