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Snails and Ketchup

July 31, 2011

Event: Snails & Ketchup (part of The Studios series by Esplanade)
Run: 22 & 23 July 2011
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Created & Performed by: Ramesh Meyyappan
Creative/Production team: Produced by Chloe Dear/Iron-Oxide; Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, Music by Tze

Inspired by Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees”, Snails & Ketchup is the darkly comic tale of a dysfunctional family and follows a son taking to the trees to live an arboreal existence, escaping his brutal home environment for the solace of the forest. It is told in the style of physical theatre, where the entire story was told entirely via body expression, with no spoken words. That, I guess, explains the very comprehensive synopsis given, which helped me follow through the story. It was a performance aimed at exploring family relationships, responsibilities and existence, though maybe extreme at points. As I read somewhere, it “reminds us that despite familial love being unconditional, it is sometimes impossible to co-exist with those we hold dear.”

The story tells of how a boy finds solace in snails when faced with an obsessive an indifferent father, who has no compassion; a mother who tries to do her duty and fixes everything with her sewing (and I mean everything); and a sardonic twin sister who cooks with the most perverse kind of ingredients, including the snails which the boys find solace in, and  half-cooked at that. Following an incident where his father forces him to eat the half-cooked snails his sister cooks, the boy escapes into the woods where he found his snail friends and the solace he needs, scaling the trees and living in them. Finally he can breathe. But the father comes in search of him, determined to bring him back to the family and in a struggle, tragedy happens, and the boy never returns home again.

Opening with the turning point of the protagonist’s in a convulsive moment (after the force-feeding), followed by a return to the past, Ramesh brings us through the story of father, mother, daughter and son (the protagonist), all by himself, and oh, as the snails too. How does one play 4 different characters and at the same time manage the aerial choreography, considering he needed to switch between roles? And without words/speech, just body expression. It was no mean feat as he does this skillfully with distinct mannerisms established in the beginning when he introduced the 4 characters accordingly. You could easily distinguish the characters, even when they appeared in the same scene and at no point were we lost on which character was on stage or how the story was going. In addition, Tze, with his scoring and live accompaniment, helped us differentiate by rhythm and pace, and also enhanced the mood and tones in the performance. It was a full hour of piano-playing on Tze’s part. As for the acrobatic rope works, he learnt it from scratch for this piece. Well-executed and almost natural, he recalls his instructor was almost hesitant to teach him as he was worried about how to communicate with Ramesh. There were “scares”, but it was obvious the training was a success. In any case, the storytelling was done astutely, even though I felt the story rather dark. There was a disturbing scene of the mother who had sewn up the children’s mouth at childbirth, probably because of post-natal depression, and it was later used against them as a threat when they were fighting (many of us didn’t realise this until it was told in the post-show dialogue with the help of an interpreter).

As a matter of fact, it didn’t occur to me that Ramesh was actually deaf until the end of the performance. I hadn’t known much about him (and somehow missed that detail in the programme), and had come for this performance because Tze, the composer, was a friend of mine. But that didn’t affect the understanding of the show at all. In fact, it was amazing how the music and actions of Ramesh were perfectly synced. Composer and actor communicated through signals, by tapping, and signs of the “feel” of the music like ‘floating’ and the like. The music (for those who relied on it) enhanced the show and the purpose was to help the audience get into the story faster, and at the same time set the pace. It worked. The live score was complementary.

And the way Ramesh interacts with the audience, he “feels” them, to engage them, even though he couldn’t hear their response. As explained in the post-show dialogue, the space (close & intimate space of the Theatre Studio) aided this.

In closing, as I had read the full synopsis before the show, I just followed the story through. Too bad I couldn’t give a perspective of not having known the details of the story, or else I would have been given to a more “twistful” feel of the show. And why “Ketchup”? I was told that I would need to read “Baron in the Trees” to find out.

(“Snails & Ketchup” is a Singapore-Scotland collaborative project commissioned for Unlimited as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad principally funded by the National Lottery through the Olympic Lottery Distributor. It is supported by Singapore International Foundation, Creative Scotland, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, the National Arts Council (Singapore) and Made In Scotland.)

Snails & Ketchup will next be staged in Edinburgh at New Town Theatre from 6-28 August.

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