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The Book of Living and Dying

July 10, 2013


Event: The Book of Living and Dying (part of Esplanade’s The Studios series)
Run: 4-7 July 2013
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Directed by: Chong Tze Chien
Written by: Chong Tze Chien, Antonio Ianniello, Nambi E. Kelly, Oliver Chong
Actors: Antonio Ianniello (Martina), Nambi E. Kelly (Eve), Oliver Chong (Cat/Dr. Chong/Priest/Monk)

In a cyclical globe of whirling lights, we are sucked into the story of past lives and present. That’s how it begins for this re-staging of Chong Tze Chien’s The Book of Living and Dying.

The play is based on the ”Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”, which is, as Tze Chien puts it, a ”manual” on how to conduct your life, in preparation for your death with respect to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, emphasising on karma and reincarnation. Staged first at last year’s Singapore Arts Fest (where tickets were swiped clean within 10 minutes), it was a show set to take the stage again, this time in more optimal settings in the space of Esplanade’s Theatre Studio. Interestingly, this play was a coming back to the theme used in Poop, one of my favourite plays, which was Tze Chien’s initial outcome from the Book.

The story tells of a transvestite, Martina, who ”adopts” a daughter, Eve. It turns out that they were linked through a number of past lives, starting from the time when one of Martina’s past lives stole a temple goblet/lamp which resulted in the death of his unborn baby (eventually Eve) as retribution. Many lives passed with the article following them but never returned, and in this life all finally come together, including the cat that failed to guard the article in the beginning and was tasked to retrieve it as punishment.

Camping on the theme of karma and consequence, Eve never meant to be Martina’s, from the beginning when she wasn’t meant to be his child since the theft, and Martina always tried to pursue possession of her whether through theft or restraint. It was like a cat & mouse pursuit (maybe that’s why a cat was involved?). As Tze Chien points out, we can choose our actions but not the consequences, and our actions often outlive us in generations to come. It was also a play about dealing with death at home as Martina had cancer.

The performance was in 3 languages – English, Italian and Mandarin, which didn’t pose any problem with the cast in understanding each other. It added to the trans-boundaries feel of the play, whether it was trans-generation, dimensional or even supernatural. The whole stage design complemented this concept with the almost bare stage except the impermanence nature of the sets (chalk-drawn), and shadow play. I felt myself constantly embedded in the cyclical and transient nature of the scenes, which well expressed the essence of the play. It keeps you engaged and ”in the play”, As if you were part of it, though still watching from the outside.

Incidentally, as one of the audience astutely pointed out, the play seemed mainly about what was going on in Martina’s mind and the rest of the characters were just part of the story in his mind. I felt that this reflected the myriad of happenings that were the consequence of Martina’s past actions. The outcome or feel might be very different if taken from Eve’s or even the cat’s perspective. But as the show was on 因果报应 (retribution), so maybe it was thus so, although we were told that last year’s staging didn’t have that much of a direct interaction between characters partly due to the stage orientation.

Each actor was adept in their roles and natural in interacting with each other, and the whole flow of the show was seamless, including the appearance of the chalk-painters/puppeteers/supporting cast played by Ong Kian Sin, Ang Hui Bin and Tan Wan Sze.

A reflective piece for the audience to ponder about, Tze Chien once again impresses me with his thought processes and concepts as well as his vision for his plays.

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