“Struggling with the Outside from the Inside”
Reviewer: Alisa Maya Ravindran
Performance: 30 April 2016
Dark Room opens and ends with monologues that are inspired by true accounts from prisoners, immersing the audience in the experiences of the characters and their loved ones from the get-go. The play walks you through the experiences of convicts from their court date until their release date, and comprehensively addresses the ups and downs as it develops.
The star-studded cast, with the likes of Lim Kay Siu and Noor Effendy Ibrahim, does not disappoint. The actors interject comedy and grief and introspection throughout, so the lengthy run time of two hours is not difficult to sit through. What is most powerful about this performance is the diversity of characters, in terms of ethnicity socio-economic class. A Malay uncle in his forties, young, well-educated gay men, a Chinese waiter and a foreign worker all share the same cell.
The cast’s use of space is praise-worthy, as the male characters work within a mock-up of a Changi prison cell for the bulk of the show. Besides showcasing the daily routines of prison life and how the characters cope with their new circumstances, Dark Room also benefits from the perspectives of parents and loved ones, and shows how a prison sentence punishes the jailed person’s family as well. In essence, this is the central struggle all of the characters face: the idea that life in a jail cell is about figuring out one’s past, present and future while all the while being conscious of, but out of touch with the outside world.
Nelson Chia’s Chinese monologue about caning in the prisons has the audience in total silence. His character’s empathy with the prisoners who are caned is equal parts moving and disturbing. In his speech, the humanity of each prisoner is brought to the forefront, as he strips away labels of crime, shame to highlight the universal experiences of pain and humiliation. Shafiqhah Efandi is the only female inmate in the play, and single-handedly conveys women’s experiences of prison. While her performance is compelling in terms of its somberness, it is ultimately one-dimensional in that the upsides of prison life, no matter how minute, are barely discussed.
In the final analysis, the identities of the prisoners and the crimes for which they are incarcerated are never revealed. Instead the play focuses on how “normal” these archetypical prisoners are and raises a long-debated question: just how effective and ethical is the current prisons system?
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
DARK ROOM by Edith Podesta
28 – 30 April 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Alisa Maya is reading English Literature at the National University of Singapore and also writes for several online and print publications. She enjoys the diversity and dynamism of theatre and hopes to learn and write more about theatre in the coming year.