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Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

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Three experiments with theatre and film led to different outcomes

Let us never forget that before film became a favourite pastime for us—before television, YouTube and TikTok of course—it's theatre that occupied our grandparents' evenings and weekends. Playhouses became cinemas as the popularity of film increased although some venues can still double-task. Popular plays and musicals have been adapted into films and vice versa, to various degrees of success. While many artists stick to one, others switch back and forth effortlessly, no matter what their training background.

As the pandemic restriction eased, film was back in business before theatre and it also had a new option of distribution, namely digital streaming. Theatre went online, sacrificing the shared presence between performers and audiences yet many still want to be in the same place at the same time and they have focused their eyes on the screen for too many hours for work already.

Focusing on multidisciplinary works, Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) showed different relationships of theatre and film.

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

First, at the historic Victoria Theatre, Ong Keng Sen’s, artistic director of Theatre Works which was renamed as T:>works to better reflect their transdisciplinary works, "project SALOME" presented live solo performance by veteran actress Janice Koh. Single-handedly mastering English translation of Oscar Wilde’s original lines, her arresting performance was deftly juxtaposed with scenes from Ong’s compelling short film "Becoming Salome". In the film, a Berlin-based artivist refugee Michael(a) Daoud recounted, in spoken words and physical movements, their transborder and transgender journey to become drag character Bolbola. 

Another storyline and layer, a few months prior to the performance photos of Seah Loh Mei started appearing on a private Instagram account @thesalomecomplex. With the name that sounds like a Chinese dialect of Salome, this fictional professional tennis player later revealed she was sexually harassed by a politician, a reflection of real incidents in China.

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Not surprisingly, a few days prior to the opening night, the work was given R18 rating by local authority and, like in the play's climax, “heads rolled”. Meanwhile, "project  SALOME" was voicing its commentary through different media on patriarchal societies we have been living in throughout the centuries.     

As the film was projected onto the scrim that covered the entire stage space, so were live close-up images of Koh who was confined to center stage showing only her face to us. In addition to the electroacoustic sound design for the entire work either created or controlled live by composer Kaffe Matthews, the transitions between theatre and film were so seamless that one did not need to ask whether they were watching film or theatre. Simply, it’s a work by a master who understands how different media work.

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Second, at a small film screening room in almost-two-centuries-old building Arts House nearby, audiences of "Remotes X Quantum", billed as “live multidisciplinary installation”, were trying to either piece together or make sense of dystopian narratives of experimental short film "Remotes" by Filipino artist John Torres. 

Suddenly, the film ended and we were led by a performer to a room upstairs where we watched Singaporean poet Eleanor Wong’s short play "The Quantum of Space" in which Auntie E, also a character from the film, was a writer on a tight deadline. 

Not long afterwards and before we could discuss with our friends, we were directed, again, by the same performer to another room. This meeting room of the old parliament still looked like mini Westminster notwithstanding set and lighting design of the production. The movement-based performance here seemed to be the only part where the actual collaboration of Torres and Wong took place. We have recently seen more Xs denoting collaborations of different kinds than before, and some—when they were so well integrated that we cannot tell which part was whose—were more explicable than others. 

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Third, a long taxi ride from the CBD or a 10-minute walk from a bus stop took SIFA audiences to a new venue, a converted, and air-conditioned, energy plant Pasir Panjang Power Station in the southeastern part of the island. Here, Turner Prize laureate Tai Shani’s "The Neon Hieroglyph" was presented. Narrating the history of ergot poisoning, the CGI-heavy psychedelic art film was commissioned by and presented online as part of Manchester International Festival (MIF) 2021. 

Here, it was accompanied by live narration by female Malaysian actor Jo Kukathas who was seated behind a partition to the left of the movie screen and we could only see the live video image of hers in the small screen to the right. In other words, she didn’t have a chance to recognize the presence of the live audience which is very different from when we watched Nang Kang Plaeng, outdoor screening of films with live dubbing. With this lack of connection plus the often perplexing content, the two ladies on my two sides decided to watch this one-hour work with their eyes closed and some audience members cut their evening short.

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Intriguingly, "The Neon Hieroglyph"  was billed as a “filmic performance” while in fact the film, with recorded narration, belonged more to private viewing on one’s notebook computer or a media art exhibition. 

Theatre and Film: A COVID Marriage

Metaphorically, "project SALOME" is like a happy marriage between theatre and film. Each partner has a different role and both treat each other as equally important. They also seem to understand each other better after having been locked down together. Meanwhile, "Remotes X Quantum" seems like a couple who doesn't really want to spend time together even though they're influencing each other and have a lot in common. Lastly, "The Neon Hieroglyph" is like when one partner runs the whole party as if she were single and only at the end do we get to meet the other, a secret behind all the fun.

Now more than ever, film has become another important medium with which theatre, that was performed for a limited group of people at a certain place and time, can connect with wider group of audiences without time and space limit. That said, professionally filmed performances of some SIFA-commissioned works are on view until July 10 at

By Pawit Mahasarinand

The writer’s trip was supported by Arts House Limited and Tate Anzur. Special thanks to Eileen Chua and Hilary Tan.

Photos: Debbie Y./ Arts House Limited


Published : June 28, 2022