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Schafer and Wenzel wearing ghost costumes and dancing to the Ghostbusters theme song in the play, Ibsen: Ghosts.

What's funny about death? Maybe everything

Jul 15, 2016 5:50 AM

IT is not often that one gets to witness a real death on screen. But in the brash multimedia play Ibsen: Ghosts shown at The O.P.E.N. festival, the assisted suicide of an 81-year-old woman is presented to us on video without any ceremony or censorship.

In the last moments of the woman known only as Margot, filmed by the work's creators-cum-performers Markus Wenzel and Markus Schafer, we watch her voluntarily release lethal drugs into her bloodstream and quickly losing consciousness.

As she expels her last breath, one feels grief and joy all at once. For the first time in years, this ordinary German woman, who suffered from various chronic ailments, has finally found peace.

There are few more searingly truthful moments like this captured on video. But they stand in sharp contrast to the live parts of the show.

Here we find Wenzel and Schafer, aka Markus & Markus, frequently hamming it up and asking in-your-face questions about death: why is death mourned instead of celebrated? Why do we shed tears instead of sharing food, music and laughter?

Like an insolent Fool to Margot's dignified Lear, they parody classic death scenes in Romeo & Juliet and Massenet's Werther. They put on bad Halloween costumes and jiggle to the song Ghostbusters. They sing along to Queen's Who Wants To Live Forever from the soundtrack of Highlander, a 1980s movie about immortals.

On stage, Markus & Markus set up a long table with seats occupied by soft toys to look like the Tea Party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in Alice In Wonderland. At one point, Schafer guzzles down a decanter of red wine, only to go into violent spasms of projectile vomiting.

These borderline fratboy antics can amuse or bemuse, as they seek to challenge the taboo surrounding the topic of death, illness and euthanasia. And they certainly divided the audience. Some responded with laughter, others were visibly repulsed.

This reviewer found these moments abrasive and mildly disingenuous, but the fellow reviewer seated next to him was quietly sobbing.

The work's title, Ibsen: Ghosts, evokes the classic 1881 drama Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, the father of theatrical realism. The pranksters that they are, Markus & Markus have created a non-naturalistic contemporary work that deliberately upends expectations of a slowburn drama. Realism is presented only through the real-life story of Margot on video - all else is conceptual parody.

Like the rest of the offerings at The O.P.E.N. festival, Ibsen: Ghosts seeks to open our minds, but never by the path of least resistance.

  • The O.P.E.N. festival has concluded. The Singapore Festival of Arts, of which The O.P.E.N. is the precursor, will open next month and run for six weeks. For more information, go to Tickets from Sistic