[Theatre Review] Dark Room Sheds (More) Light on Prison Life

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Dark Room

Edith Podesta

28 April 2016

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Two years ago, I was profoundly affected and had my pre-conceptions about ex-prisoners challenged by Dark Room x8.

The memory of its impact makes me apprehensive about watching this iteration. What should one expect of this second staging? More importantly, having been made aware of my prejudices, will Dark Room still have an impact?

I am happy to report that most of my impressions of the first iteration apply to this one as well.

In the midst of my apprehension, I forgot a simple truth. Regardless of what one knows, there is a sort of power in having someone stand in front of you and tell you a story. And the stories told in Dark Room—that of the prison system, and how it affects the individuals—need to be retold again and again.

While there are some changes in the main ensemble (Nelson Chia, Timothy Nga, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Tan, Mohd Fared Jainal, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Oliver Chong, and Pavan J Singh), the performances by this batch of actors are equally stellar. The complexities of script are deftly handled as the show organically shifts from poignancy, to hilarity, to the downright painful.

Chris Chua’s set, which consists of three structures that can be cleverly configured into the prison cells and walls, is a much welcomed addition. It vividly impresses on the audience the small space that the prisoners inhabit, and its possible psychological impact.

That said, this fuller rendering also has its excesses.

Director and writer Edith Podesta took on the audiences’ earlier feedback by introducing the perspectives of a female inmate (Shafiqhah Efandi) and the parents (Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin) of the prisoners. However, they are tokenistic at best.

Apart from learning two new facts,—female inmates man the call centre, and yard time is not a regular occurrence—the female inmate does not add anything to the show. Podesta also does the character an injustice by not giving her an identifiable personality which is present in the male characters.

Similarly, the parents’ perspective only focuses on their sadness, and the difficulties of visiting their child in prison. All these are not really new insights and could be easily imagined by the audience.

Additionally, certain sound effects by Darren Ng—such as the banging of the judge’s gravel— are too literal and gimmicky. This takes away the gravity of the text which can be competently conveyed by the actors.

Finally, the ending which has the characters repeatedly imploring the audience not to judge too quickly risks being overbearingly didactic.

Despite all that, the beauty of Dark Room is that the issues raised in the piece will always be pertinent. This gives Podesta countless opportunities to re-stage it, and find the right balance for the show.  What remains is for her to trust her artistic instinct and be very selective of which suggestions to bring on board.

Resources on Dark Room

Dark Room in residence @ Basement Workshop, Centre 42

Other Reviews

“Prison Tales Retold” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Architecture of Empathy” by Dumbriyani

“Struggling with the Outside from the Inside” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Chained and Connected” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Edith Podesta and The Studios’ Dark Room is an immersive and intimate retelling of life in Changi Prison Complex” by Karin Lai, Today

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