defies categorisation... a kind of uncontainable libidinal excess
sex.violence.blood.gore | Review
John Bailey | RealTime Arts
Issue #110 Aug-Sep, 2012
MKA Theatre, sex.violence.blood.gore, writer Alfian Bin Sa’at with Chong Tze Chien, direction Stephen Nicolazzo, performers Genevieve Giuffre, Catherine Davies, Matt Furlani, Whitney Boyd, Amy Scott-Smith, Zoe Boesen, Caitlin Adams design Eugyeene Teh, lighting Yasmine Santoso, sound Claudio Tocco; MKA Pop-Up, North Melbourne, Jun 29-Jul 17
IF EZRA POUND’S ‘MAKE IT NEW!’ WAS A RALLYING CALL TO ARMS FOR THE VANGUARD OF MODERNISM, THE PHRASE HAS IN RECENT YEARS BECOME MORE OF AN ANXIOUS ONE MUTTERED COMPULSIVELY, MANTRA-LIKE, TO WARD OFF SOME VAGUE EVIL.
Artists now remain charged, by tradition and funding guideline alike, with the demand to innovate and reinvent and find novel ways of doing the same old things. It’s all-too-obvious when a sharp and beguiling idea has been lost amid a flurry of formal trickery that appears forced; when someone’s original intent has been clouded by some notion that this alone is not enough. When a work does engage with the new in ways that don’t seem anxious or unsettled, then, it puts everything in bold relief.
MKA Theatre has only been around for a few years, but has already made reckonable advances from its hit-and-miss beginnings to a program that’s always worth studying closely. At least two recent works have been unmissable—last year’s The Economist (RT107) and the even more startling and accomplished sex.violence.blood.gore. Where both offer much to encourage is in the negotiation of experiment and convention. MKA is a company dedicated to the text, seeking out and presenting to the public new works with a solid investment in the good ol’ fashioned written word. But in these later productions, at least, there has been no hint of slavish reverence to the play, and neither has there been a need to inject irreverence where not necessary. The result has been an organic marriage of text and performance that makes the two seem inextricable.
sex.violence.blood.gore was written by Singaporean playwright Alfian bin Sa’at and, given its outrageous subjects, was understandably scandalous when first performed (in relative secrecy in a basement, no less). The work is composed of a series of vignettes that defy categorisation—farcical psychosexual/historical/political playlets united less by a specific thematic or narrative line than a particular energy that runs through each. It’s a kind of uncontainable libidinal excess. It’s not that kind of taboo-breaking transgression that so often reaffirms the binaries supposedly blurred; rather, it’s a sexuality that is too much of everything—too overwhelming and everywhere, simultaneously explicit and repressed, hysterical and hilarious, but also too self-aware, too self-negating. This excess is what drives the work so urgently. At no point can an audience member think: ‘This is what’s really being said, I see now,’ without immediately being offered something to contradict such a conclusion.
The individual sequences gesture to contemporary and historical Singapore while introducing more abstract and non-naturalistic terms of reference. A local under the Japanese occupation of WWII is made a sexual slave by foreign forces; a pair of tightlaced British colonialists fantasise about their subjugated maids; trash-talking teens on a train spark up a strangely eroticised verbal slanging match with two transvestites. All is played against type, however; actors are cast cross-gender and -ethnicity, while make-up and costume are heightened to the point of absurdity.
Most of all, the performances suggest that what matters most here is identity, both individual and social, as masquerade. Nothing is allowed the aura of the authentic, but rather than resulting in a diminishment of significance, a liberation of meaning occurs in which the playful interchange of masks seems to be the catalyst. To look for the real behind the painted face isn’t even a consideration.
I wasn’t the only person to leave the theatre with a desperate desire to read sex.violence.blood.gore in its original form. Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction is most fascinating in the way it makes it impossible to tell whether he’s radically reinterpreted the text or stuck to its dictates. The whole could be played in an entirely realistic fashion and still hold great power, but I don’t know where Alfian bin Sa’at ends and Stephen Nicolazzo begins here. I probably don’t want to. The whole I saw, in all of its enveloping messiness, was more than enough to satisfy.