This show began at 5:30am. And I made the mistake of booking my ticket for the morning after the five-hour opening night of Border Crossers, which ended at around 11:35pm. This meant that I had to turn up at Bukit Brown Cemetery with precisely no sleep. Thanks, Keng Sen.
At least I wasn’t alone in this endeavour. Just like the Kathakali demo, this show was packed. Harried FOH volunteers were handing out fun-packs (biscuits, fans, insect repellent patches) to a whole throng of guests behind traffic safety barriers. Keng Sen’s right: there is a whole sector of Singaporeans who’ll turn up to a theatre production as long as it’s staged somewhere utterly out-of-the-way and sweaty.
Although this show’s billed as 90 minutes, a lot of that time is spent on DramaBox folks briefing us and then marching us into the depths of the cemetery. (We even took a wrong turn at one point – or might it have been a scheduled delaying tactic, so the performers could take their places?)
No complaints, though. It’s rather special, really, to be all together in this unlikely and temporary space, surrounded by jungle and construction hoardings, under the purple clouds of a starless sky. I got army flashbacks, for realsies. :)
But then we reach our destination. And it’s just a clearing with benches under a big old tree (a rain tree?) and some candlelight. The actors are already there, six of them, standing in distance, in the half-light of the slope facing us, in front of the rows of gravestones.
It’s strangely anticlimactic, even when they get into their actual performance, which is just silent physical theatre. I’m mentally planning the various snarky ways I can describe their movements: e.g.
· Slapping mosquito bites
· Human pyramid fail
· Making fun of blind people
It’s frustrating, because I can’t decode their roles – they’re dressed in old-school, 1960sish white shirts and pants and skirts and singlet’s, or are they? I’ve got honest-to-god night blindness or something, so I can’t even make out what they’re wearing properly.
And they’re expressing torment, suffering, angst. Are they the dead? Or are they the living, tortured by the dilemma of what to do with the dead?
Why are they all running away up the slope, out of our field of vision? Are they trying to escape?
Why couldn’t that guy join them?
Why are they all running back?
I lean back and look around me, all the better to digest the absurdity of all of us having gathered at an ungodly hour in an inhospitable space to watch impenetrable theatre.
And then I realise, oh man. This is like a religious ritual. Meaningful or not, the very process of us all being here like this gives it meaning. It’s all about the atmosphere – and there’s plenty of that, what with the roar of the crickets and the cicadas, the indecipherable bird calls, and the gasping and ragged breaths and the mashing of body against body from the actors above us…
No music, I notice. There’s something pure about this, in all its abstraction. Something divine.
OK, there’s some music. The actors hum. At one point, they begin chanting a series of dah-dah-dahs that kind of resembles the theme to Jaws. And at another point, one of them sits down and starts playing and you go OH GOD WHERE DID THAT PIANO COME FROM.
And there’s a subtle drama to the way the dawn progresses: how the animals shift their music, and how the light gradually beams enough for us to see the actors’ faces.
A woman comes along on a bicycle. She seems lost, confused. For a while we all think she’s a poor sap who’s stumbled into a SIFA show by accident, but then she does a U-turn, and the actors begin to follow her, dancing off stage into the distance…
(Sometime before this the actors take off all their clothes except for their distinctly modern undies and kneeguards. I think that’s a physical theatre staple.)
After that, most of us took part in a one-hour guided tour of Bukit Brown, courtesy of the Brownies – i.e. the Heritage Society volunteers who’re trying to preserve the site by documenting it, disseminating info, running free tours of the site every weekend.
They emphasised that this tour was optional. So watching people do physical theatre at daybreak was compulsory?
Anyhow, I ended up with KC Chew, the great-grandson of Chew Boon Lay, the pepper and gambier magnate that Boon Lay is named after. He spawned 800 descendants, he says. None of the family fortune trickled down to him.
This was one of the more active treks. We ended up going uphill, past some unfortunately desecrated tombs…
These Sikh guards never do their work properly. >:(
… and all the way to the tomb of Ong Sam Leong, the phosphate king. This is one of the less well-known graves here, but it’s so baller that it’s got its own moat.
It’s a feng shui thing – keeping rain/luck within the family.
On the way out, Chew told us how we’re actually missing out on the most scenic part of Bukit Brown, cos the most scenic bit of the cemetery’s already been swallowed up by construction of the highway. Which was pretty depressing. Love at last sight.
I didn’t make a lot of notes about the tour, because I didn’t feel it counted as part of the performance. But maybe it does – after all, this was where we got some hard facts about how and why this place mattered. There was theatre, and then there was the thing itself – the art and the object that inspired it.
If you want to separate the two, you might say the inspiration overshadows the work itself - that Bukit Brown Cemetery at dawn eclipses It Won’t Be Long: The Cemetery (Dawn). Yet the very point of the performance was to draw people here; to make us value this site. The dancers danced, not for their own glory, but for the stage they trampled.
Living for the sake of the dead. I think they call that heritage.