I watched the first incarnation of Edith Podesta's Dark Room two years ago (then titled Dark Room x8). It was part of the Esplanade's RAW series, the developmental platform of their Studios season, and I was completely taken by the intimate, stripped down production - in need of a much tighter edit, but a focused piece that was deliberately non-judgmental about the experiences of these men in the Singapore prison system, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions about punitive systems and the efficacy of corporal punishment and rehabilitation in Singapore.
It followed eight men as they made their way from sentencing through jail to eventual release, eight men from markedly different backgrounds (different socio-economic groups, education levels, sexualities, ethnicities, religions, countries) who responded to their incarceration in various ways. These were real stories, extracted from hours of interviews with former inmates - who remained anonymous, both in name and in terms of the crimes they committed. The stage was bare, the use of sound and light was minimal - used to lightly demarcate certain physical spaces and emotional conditions - which meant that the black box space itself became a kind of imaginary prison and that the focus was solely on the performers, who went through cycles of guilt, redemption and unexpected companionship, a darkness lightened by surprising and affecting moments of levity.
After the showcase, I asked Edith if she planned on expanding the work into a full production. At that point, she wasn't sure; she had some ideas about interviewing a group of women who had been through the prison system in Singapore as a parallel piece, but noted that it was extremely difficult to find willing interviewees.
So I was very pleased to hear that Dark Room had evolved into a full-scale production as part of The Studios, retaining most of the same ensemble and adding a few more verbatim interviews. Some of these additions complement the existing material seamlessly, such as the voices of the parents of a former offender (played by real-life husband and wife Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin, both conveying the perfect, aching amount of fragility and regret). But others - which I will get into - didn't quite work for me. (Spoilers ahead.)
The heart of the piece - which I loved - remains the same. The play is still a journey, as it was before, of self-discovery and of great, touching humanity. There are hilarious segments about attempts to improve the food and the limited 'yard time' juxtaposed against harrowing segments on caning and crushing loneliness. Edith sets out the various elements of imprisonment: schedules, visit times, confinement, etc, in a methodical, even-handed way, allowing us an aerial view of the prisons process while allowing us to become acquainted, in an intimate way, with the people in it.
But that arm's length, documentarian's eye that I had admired so much in the earlier work in process seems to have diminished somewhat. This work wanders into issues of innocence when it is unclear if the narrator is unreliable, and the treacly strains of 'Amazing Grace' worm their way into a preachy ending, playing on repeat to a chorus of 'I still don't think what I did was wrong' or 'I don't understand why so-and-so had to be imprisoned'. While these questions are pertinent, they seem tacked on as a conclusion from an entirely different discussion and validated without due process, which would have been a rigorous examination of the criminal justice system (a la perhaps the first season of the Serial podcast or Netflix's Making A Murderer) rather than the prisons/rehabilitation system, which the piece is dissecting.
Another strand I cannot quite reconcile is that of the sole female inmate, running parallel to the stories of the eight male inmates as what I'm guessing was meant to be a counterweight to the maleness of the main thread and/or a deeper look at solitary confinement (as opposed to group confinement among the men). Her story is a powerful, necessary one, but in this context feels frustratingly tokenistic; whenever the character appears - often at abrupt times - she scrambles the cohesion of the piece, coming across as an afterthought rather than a companion narrative because she is responding to an entirely different set of stimuli in an entirely different environment. I think her story would have been better framed in a production of its own, rather than drowned out by an ensemble of men who are on a united, interlocking journey leavened by their diversity. The male ensemble, who had the benefit of performing together previously, also share a compelling chemistry that tends to overwhelm the presence of the lone female actor.
This does not make Dark Room any less profound, however. I think testimonial/documentary theatre lends itself especially well to the need for anonymity in this production. We know these people are real, but the distance between us and them, mediated by the performers, provokes empathy and discourse over a temporary emotional rise of sympathy or pity. The audience is constantly navigating the tension between reality and representation, made to view the production with a more journalistic lens, weighing the information being presented to them and the reliability of each narrator.
This genre works exceptionally well in unpacking contentious current affairs - take for instance Drama Box's dissection of urban redevelopment and the Bukit Brown affair in It Won't Be Too Long: Dusk during last year's Singapore International Festival of Arts, presenting the audience with a wide variety of views but also knitting them into a coherent narrative; some of the performers played interviewees of a different gender, and I think that cognitive dissonance worked well to give audience members a different perspective on recognisable interviewees and public figures. Then there's the film version, Tom McCarthy's Oscar-winning Spotlight, which deliberately avoids "tidy moral takeaways". And often there are no tidy solutions to the problems presented: land scarcity in Singapore, sexual abuse in the Catholic church, the consequences of imprisonment. I think a question mark at the end of productions is more constructively provocative than finality. It prompts us to continue the conversation.
(Stray thoughts will come after if/when I have them...)
- Chris Chua's modular set was clever and versatile and Darren Ng (sound design) and Adrian Tan (lighting design) do great work, but I missed the minimalism of the first incarnation where the prison had to be imagined and there were fewer cues designed to evoke specific types of emotion.
- You can view the full house programme online here.