[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.

[Theatre Review] Two Songs and a Story – Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue

Flawed Review Yields Unexpected Insights

I am pleasantly surprised that my review of Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabharata, is cited in an essay contained in The Methuen Drama Handbook of Interculturalism and Performance (2020).

Initially, I was slightly confused as to why my review was cited, especially when I was a novice back then, and have provided links to reviews written by reviewers from mainstream publications. While I did not have access to the full essay, I was amused to find out that Dr Tan is a Singaporean theatre academic, and his concerns in the essay is about sound design. That is certainly not my forte and my review did not cover sound design at all.

Upon closer reading of the excerpt and my review, I realised that my review detailed four reactions by different audience members, and it served as an indication of the audience members’ reactions to the performance. Hence, it allowed Dr Tan to cite that as anecdotal evidence that the audience was “uninspired and bored”.

At the time of writing, I knew that the review would ruffle many feathers had it gained a wider readership. It was a special review to me because I uncharacteristically privileged reportage over anything else.

Personally, I am not in favour of providing too much reportage. It spoils the show for those who are about to watch it, and it takes the space away from wider analysis, which differentiates one critic from another. Reportage should be in the form of examples to substantiate a wider point.

In that review, I made such a deliberate but uncharacteristic choice in response to the widespread adoration of the show, which seemed to be earned due to Brook’s reputation rather than the direction or performance itself.

I wanted to show that the drama in the stalls is much more interesting that what was happening on stage. And I have used this technique several times since.

That said, if I were to receive that review now, I would still stand by the writer’s decision, but advise him to add a little more context and details of the show.

At that time, I was quite a stickler for keeping to the word count as I believed that most people would not read beyond 500 words. While I am still of that opinion to a large extent, a clear and exciting review would put the readers in a forgiving mood.

Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

My reviews will always be public and free for all to read. Your support will determine the breadth and depth of my coverage, and supporters will receive bonus content.

Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

I also seek to document these debates as one indicator of what the people want.

How Can I Support You?

Regardless of who you are, there are several ways that you can support me. All the details can be found on this page.

Apart from doing this as a regular gig, the ultimate goal is to be able to commission other writers on a regular basis and pay them at market rates. While much have been said about the need for arts criticism, proper opportunities are very few and far between.

But beyond financial or in-kind support, an equally important contribution is to really respond to my reviews. Tell me your opinions about the show. Even if it is a response to a particular point I made, it is very helpful for all involved.

I look forward to having you on this new journey with me.