No Particular Order at Theatre 503 review: Ambitious, scrappy play heralds a fiery new talent in Joel Tan

·2-min read
Jules Chan, Daniel York Loh, Pia Laborde-Noguez (Lidia Crisafulli)
Jules Chan, Daniel York Loh, Pia Laborde-Noguez (Lidia Crisafulli)

In Singaporean writer Joel Tan’s bracingly experimental play, short, disjointed scenes explore the ramifications of authoritarianism in an un-named society. It lasts 90 minutes and covers over 300 years, taking in war, migration, moments of great terror and great tenderness, and the function of art in protest or in expressing collective trauma. If it’s not entirely satisfying or successful, you can’t fault the ambition.

Joshua Roche’s stark production draws intriguingly muted performances from four actors of mixed gender, ethnicity and age, as required by Tan. Their often affectless delivery makes some stories all the more shocking. Designer Ingrid Hu covers the ceiling in fabric swags from which coloured feathers fall at significant moments. The sound and lighting design is deft.

Ultimately, the writer’s bid for universality by eschewing anything specific proves wearing. A play about everywhere is a play about nowhere. But No Particular Order reminds you how boringly safe and naturalistic most theatre remains.

At first I thought the title was a joke, because the scenes initially look like they could be randomly shuffled (actually, they can’t). Later, I thought it was a sourer joke about political orders: the stories here variously recall past and current atrocities, from Hiroshima to Tiananmen Square to recent deaths by suffocation of trafficked migrants in lorries. Maybe the arc of history really doesn’t bend towards justice.

Pandora Colin (Lidia Crisafulli)
Pandora Colin (Lidia Crisafulli)

It begins with two men eating sandwiches. They are pest controllers, hired to clear city trees of birds before a victory parade, and their preferred humane method is quickly discounted by an official in favour of something quicker and more lethal. This neatly chilling vignette segues into a tedious discussion between two young writers (yawn) rendered wordless by a totalitarian leader’s ascent, then a sprightly scene at a demo where protestors start jauntily whistling inside their gasmasks. If you don’t like one story, don’t worry: there’ll be another one along in a minute.

Some moments absolutely stand out. Daniel York Loh as a leery undercover operative, advising Pía Naborde-Noguez’s drunk young activist to leave a party – and her protest movement – before she gets hurt. York Loh again, as a father sweetly bonding with his son (Jules Chan) in front of horrors unfolding on the news. Pandora Colin as a fashion designer who hates flowers because they sprouted from her shot mother’s corpse; and as a school administrator explaining to a teacher and writer (Chan) why his use of an old activist’s poems in class is “unpatriotic”.

The scenes dealing with art and literature are the most tiresome: I wish writers would show us they are important, rather than tell us. The futuristic elements also feel a bit tacked on. This is a mixed evening, alternately gripping and frustrating, but it made me eager to see what Tan writes next.

Theatre 503, to June 18; theatre503.com

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