The Spirits Play

by Kuo Pao Kun
The Finger Players
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Kuo Pao Kun's classic play about a group of spirits inhabiting a void between life and death while debating the brutalities of war emerges somewhat muted in this revival by The Finger Players, the sixth staging of the play since its debut in 1998.
I had been looking forward to director Oliver Chong's interpretation of Spirits following his critically acclaimed monodrama Roots and searing take on Haresh Sharma's Off Centre earlier this year. However, Chong's characteristically sparse and cadenced directorial style fails to shine through in this production despite the overall aesthetic richness.


Spirits revolves round a series of conversations between five wandering Japanese spirits: a General, Man, Mother, Girl and Poet. Through a series of anecdotes, they trade views about the war they all went through (implied to be the Second World War) and its devastating effects on both individuals and society as a whole. On one side of the spectrum we have the pacifist Poet, who shuns violence and portrays the pains of his people through his words. On the other is the bumptious General who feels entirely justified in leading his men to carry out acts of wanton destruction for the greater good. In between we hear stories of the Mother and Girl - women whose lives are tried and trampled by men - and the Man - a soldier who endures the ordeal of war out of obedience even if he mentally revolts against it. The image one gets is of a collective mental horror, the various narrative threads weaving themselves into a painful tapestry of human strife.

There have been various interpretations of the play over the years, many seeking to lift it from its Japanese context and to universalise the experience of wartime atrocity and casual inhumanity of man against man. Indeed, the continued resonance of its theme cannot be ignored: I caught this play barely hours before the acts of terrorism in Paris that sent shockwaves through the world, making this play's discussion of violence as urgent as ever.
Chong sticks closely to the original text and his contributions are largely aesthetic in nature. One notable addition is having three female actors draped in black as a lurking presence onstage. They set a dark tone from the outset by hovering over the effigy of a man suspended from a noose while eerily echoing the words of the other spirits. They also play a vital role in contributing to the play's masterful use of puppetry and shadow work, doubling up as skilled stagehands. References in the text to aeroplanes and a giant mythical bird are brought to life by arresting projections that flit across the walls as the actors speak.  

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Lim Woan Wen's lighting powerfully augments the text, transforming the plain black box space into a kaleidoscope of quivering colours that is by turns majestic and menacing. Equally noteworthy is the work by sound artist and music composer Darren Ng who adds to the ethereal atmosphere with his evocative soundscapes. In a striking moment towards the end, the Poet plaintively sings a folk song while debris rains, snow-like, all around him. It's a moving reminder of beauty that exists even in the midst of senseless bloodshed.

One of the corollaries of Chong's aesthetic flourishes is that it makes this relatively tight piece feel fairly ponderous. The actors tend to speak their lines with a languid, almost plodding earnestness and the extended opening and closing sequences which largely mirror each other make the play feel repetitive. The tone is just a touch too emotional and this weighs down the plot.
On a final, purely technical note, the surtitling in this production proves a disappointment. Appearing on a tiny screen at the top of the theatre, the words are faint and difficult to follow unless one happens to be seated at a precise angle. There also seems to be a slight disconnect between the conversational Mandarin spoken by the actors and the formal, occasionally florid English translations displayed on the screen. It's something for the production team to consider if they are keen to accommodate as many audience members as possible as this can detract from one's enjoyment of the play.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

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