Time Between Us: Storytelling

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 9, 2016


I’m not sure how to describe what happened.

I have the 5:45 slot. There’s fifteen of us. We line up behind the house. Oliver stands by the door and watches us as we enter, one by one.

We sit down on the edges of the space and he takes a Polaroid of us. (I wonder if it’s hanging on the walls right now?)

Oliver: I open up. I am behind my perceptions.

We have been here before. All of these houses. The river of voices.

I later learn that his monologue was entirely scripted by Fernando Rubio. But it doesn’t feel that way, not then, especially after my interview with Oliver, in which he said maybe a dozen different men throughout Europe and the Americas have lived in this house and entered the same meditative state for days.

He describes memories of childhood. His own, or not his own. He describes the problem of living, the desire not to be oneself, the desperation for constant change that is the essence of existence.

And he brings us in. There’s a scrap of paper, a monologue about running, that I saw him copy over and over verbatim in the daytime. He speaks it now, but halfway through he kneels down and gives it to a girl and she continues reading it while he echoes her.

It’s common enough for a nameless character to claim to be an everyman, but what was happening here is that we, the audience, are being turned into everyhumankind.

And not in a noble way. It just is.

It’s extremely disorienting. Everything By My Side was a cakewalk in comparison to this. I stabilize myself by taking notes.

Oliver lies down in the chalk outline of the body he drew in the morning. He sits and traces the chalk outlines of his footprints, against the other scuffed outlines I saw him make, first thing in the morning.

He reads the chalk writing on the walls. He turns over the floorboards and discovers more hidden speeches in talk.

I don’t know whether it’s because Rubio is Argentinean, but I can’t help thinking of Jorge Luis Borges’s story The Aleph, in which a man discovers in his basement a window into infinity: endless vast landscapes, foreign bodies, even his dead love mouldering in her grave.

Oliver: One day, my friend Palacios told me: “The greatest mystery would be not to have lived someone else’s life.”

He describes trying to replace a man who walks his dog at the same time every morning. Getting into his shadow.

Which is the craft of the actor, isn’t it? Repetition. Even of acts that never took place, with as much genuinity as one can muster.

He unpacks a suitcase. He opens the door and peeps out at the passers-by.

Oliver: Time to look and smile at something. The impulse to jump. That one never dies in the end. Is it true that one never dies?

As a playwright, I can’t help but wonder: how does one write like this? With so little obvious poetry and dressing up? Just taking dictation from the universal doubts in one’s heart, and then daring to tell an actor, yes, this is the finished product, now memorise it.

He finds a hidden letter beneath the boards.

There’s a resignation with which he speaks. I’m suddenly reminded of the title of an Amiri Baraka poem, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”.

Oliver: Every time I’m far from home, I’m a thousand years old.

He weeps.

He smokes a cigarette.

There are others who are taking pictures of him through the window.

He plays a song on his laptop. I’m sitting next to it, so I can see it’s Brian Eno’s By This River.

(Were all the other houses also next to bodies of water? We are not by a river, incidentally. Yes, the Singapore River opens unto it, but MBS is on reclaimed land, and what we have is a reservoir that was once the timeless sea…)

The entire shed resonates with the bass.

Oliver: I’ve always thought it would be nice to live somewhere surrounded by water.

There is no better path than one out over the water.

There are post-its on the wall, above our seats. I saw him pasting them up earlier. He reads them now, pointing and naming us as if we’re characters or incarnations or avatars in someone’s story.

Oliver: A violinist. A great violinist. A soldier. A monk. A medieval witch. A fugitive. A 17th century astronomer. A nightclub dancer. A Doberman dog. An archaeologist.

(points to NYS) A princess.


But these are not essences of ourselves. These are transformations, faces and all their dimensions, he says.

There is a chapter of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities where Marco Polo visits a city twice, and each time the roles of lovers and scolds and drunkards are constant, but the citizens move and mature from role to role, so the drama is ever the same, but is ever in flux.

This is around where he wraps up.

Oliver: It has been a good many minutes. It may be seen to repeat, but it doesn’t.

Am I supposed to come back and see it again to find out what’s changed?

Or am I what’s changed?

Oliver: That’s what it’s about. Whenever you’re ready.

I guess we’re ready. I rise and prepare to grab people for my Everyone’s a Critic photos.

Noorlinah later told me that a lot of people liked my earlier post about Time Between Us. And I told her I thought it was facile. Because I’d resorted to some quick easy explanation of the title: oh yes, the house is a stage, bringing people together to spend time together, relational aesthetics, blah blah blah…

When really, Rubio’s interested in deeper things than that. Infinity. Time as something we cannot bear. Something all of us are compelled to bear.

Something we do not just spend together, but feel…

And as I’m chattering with a girl behind the door, Oliver suddenly appears on the roof above us.

Oliver: It does not end here.

  • 2016