Architecture of Empathy

 Dark Room, staged as part of the Studios 2016 (Esplanade) was a foray into documentary theatre. Written and directed by Edith Podesta, the cast consisted of Erwin Shah Ismail, Lim Kay Siu, Mohd Fared Jainal, Nelson Chia, Neo Swee Lin, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Oliver Chong, Pavan J Singh, Shafiqhah Efandi and Timothy Nga. Strong individually, the piece saw these actors narrating their experiences, tracing the chronology of their histories, traversing their journeys from the time they were sentenced in the courtrooms, on the prison bus, through the very end of their prison sentence when they are out finding it difficult to re-integrate into society. While Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin played a set of aggrieved parents, Noor Effendy Ibrahim and Nelson Chia played old-timers. While the rest of the actors played short-term inmates who left the prison, these two stayed till the very end. Shafiqhah also played the only female inmate, an attempt in broadening the diversity of the inmates that were being represented onstage.

There was a wealth of material for Podesta to employ (her director’s note says 350,000 words collectively), that much was true. But I questioned the stagecraft in this one. Having missed the fantastic first showing last year, I was left underwhelmed by the repeated narrations from the really huge cast, taking turns to make us laugh, or feel sad but only on a temporary, superficial level. I laughed heartily at the jokes, and felt a little sad here and there (especially for Neo Swee Lin’s mother character, for no mother should see her child incarcerated like that) there was still a wall between me and the stories they were presenting for that whopping two hours and ten minutes. What was this wall?

Partially to blame, is the set: two cells, one for the men to sit in, and a smaller one with Shafiqhah’s solo character. The sets moved and formed different Tetris-like combinations of walls and fences, pushed around by staging crew who performed the warden roles, stoically moving these set pieces around, or opening and closing doors, or shining lights on the actor’s faces leaving very little room to explore the internal emotional landscapes of these actors. The text was then heavily confined to the playing space that the actors had to move within. The sound-design (Darren Ng) was realistic and unimaginative. Largely comprising of the sound of jail gates drawing open and close noisily, and people laughing, or screaming softly (during the caning scene). It was more of sound effects, rather than a sound-scape that would have added a layer of meaning to the piece.  My thoughts were that of empathy, and the construction of entry points for audiences to meet the actors halfway. Inverting the illusionist principle of theatre, this piece problematizes the architecture of empathy that Podesta wanted to create. For some reason, the audiences laughed at the cruelest things, and the actors became dreary and tiresome to listen to. I was not connecting to these very real issues of those who are victims of our problematic prison system (it is very problematic, it is cruel, merciless and focuses on capital punishment and isolation, rather than rehabilitation, and is ruthless to those already falling on the fringes of the society).

Remarkably democratic, her script allowed space for all these voices to take center stage. It was voyeuristic, but not exploitative of the stories. Her careful consideration of the weight of these interviews was present, and I could understand the rationale behind the flow of the script. However, I had several questions about the performativity of the ensemble: were these actors playing a made-up version of these interview subjects? Were they playing themselves? (Some of them felt like they were playing themselves, with little acting craft) Special mention goes to Timothy Nga for playing the gay inmate, and Nelson Chia, for playing a very sensitive and quiet inmate who could not bear to witness the cruelty of caning inflicted on others.

There was a lot of potential for the production design to create entry points for empathy. After all, the ultimate goal of this piece was to present the “remembered realities” of these prisoners, and there is much to be done to bridge the gap between the piece and its audience. There is still more room to navigate the audience reception of the piece and their responses to the different sensitive moments being re-told and re-membered (literally, putting bodies together to re-imagine these words). Rather than simply allowing the cast to iterate their narration one-by-one, perhaps the space and lighting design (was it the intention of the lighting designer to leave a lot of the actors’ faces in partial darkness? It didn’t help, furthering the distance between me and the ensemble’s retelling) could help articulate these moments in a way that words cannot. Was I expecting a more accurate, realistic replica of these interviewees? Was I perhaps, influenced by a need to see a certain performativity? Does that reflect on me as an inherently prejudiced theatre-goer to sensitive issues like this? Especially when it is of a subject matter I know so little about, and was perhaps wanting to see more. Perhaps a dash of ensemble work in crafting out a physical manifestation of the interview responses, or in a visual metaphor or trope that could help the audience empathize with these characters, and therefore, have insight into these inmates who carry the weight of prison-life with them throughout. Understanding that this production is still part of the production development process, Dark Room has much distance to cover in meeting its audience halfway. This form of verbatim/documentary theatre format is still a very much new and uncharted territory, a code that will require more developmental processes to crack.

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