Soul Searching — An Interview with Students from NUS Theatre Lab for The Vault: S.O.S.

4 minutes read
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Photograph from the technical rehearsal of The Vault: S.O.S.

Masthead Image

Photograph from the technical rehearsal of The Vault: S.O.S.


The students of NUS Theatre & Performance Studies module TS3103 Theatre Lab went through 10 weeks of devising and conceptualising their response to Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate 'S' Machine. We interviewed the students to find out what inspired their response and what discoveries they have made along the way.


What is your response about?

Just like The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate 'S' Machine, our response centers around finding the soul of Singapore, but it is adapted to contemporary times. In the original play, the character Derek explores the possible ways to find a soul for Singapore and in his journey, he manages to write a complete report about the soul he believed Singapore needed. Our group believed that the problem of nation building and soul-finding that Tan Tarn How’s play tried to tackle 30 years ago is still relevant today. Yet, we also question whether the soul could be so easily resolved by one report. In this response, we started with a single question: If Singapore were to experience an apocalypse, what is the one thing we would like to preserve about Singapore? 

The photograph features a rehearsal of The Vault: SOS. From left to right: Ariel Lim, Michael Neo, Noah Lee, and Voon Yueqi.

Photograph from the technical rehearsal of The Vault: S.O.S.. Left to right: Ariel Lim, Michael Neo, Noah Lee, Voon Yueqi.

How did your group come up with your response?

Each member of the group had different responses based on our unique positionalities and experiences of Singapore. Some of these responses even seemed mutually exclusive from each other. It was clear to us that there is no easy answer to the question and that the discussion on finding a national ‘soul’ was an incredibly nuanced and complex issue that should be treated with the utmost delicacy. As such, we decided to base our characters on our own individual responses and stage a debate over what is Singapore’s soul.

While devising this piece, our group began to ponder on our own answers to the questions of who the soul is for, what the soul is and who can determine what the soul is. In a nation which is marked by diversity, can a collective soul for the nation ever capture the amalgamation of distinct perspectives? Does the soul remain unchanged over time or how would the soul of Singapore react to the present-day’s quickly developing technology and artificial intelligence? Can the soul be understood through technology and computed as data? Our response is an attempt to explore all these questions to further complicate the issues presented in Tan Tarn How’s already complex piece.

Was there anything about Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate 'S' Machine or his other works that caught your attention?

While reading The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine, all of us immediately noticed the heavy use of satirical humour, which was also present in many of Tan Tarn How’s works. While some theatre-makers may shun ‘heavy’ and ‘sensitive’ topics, Tan opens up important and thought-provoking conversations through his plays. Yet, his use of comedy often gives the audience moments of respites despite the gravity of such topics. This genre of satire has informed our piece and allowed us to delve deep into controversial issues and open up topics that may have been difficult to talk about. We also noticed the trope of debates among characters that recurs in Tan’s works and adapted this pattern into the structure of our piece.

How has your group's process been so far?

As our piece was conjured from a group discussion and is a performance about discussions, it comes to no surprise that our group’s process is also very discussion-heavy. As a result, our piece has come under constant revision as we discussed and experimented until we all reached a compromise. We also had to recalibrate our performance halfway into the semester and edit our script for five actors instead of six. What you see on stage has probably undergone several rounds of metamorphosis over the last 12 weeks. While the characters of S.O.S are not entirely based on ourselves, you may get a glimpse of what our group’s process was like through the experiences of our characters in S.O.S.

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The Vault: S.O.S.
S.O.S. is a devised performance responding to The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine. First staged thirty years ago in 1993, Tan Tarn How’s The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine is a political satire where Derek, the Chairman of ‘various committees and subcommittees’, is tasked with finding the soul of a nation. He finds himself debating if he should submit a recommendation that he feels is morally right and risk the consequences of going against the wishes of the government. After its
12 May 2023


Tan Tarn How: Six Plays
"Tan Tarn How can be succinctly described as a playwright of the public life and a raconteur of social history in the way he captures the zeitgeist with the exactitude and incisiveness of a political analyst. This can be attributed to a spillover from his full-time occupation, initially as a journalist with the political desk of The Straits Times and eventually as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies where the ambit of his duties encompasses studies of policy issues on the s