By Kuik Tze-Yin
90… 89… 88…
Beside Ourselves is a play written by acclaimed electronica duo .gif. In their quest to align with M1 Singapore’s Fringe Festival’s theme, My Country and My People (a poem by local poet Lee Tzu Pheng), .gif thoughtfully explored the recurring idea of displacement in an unconventional and refreshing perspective – of our very minds and souls. With a cast made up of Chew Wei Shan, Isabella Chiam and Sharda Harrison, accompanied by Nurudin Sadali who beautifully created the beats and echoes throughout the show, I would best describe the 60-minute show as an out-of-body experience.
The premise of the storyline was that of Weish’s character having a panic attack, which were intruded by thoughts, or rather memories, of short, real stories which .gif managed to gather from speaking to many. My favourite part of the play was when it was made known the reason behind the persistent counting down. With the play starting with “90… 89… 88…” and a continuation of this countdown being spread and placed at different intervals, I had goosebumps when it was revealed that panic attacks come in waves of 90 seconds, and that it was a countdown to the end of panic and pain (at least temporarily) for the character herself. It was hauntingly touching; it pieced the entire show together.
Some of the small stories included a “near-death experience” with an ahbeng in Yishun, who offered to show her his snake, a glimpse into the lives of living with one suffering with dementia, how a teacher friend was always “doing astro-yoga at the Golden Gate Bridge” (as a state of mind), experiencing gender dysphoria, how a brother who had not been in Singapore for many years and did not know of the new passion card was asked to “show his passion (card)”, and being forgotten by one’s mother. While seemingly random, each small story had its place. Some made the audience burst out in repeated laughter, some created a solemn atmosphere, of a collective acknowledgement of the sensitive nature of the issues being presented. With all the stories brought together, the entire show invoked an array of emotions in me in that short one hour – it had me wondering if the very skin and bone I was made of is what truly represents me, and of who I am besides being myself.
Beside Ourselves was localised, yet not in the overbearing ways that some local artists employ. There was Singlish (of course), there were references to places such as Yishun, there were stories of techno-ahbengs and DBS/POSB’s Passion Card. Yet it was so authentic, in the ways a local would speak, in the very manner I would banter with my friends in hawker centres. It did not feel as though such local aspects were carelessly littered in a mere attempt to localise a show, but it was rather a seamless incorporation which was extremely relatable and enjoyable, keeping the audience constantly at the edge of their seats. The representation in the show was unmatched as well, with the actresses speaking in fluent Malay for a part of dialogue to shedding light on the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community (specifically of one experiencing gender dysphoria and a mother’s response to her daughter’s lesbian sexts). Another aspect of the show I enjoyed was how the cast repeatedly broke the fourth wall through speaking directly to the audience and asking each other for their next lines. It was unorthodox in many ways; it was so rugged, yet so refined. It shed away any inklings of a pretentious picture-perfect representation of the human condition, and this very well encompassed the beauty of the show, which conveyed how we do not even know who we are and who we may be outside our bodies, and that our psyche could be completely separated and an entirely different representation of our mere existences.
On to the technicalities of a good show: the set was simple, and what I appreciated was the simple colour tones across the set and actress’ clothes, as well as the multiple uses of the props (for instance, a large yellow cloth was representative of different motifs in different stories). In addition, there was nothing fancy or overlaboured – the play felt genuine in conveying the humanness of the feelings evoked, rather than bombarding the audience with intricate props which served little purpose. In addition, suffice to say, the actresses did a splendid job. The chemistry on stage was remarkable, and it was heart-warming to see the way Weish, Isabella and Sharda interacted with each other within that very space. The transitions were flawless, and the way the actresses were all given near equal parts and roles to share the different stories was delightful. No story overpowered another, and to those whose stories were used for the play, I can vouch that they did justice to them – all the way from the intimate and uncomfortable, to the humorous and light-hearted. The music created by .gif, as well as the live echoing of certain words by Nurudin Sadali, was a delightful accompaniment to the subject matters at hand. Each sound and echo was thoughtful, and it created an atmosphere which cannot be explained in words. It was an amazing harmony, and the blend and seamlessness of the music and storyline was perfect.
Whenever one has to write a review, there always has to be some sort of criticism or areas for improvement for the sake of an unbiased view. Yet after much thought and mulling, there does not seem to be anything I would like to change of the show. It was imperfectly perfect, it brought a dark light into this metaphorical place I would never have ventured into, if not for it. Throughout this review, if you did notice my word choice of the word show, rather than play, this can be attributed to what director Anthea Julia Chua mentioned post-show: Beside Ourselves could not be a concert despite .gif being music artists, yet it could not be simply a play with the music involved. In the same vein, it could not be just a dance. “It had to be a hybrid beast of a thing from the get-go”, Chua said.
And for now, I only hope to find myself doing astro-yoga on the Golden Gate Bridge somehow, no matter where I am. After watching Beside Ourselves, I see the world, and Singapore specifically, in an entirely new lens – one of the richest stories and peculiar instances, where anyone could be struggling right beside us. Why question what we are beside ourselves, when there are already so many beside us?
Photography credit: Crispian Chan