[Theatre Review] Dementia — Not As Memorable As It Should Be

Photo: Marcell Rev

Proton Theatre
13 August 2015
Victoria Theatre
13–15 August 2015
Part of Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015

“Actors on stage. Static sounds. Smell of electrical appliance overheating. Occasional flashing light. Cramped hospital ward—four beds. Various personal items of the patients are seen; well lived-in. Christmas tree. Patient sits in the auditorium as the nurse coaxes her back to the stage.”

These scattershot impressions that Dementia creates as one enters the theatre is unsettling. As the audience takes their seat, a plump man in a sweater—who we later find out to be the doctor—starts getting restless and exuberantly informs us that this is a hospital ward for dementia patients. His uncontrollable laughter underscores his introduction and one wonders whether he is actually a patient himself.

This sense of puzzlement is emblematic of the show.

Is Dementia literally about a rich man buying over the whole building, hurling what is left of a psychiatric ward into the streets, and converting it into a Hungarian equivalent of Babestation? Or is it a metaphor for the state of Hungarian society?

I could not make up my mind throughout the show but I later found out that it is meant to be both as indicated in the progamme booklet.

The ghostly remnant of the hospital ward is inspired by the closure of the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Budapest (formerly known as Lipótmezei Psychiatric Hospital) in 2007. The government incurred the ire of critics as there was no consultation with healthcare professionals which made the restructuring programme appear as a blatant political move. An unjust move at the expense of the psychiatric patients who were left to fend for themselves as the extant hospitals could not accommodate all of them.

The deafening silence from the authorities as the building stands abandoned compelled director Kornél Mundruczó to stage Dementia and excavate the alternative voices in society that often go unheard.

Aside from the injustices, we ourselves are like the dementia patients—trapped in our own obsessions as we slowly forget about everything else. With the show being part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts and its theme being Post-Empires, Dementia is a cautionary message not to fall into a state of post-remembrance.

With a heady mix of live music (played by the patients) and film projection of what goes on in the ward when the curtain falls, Dementia has elements of melodrama and dark comedy that is poised to leave a deep impression. It rarely lets you settle but keeps you on your toes.

Unfortunately, it does not.

While the social message is relevant to any society, the language barrier seems to blunt the immediacy of what the production is trying to evoke. As it is impossible to completely synchronise the English surtitles with the delivery of the Hungarian text, there seems to be an added distance between the audience and the performance.

Safe for the extraordinarily squeamish, the violence, blood, and nudity hardly adds to the shock value. More importantly, there is an uncomfortable asymmetry in the violence done to the women as most of them are sexually humiliated while only two of the male characters experience physical harm. This unnecessarily distracts one from the message of the play.

Despite certain dramaturgical flaws, the play rewards those who are willing to reach out some food for thought and perhaps a moment of clarity. A gift much needed in a demented society which even calculates whether the able-bodied is deserving of state support.  

Other Reviews

“Proton Theatre’s Dementia is a Little Ward of Horrors” by Corrie Tan, Straits Times Life!

“SIFA 2015: Proton Theatre’s Dementia is an emotional rollercoaster ride” by Yane Usagi, Today

“Dementia” by Ng Yi-Sheng, SIFA.sg 

“Dementia: Taking One Hard Look at our Senility and Mortality” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes


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