This version of the play was based on Completely With/Out Character, devised by Paddy Chew and staged in 1999. In collaboration with The Necessary Stage, Loo restaged it again this year after his first attempt in 2015 at the M1 Fringe Festival.
I first heard about Loo Zihan when I was back in secondary school when we discussed arts censorship and arts funding, we always end up talking about Josef Tan’s work. This work of Josef’s involved him snipping his pubic hair in front of a live audience that directly led to the ban in doing performance art in 1994. This work was a protest of the media’s coverage of gay issues, titled Brother Cane. So Zihan restaged this in 2012.
Back to With/out, which I caught the previous night starring Janice Koh, I was surprised by the last-minute request to arrive half an hour early so the team can give out headphones to us for the show. Wearing the headphones, we entered the studio a little bit disorientated because there were three giant screens in the centre of the space and long blocks for seats at the sides. Everybody went for the seats except Shangbin who chose to be badass (kidding).
The headphones had three different channels; one to focus on Paddy’s version of the play being screened on the first screen, one to focus on Janice’s rendering of the script while she acts it out in real life, and the last is a fusion of both. I was on the last channel because I did not figure out how to toggle the channels, but even if I knew I would still probably be on the third channel. Zihan mentioned that the reason why he opted for this segmentation of audio was because in the 2015 version he had two rooms to do two versions concurrently but he couldn’t find a good space this year hence he went for an alternative choice. But I was painfully distracted, it really tested my skills of focus.
Zihan hoped that by screening both at the same time, the audience would have the freedom to toggle their channels and pay attention to whatever they wished. Shangbin and I agreed that we wanted to pay attention to both so it was quite unfair and unkind trying to split our head into twos to focus on both. I ended up zoning out on Janice because Paddy’s version was so engaging. I’m personally not into sobby stuff, which was the characterisation Janice decided to go with for the night. Paddy, however, was a classic and such a powerful character to watch. After all, to quote, it was a “docu-drama” featuring his real life, his aspirations, fears and struggles. But I later tried to balance both because I paid money to watch Janice in real life, not a screening of an old staging.
I was truthfully, unable to appreciate Janice’s rendering because everybody was crowding around her, around me, and the theatre experience was almost detached and emotionless when her character was “absorbed by other people” before it even reached me. Instead of having everyone sitting in their seats, some chose to stand around her, some chose to sit, some did not even pay attention to her at all, focusing on Paddy. It was on hindsight and upon her sharing that she was performing in silence while we all had the headphones, she had to discipline herself to carry through her actions despite the lack of audience feedback and other distractions such as shuffling of feets and others laughing at Paddy while she does a sad sobby part. She is definitely a very strong actress and I would not deny her efforts any bit.
On the issue of HIV and AIDS, Janice ended off with a memorial for Paddy by inviting the audience to light a candle for Paddy. As I watched people waddle to the table to light their candle, I ended up being cynical and questioned their intentions as they did so. Lighting a candle in remembrance for Paddy is one thing, doing something in thought of him is another thing. To light a candle today because it was part of a play, because it seemed fun, because you feel like you are part of the group who watched and to forget about Paddy’s fight and mission to reduce the stigma of AIDS, to not do your part in sharing Paddy’s vision and attitude towards life, I think this action is nothing more than empty.
I was very honoured to have a chance to watch Paddy in his autobiographical play albeit from a screening because it really felt like he was there and he was sharing his message. Sometimes, people make bad decisions out of goodness. Sometimes, the people who say they care, don’t, and those who do, will make their efforts felt. Sometimes, feeling bitter and angry about other’s privileges while you are stripped of your own is not justified. Sometimes, life is short and you have a choice to make a difference in one person’s life, many people’s life or none at all. Most importantly, to treasure what we have each day and be thankful in actions and words before it is too late.