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SIFA 2015: The weight of history in Cake’s Versus

SINGAPORE — Like the leader of a marching band leading the troops to war, a lone man poised at the top of the stage furiously pounds on a drum to herald the start of Versus. It is a big, thunderous sound befitting a show that talks big. For in this commissioned work for the ongoing Singapore International Festival Of Arts, Cake Theatrical Productions takes on history.

Cake Theatrical Productions' Versus at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015. Photo: Cake Theatrical Productions.

Cake Theatrical Productions' Versus at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015. Photo: Cake Theatrical Productions.

SINGAPORE — Like the leader of a marching band leading the troops to war, a lone man poised at the top of the stage furiously pounds on a drum to herald the start of Versus. It is a big, thunderous sound befitting a show that talks big. For in this commissioned work for the ongoing Singapore International Festival Of Arts, Cake Theatrical Productions takes on history.

In an outright nod to the festival’s Post-Empires theme, director Natalie Hennedige and playwright Michelle Tan lay the foundation for this sweeping psychedelic epic by enumerating the lifespans of empires past with an ominous warning that humanity is “living in a timebomb no human hand can defuse”.

And in typical Cake fashion, Versus assaults your senses: You are bombarded relentlessly with stream of consciousness text, surreal video imagery, grating or pummelling soundscapes, twitchy physical movements and out-of-nowhere singing by the performers, and an endless flow of surreal mask props, all pilfered from different cultures — mostly biblical, but with a smattering of other cultures as well.

And yet, it is all tightly choreographed. There is a sense of visual order as scenes are rolled out like picture-perfect tableaux, so much so that you can imagine these to be chapters of an epic tale unfolding like those Egyptian hieroglyphs — if you are hallucinating, that is.

At the heart of it are the two things that supposedly clash in the show’s title: Creation and Destruction, personified with matriarchal elegance by Goh Guat Kian and malicious sneer by Julius Foo, respectively. It is a relationship that is complementary and seemingly not adversarial — as Creation breathes life into pyramids and the Great Wall of China, Destruction leaves, well, a path of destruction in his wake. And both actions are two sides of the same coin.

Elsewhere, other characters sneak in: A woman named Mary (Edith Podesta), who grapples with her identity and the voices in her head; a young soldier (Thomas Pang) dealing with the effects of an unnamed war; and in its most bizarre left-turn, a whole herd of dinosaurs enacting some sort of The Land Before Time adventure as they go on a search and end up in the realm of an artist who is in a surrealist phase — before being wiped out by the most hilarious meteor to hit the Earth.

It is this latter dream sequence — midway through the piece — where humour surfaces as a much-welcome comedic pitstop in what has been a mostly dark and grim affair. In any other show, the abrupt shift would seem jarring — in Cake’s twisted, cartoonish world, it is par for the course.

Yet, while Versus is framed within the idea of human history, it leans heavily on the language of myths, which seems a bit odd in the context of the festival’s theme that presupposes a dismantling of commonly held thoughts and belief systems. Admittedly, Cake’s strengths do lie in its unflinching confrontation of universal themes and how it is able to weave in the personal into these. But somehow, it does not quite merge seamlessly in Versus. There is a sense that the show goes on a bit too long that its fluid, rambling narrative eventually slips from one’s fingers — when, post-dinosaur moment, we were back in the land of the serious, this audience member was unable to dive right back into the curious but rather abstract tales of the young soldier and Mary, much less see how these fit in with this world of particular empires rising and falling.

One of the most powerful lines in the piece — “My sorrow is not unique. It doesn’t make it any less heavy.” — alludes to a sense of personal alienation in the bigger scheme of things. There is so much gravitas in these words. If only we knew more about where Versus stood while history relentlessly marches on.

Versus runs until today, 8pm, at SOTA Drama Theatre. Tickets from S$25 at SISTIC. For more information, visit http://sifa.sg/sifa/ For our updates on SIFA, visit For Art’s Sake (http://tdy.sg/artssakeblog)

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