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Directed by Oliver Chong, The Spirits Play looks at the horrendous effects of war through the eyes of five wandering spirits.

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Chong Tze Chien's Poop! is a funny yet poignant play about illness and suicide.

Ghosts take up residence at the Vic

Two classic plays involving spirits and spectres ask hard questions about life and death.
Oct 6, 2017 5:50 AM

IN the last weeks of October, the venerable Victoria Theatre is set to be haunted by ghosts. These phantoms are not the sort to pop up from behind your seats and say "boo". They stay on stage and taunt you instead with questions and challenges about life and death. And if, by the end of the night, they've made you cry - as they have made many in the past - they would pat each other's spectral backs for a job well done.

The ghosts belong to the plays Poop!, written and directed by Chong Tze Chien, and The Spirits Play, written by Kuo Pao Kun and directed by Oliver Chong. Poop! is a play about cancer and suicide that manages to be funny, strange and poignant all at once. The Spirits Play is a poetic heart-wrenching work about the cost of war. The two plays are being staged back-to-back as part of The Finger Players' season of contemporary classics.

Poop! tells the story of a three-generation family who is mourning the death of the father while also grappling with the illness of the daughter. Despite the potentially bleak storyline, writer-director Chong lightens the subject with whimsical humour, an inventive stage design and the magic of puppetry. The play stars Janice Koh, Neo Swee Lin, Jean Ng and Julius Foo.

This 2017 version, which Chong calls "Poop 2.0", will be even more visually impressive. The stage of Victoria Theatre is much bigger than the Esplanade Theatre Studio where it was first staged in 2009 and 2010, so audiences can expect "a more three-dimensional staging and a larger field of vision this time," says Chong. "We're constructing two stage-levels on which actors and objects will be seen as though they are levitating; some scenes will also be presented as though they are viewed from the sky."

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"We're also having many more hands and legs in the form of 'invisible' puppeteers led by our resident artist Ang Hui Bin, with our apprentices Zee Wong and Darren Guo, who will pull off some of the sleight-of-hand tricks on stage. These and many more mind-warping optical illusions help us present a more whimsical world."

For Chong, Poop! marked a shift in his writing. Lauded early on for his incisive social commentary plays such PIE, Chong began a philosophical inquiry into death after actress Ng gave him a copy of the classic text The Book of Living and Dying to aid his research on a play. "It totally appealed to my macabre imagination and it soon gave birth to Poop!," says Chong.

Subsequently, death emerged as a major theme in his oeuvre with plays such as The Book of Living and Dying (2011) and Itsy (2017). Chong says: "Despite the macabre subject matter, Poop! is frequently requested for restaging. And I think it's because the story ultimately celebrates life and exudes positivity and warmth."

Meanwhile, the second play, The Spirits Play, is a classic work by Kuo from 1998. The story centres on five wandering spirits who meet in limbo to share their experiences of various wars. They tell stories of soldiers killed and women raped, but the spirits find neither catharsis nor closure in recounting them.

Director Oliver Chong saw the first version of the play in 1998 when it was helmed by famous Taiwanese director Stan Lai. Chong went on to watch almost every version of it to be staged in Singapore before presenting his own in 2015.

Chong says: "When I saw the 1998 premiere, I was blown away. . . We often hear the victims lamenting the cruelties of war, but Kuo's play allows the ghosts of the aggressors to speak up as well. This provides a wider lens to see past our hatreds and look at the larger human conditions of greed, anger and ignorance."

Chong says: "Kuo's plays continue to resonate with audiences today because they are so incisive in questioning the human conditions under imminent circumstances. Some of the circumstances in his plays are deceptively mundane or even petty, but always essential and universal. We think that war is not going to happen - especially to us Singaporeans - living in this safe, stable cocoon. But if we follow the news, we know that that war is happening around us."

For the Victoria Theatre staging, also an expansion from its previous black box staging, Chong is looking towards a more stylised presentation of the story. He says: "The changes I've made don't stem from having to fill the bigger space. Rather, they're part of a development from the previous staging to take the play one step closer to how I envision it could be."

  • Poop! runs from Oct 20 to 22, and The Spirits Play from Oct 27 - 29. Both at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets from S$35 from Sistic.