Ho Tzu Nyen may be what others describe as a cerebral artist, but he never neglects the five senses, whether it’s emphasising the act of gazing at a painting-as-video or being completely immersed in smoke. For him, the best place to watch a movie is in the very front row of a cinema, your entire vision enveloped by the screen. The best concert experience is to be moved by the music in a very literal sense. (A couple of years ago, he raved about, if remember correctly, attending a gig by doom metal band Sunn O)) where one literally felt the body vibrate.)
This “truth of sensations”, as he describes it in the programme booklet, is at the heart of the visceral The Song Of The Brokenhearted Tiger, which kicks off this year’s The Studios season at the Esplanade. After a two-week break from the local art scene, coming to watch it was a full-on punch in the gut. This was no icanhascheezburger event – it came at you claws out and fangs bared, gouging your eardrums and blinding you (sort of, for a while) into submission.
TSOTBT is communal storytelling session, Singapore history lesson and kick-ass metal concert rolled into one. One enters a smoke-filled room (and given optional earplugs at the door) and told of a tiger in a forest, whose life is endangered when Mr Coleman (of Coleman Street/Singapore’s urban city planner fame) barges in and clears the greenery, driving the hapless feline from his abode and into the hands of Man who strips him to the bone.
It may sound simplistic to some, but that’s missing the fun of it. It is framed as a fable anyway. The point is in the telling. The experience of it. And boy, do Ho and his gang know how to tell one.
Viking metal, Tolkien-loving Led Zeppelin, Metallica’s certain song about a Sandman—the show’s strategy of combining folklore, heavy metal and the theatrical has its precedents. Texts of actual Malay spells (with certain bits taken out, erm, just in case) and William Blake’s The Tyger (not to mention a quick Eye Of The Tiger nudge wink) are incorporated into this abrasive, potent mix that alternately disorients and hypnotises.
Crafting a show that makes one feel for the extinct Malayan tiger is, I suspect, the last thing it wants to do. The glorious felines are not cuddly and cute big cats but magnificent, dangerous animals—which is where the actual tragedy stems from. The fall from grace of these proud creatures. And in this context, TSOTBT is not a show demanding sympathy or pity but instead is a powerful singular roar of anger, anguish and desperation.
I somewhat hesitate to delve into the different elements of the performance precisely because everything and everyone works as a unit, all too obvious in their democratic decision to subsume everyone under the “band name” 3 Tigers.
But one really does have to give props to Ho’s partners in crime: electro-maestro George Chua, guitarist Dharma and drummer Ray Aziz are freakin’ tight and vox dude Rizman Putra becomes a faceless shaman who growls and howls like there’s no tomorrow on vocoder mode or otherwise (a Nick Cave moment in there right?); sound designer Jeffrey Yue is pivotal in maintaining the integral sound levels and mix in such an audio-driven show; this is perhaps the best I’ve seen from light/smoke/stage designer Andy Lim who makes the whole place bleed red and induces mental seizures with full on strobe effects; and Era Dance Theatre’s Osman Hamid, who makes his performance comeback as the Tiger trapped in a cage, barely seen for the most part but providing perhaps the most chilling image in the entire piece: the sight of him screaming in silence through the transparent walls, after a barrage of sound and noise, is my first goosebump moment for 2012.
TSOTBT is an angry, angry piece. And it’s an anger that is directed at the audience. The fury of sound and light and smoke can be disturbing. But in the context of its own story, the extinction of an entire subspecies, surely it’s a discomfort that becomes meaningless. When the chest constricts at the end, as the sound volume briefly peaks to its breaking limit, surely this is the “truth of sensations” that Ho talks about.
I dare you to catch this. And if, by the end of the year, someone points out a theatrical experience like TSOTBT, a round of beer’s on me.
(The Song Of The Brokenhearted Tiger runs until Saturday. Details here.)