[Theatre Review] Asylum by ITI — Where Safety and Humanity Collide

Photo: Bernie Ng / Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum
Intercultural Theatre Institute
26 May 2022
SOTA Studio Theatre
26–28 May 2022

The Asylum is established with actors taping everything to demarcate the lines and boundaries of the set. 

Those who are familiar with theatre will be familiar with the slight buzzing sound when the tape is pulled to mark the stage. However, with 12 rolls of tape going at the same time, the buzz grows and is reminiscent of a swarm of pests invading a space. 

By all accounts, the opening sequence and its significations of the lines and boundaries that we draw for ourselves, or are imposed on us, are clear-cut and simple. But the visceral impact such a simple device has is a testament to the wondrous alchemy that is Jean Tay’s script with Oliver Chong’s direction.  

From there, one witnesses the unravelling of an asylum as a fictional infectious disease rages on in a colonial settlement, and rumours of a tiger roaming the boundaries increases the tensions within the asylum.

The graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) plays 12 different characters: four female patients (Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing, Ng Yuan Ci, Ruthi Lalrinawmi, Wong Jin Yi), four male patients (Kaleem Zafar, Karlwinn, Peh Jun Kai, Will Wong Keng Ip), two nurses (Ismael Gallaza Pantao, Oliver S.K. Wu), a doctor (Jemima Dunn), and a security guard (Wan Ahmad).

The patients are treated more like inmates, as they are constantly observed by the asylum staff, led by the doctor who carries a big stick. They also fall along a spectrum of coming to terms with the fact that their family and society have abandoned them—from naïveté to being downright jaded.

In this highly charged atmosphere, it is inevitable that the characters would clash with each other due to their conflicting desires. The collisions happen on different levels, and fueled by fear and rumours, result in an implosion. Several patients attempt to escape as the staff tries to hold the fort while looking out for the tiger.

A moment of care between patients / Photo: Bernie Ng

A way to get a grip on the conflict would be to see it as a conflict between safety and humanity. Intuitively, it might seem easy to understand both concepts at first, but one soon realises that it is difficult to articulate precisely what constitutes both. 

Separating patients with infectious disease from the community for the sake of safety makes sense on some level. But how far does this entail policing the movements and lives of the patients? 

Wanting to live one’s life with a freedom to choose is understandable, but how much freedom should one have without harming the well-being of the wider community?

Jean Tay’s decision to abstract her script away from the peculiarities of old quarantine sites in Singapore not only allows the deeply resonant debate of safety and humanity to come to the fore, it also allows her to touch on the inner fears and hysteria of the unknown, which serves as a foil to the supposed tiger outside the walls of the asylum. 

Tay’s ambitions are matched by the deft direction of Oliver Chong. With all the characters being on stage throughout the show, it is tempting to par down the interactions such as letting the characters sleep in their cell when the focus is not on them. However, Chong decides against it, and this results in all sorts of unspoken interactions that entices one to rewatch the show several times. 

The rigorous training of the actors in various traditional art forms have certainly paid off in terms of their presence and synergy. This is evident during the climatic scene in which the patients stage their getaway. The movement around the set and the stillness when tragedy strikes, creating some beautiful stage pictures.

Tragedy strikes / Photo: Bernie Ng

While there are some mis-timed line deliveries and the buildup was not intense enough to warrant the climax on the opening night, it is a beast of a show. This critic cheers the actors on and hopes the beast is tamed by the third show. 

There may be no armed guards or barbed wires, and the act of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore is seen as a social responsibility, but scratch the surface and we realise that we are still being tracked, traced, categorised, and imposed upon. 

Where we draw the line between safety and humanity will forever be contentious, making Asylum a play worth restaging from time to time.

Other Reviews

“[Review] Asylum — These Ties That Bind” by Philippe Pang, Arts Republic

Further Reading

Interview with Jean Tay (playwright) and Oliver Chong (director)

Interview with ITI students

Leprosy: A Story of Suffering, But Also of Hope by Danielle Lim, BiblioAsia (Apr-Jun 2020)

[Interview] Jean Tay and Oliver Chong on Creating Asylum with Intercultural Theatre Institute

Asylum marks the first time the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) presents a graduation show in a venue at full capacity in two years. Having come out of the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asylum is inspired by the the long-forgotten histories of Singapore’s old quarantine sites.

To find out more about the show, I interviewed playwright Jean Tay and director Oliver Chong about the creative process and their thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic.

What inspired you to look into the history of quarantine sites in Singapore?

Jean Tay: I have long been intrigued by old quarantine sites, like the one at St John’s Island. The idea of quarantine always seemed a somewhat distant one, popular in colonial times, but increasingly regarded as a blunt tool given the advances in medicine and technology over the years. As I started to explore further, as part of a research residency with the National Library Board, I came across some incredible hidden stories, from the old leper asylum, Trafalgar Home, in Yio Chu Kang. To me, it was fascinating (and heartbreaking) to see how people dealt with their fear of illness and each other, and how that ended up breaking up families and relationships, but also created new relationships amongst the inmates themselves.

What were some difficulties in creating this show?

Jean Tay: My challenge was having to create a piece that would feature 12 distinct and diverse characters. Fortunately, I was able to work with the final-year students closely to improvise individual characters, loosely based on some of the historical research and different characteristics… we must have come up with over 40 of them! And then from there, I narrowed in on the most compelling characters with the greatest potential and used that as a basis to develop the narrative to see what would happen to these characters when put under pressure. As I did so, the script also moved into a more creative realm, so that it’s not leprosy we’re talking about anymore, but a fictional illness, set in a fictional asylum, in a fictional country.

Oliver Chong: The self-imposed agenda is to give a fair share amount of space to showcase all of the 12 students. This is a challenge I often face when creating graduation shows with a large group of students. There is the pressure of being fair to everyone while knowing that it would be impossible to flesh out all characters, and hence be unfair to all.

As the actors are trained in a myriad of art forms across various cultures, are you tapping into their training to create this show? If so, how?

Oliver Chong: The aim is not about displaying the myriad of art forms that the actors are trained in. Rather, I believe it should be about distillation, that is discovering the core in the different art forms and fusing the training into a melting pot to find meaningful contemporary applications.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

Were there any interesting discoveries during the rehearsal process?

Jean Tay: It is easy to lose track of characters when one is working with such a large cast. Fortunately, my director, Oliver Chong, has come up with the brilliant concept of keeping all the cast onstage at all times, regardless of whether they are featured in the scene. So it means that we get to see what is happening with the other characters, even when they are not actively highlighted in one particular scene, and I love the little discoveries in seeing these “unwritten scenes” come to life, as the characters continue to live and breathe “off-stage”.

Oliver Chong: Not because of the rehearsal process per se but moving along with the development of the pandemic as we rehearse, we have observed that it is the impact of the disease on our livelihoods and ways of life. The disruptions, reaction, and the overreaction of society that is no less detrimental to the interests and mental health of most people. This is unequivocally no less frightening than contracting the disease itself.

How has the process of looking into old quarantine sites and the country’s attempt to deal with epidemics affect your view of the current COVID-19 pandemic?

Jean Tay: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought quarantine back into the spotlight, and brought fresh resonance to this issue, especially seeing how people had to deal with the challenges brought on by an enforced quarantine. It’s a little sad to realise how, even after years of technological and medical advances, it is so easy to revert back to a very basic and primal fear of the unknown, and of each other, when confronted when an unknown disease once more. But even in the midst of that fear, it’s also eye-opening to see the moments of compassion and courage, when individuals reach out beyond themselves to extend a helping hand, even when it puts themselves at risk.

Oliver Chong: Cross-referencing leprosy and the Trafalgar Home with the pandemic and quarantine facilities now, the knee-jerk reaction of rounding up and ostracising the unknown and its carriers remains the same. It is a defence mechanism in the name of the greater good. The question remains as to whether we have done better in compassionate quarantine and isolation.


Catch It!

Asylum runs from 26-28 May 2022 at SOTA Studio Theatre.

[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
28 April–1 May 2016

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

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

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

“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

“Dark Room by Edith Podesta at The Studios” by Corrie Tan

“Architecture of Empathy” by Dumbriyani