[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)