Ghost Writer

by Haresh Sharma
dramaturged by Charlene Rajendran
The Necessary Stage
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What makes us who we are? What pushes us to create art? The Necessary Stage’s latest collaborative, devised production, Ghost Writer, seeks to explore these hard questions by taking us on a journey that cuts across different artistic disciplines.
The narrative, crafted by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan with dramaturgy by Charlene Rajendran, is broken into chapters focusing on different characters.
            
Celebrated dancer Savitri (Sukania Venugopal) has inherited her father’s bharathanatyam dance school in India and is searching for a successor. Her most-promising dance pupil Priya (Ruby Jayaseelan) emigrates to Canada to expand her craft and ends up re-discovering her cultural identity. Savitri’s academic son (Ebi Shankara), on the other hand, moves to Singapore with his new bride (Sharda Harrison), a woman who learns to find her own voice and exorcise her inner demons.
 
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
The tales of these three women — powerful, bold and passionate — form the heart of the show and unfurl in an adroit fusion of dance, theatre, film and music. The spirit of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and his muse Kadambari lingers delicately over the performance and provide a rich aesthetic gloss. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a series of filmed interviews about the provenance of the dance school over the years, a symbol of the artistic spirit that binds them together.
The theatre elements are far easier to digest and allow for rich, absorbing performances by the likes of veteran actress Venugopal and rising star Harrison. The dance aspects, however, are a little more abstruse, particularly to the casual theatre-goer. Choreographer Ole Khamchanla juxtaposes modern dance with classical movements, and this collision between styles can sometimes appear baffling. Dance artist Jereh Leong, who plays Priya’s love interest, twirls and thrashes around in a remarkably acrobatic but distracting fashion that seems to blend yoga and breakdancing.
It would be impossible not to credit the production team in such a richly collaborative endeavour. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design features striking textual projections and black-and white filmed sections that infuse the narrative with magnificence and melancholy. Wong Chee Wai’s mobile, utilitarian set forms a blank canvas for a variety of visual spectacles.
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
One cannot deny the creativity in the soundscapes by award-winning Bani Haykal, an arresting aural potion that blends the familiar and ethereal, and that is beautifully complemented by the live vocals of Namita Mehta. However, the almost-constant stream of sounds could quite easily have been pared down to let the visuals speak for themselves.
At just seventy minutes, the production does not outstay its welcome, although there is some imbalance between the generally linear exposition in the first half and the more abstract sequences that creep in towards the end.
Ghost Writer is a re-worked version of the company’s 2014 production Gitanjali (I feel the earth move) — a somewhat raw and frustrating work that had a similar framework and characters. The cross-disciplinary craft has certainly been refined, but is some way from being perfect. Still, this is one fusion experiment well worth visiting.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 13 June 2016.

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