A puppeteer's spin on a classic script
A life-size dummy hanging on a noose greets us. Even in the dim light, one can clearly make out its silhouette. On the floor, four other bodies lay motionless. Each ‘corpse’ is ‘buried’ beneath a heap of white paper confetti that resembles snowflakes. After a while, they start looking like papier mâché mummies.
When the lights come on, three figures in black appear. Their faces are painted black, leaving a margin of skin bordering their faces, resulting in a mask-like feature. These three characters do not assume a clear identity in the play. They have no lines, except hissing echoes of lines spoken by the main cast. They sneer sinisterly and contort their bodies to project an eeriness of the ethereal world. On a functional level, they are Kurogos, supporting cast that traverse between the fictional and the real world, working the stage business while maintaining neutrality.
After the three ‘spirits’ had a game of tug-of-war with the now-decapitated dummy, dismembering it into its component limbs, the ‘corpses’ rise. As the four bodies prop themselves up, the paper fragments fall off their bodies, trembling like loose earth – as if they were really rising from the dead.
These four ghoulish characters – Girl, Mother, Man and General – act as four lenses through which we view ‘war’. From their accounts, we see war from the perspectives of a nurse forced into being a comfort woman, a widow who lost her husband to war, a soldier receiving orders and the Commander who issues them.
Director Oliver Chong’s revival of The Spirits Play is largely faithful to Kuo Pao Kun’s writing, which also means there are no surprises in the plot. But I was relieved to see the directorial decision to splice paragraphs from the original monologues of the Girl, Mother and Man and reconstitute them into a series of exchanges. I feel that this combined account gives a more meaningful, multi-faceted picture of the war, rather than making the audience sit through 3 long monologues, which I imagine could be rather dry.
Veteran actor Johnny Ng, as General, distinguishes himself from the rest of the cast with his experienced vocal techniques to deliver long paragraphs of text. While I do empathise with the emotional wreck the rest of the cast is put through, their outbursts remain rather one-dimensional. Perhaps, this play asks for too much from its performers?
The play comes full circle as it centres on the theme of war and sacrifice. As it snows confetti at the end, mirroring the confetti under which they were buried in the first scene, we are left with the haunting question of whether these characters go through the same monologues and arguments each year, like an endless cycle of seasons. Do they have to relive the war-inflicted pain over and over again, like a torture in hell? The play is poignant and despondent this way.
Despite that, this play does not put too much emphasis on any particular war that happened in our time, which rightly makes it universal. It seems to claim that any war fought equates to the loss of lives, whether one is on the winning side or not. Any war story is just as woeful as another.