By: Rannald Sim
What the Box really means.
We Live in a Box is Irfan Kasban’s debut English play which was held at the Substation as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. The small enclosed space of the Guinness Theatre clearly fits the bill as suggested by the title, though somebody has got to do something about those darned seats.
WE LIVE IN A BOX is concerned about the concept of a home and is obsessed about the use of space, its meaning, the dialogue between a house, home and its occupants and ultimately questions the idea of relationships. Two plots run parallel to each other – the soul and mind of the foetus, and the drama of its parents in the ‘outside’ world.
SPACE. The central focus of the play indeed. After reminding myself of the dangers of the ‘economy-class’ syndrome, I got used to the dingy dark room (I use this term literally here for now…) I found myself in a black box with eccentrically stringed light-bulbs and regularly placed white strips on the floor illuminated by incandescent UV lamps at the side making for a more ghostly version of a life-size chess set.
Before entering though, a Philips light-bulb was placed into my hand. The playwright himself, now part of the play, collected the light-bulbs from the audience after we seated gingerly. (*Ding ding! Symbolism number ONE).
SYMBOLISM is one of Irfan’s plus points. He, too, discussed it during the short dialogue session after the play, about his conscious use of multi-layered symbolism throughout the entire play. Light-bulbs are themselves fragile, just like life. The gas within it is necessary to sustain the burning of the filament. Break it and it dies. Just as when you abort a foetus, you break it away from the confines of the womb. A mind without a soul is not a mind, so on and so forth. The use of light in a dark and claustrophobic space similarly engages the audience like mayflies.
They represent hope, ideals, dreams, and life itself. Yet even so, the sudden brightening of a darkroom (here meaning the room used to develop photographs…) destroys the dreams of the female lead of finally unlocking the lost memories of her past as she clutches at the now messed up roll of film, just as it illuminates that of her husband who now finally has the child to make his family and home complete.
The space provided by the theatre was also easily transformed with gestures and sound – yet another of his strong points. The crowded MRT noted by the audience with the simple raising of the hand to the bulb wires. The familiar rustling of people, background humming, the doors, the way Irfan mimicked cordial and civil conversations, made for effective drama.
I was particularly impressed by how the audience become part of the scene as ‘passengers’ within the make-believe MRT itself. Reality and fantasy collided. We felt the awkwardness and uneasiness of the female protagonist as she attempts to evade the truth, just as we shared her disdain for the embarrassing outbursts of her long-lost classmate. That was the scene which arguably made the play. In addition, the effective use of dual simultaneous conversation to evoke tension with constant and repeated alliteration heightened the climax of the play and thereby demonstrated Irfan’s immense potential for English plays in the near future. I loved the music, intoxicating and still playing non-stop in my head and also the avant-garde like video clips. The other dramatic moments – the dropping of the film, or the phone – were but simple tricks.
Nevertheless, the vivacity of the angel, the stoic awkwardness of the soul-figure, and the comic presentation of the angel Michael via a persistent and annoying male Indian receptionist caused the play to oscillate violently between a philosophical and incomprehensibly farcical tone. It wasn’t set right at the beginning. Although Irfan explained the presentation of the angels during the dialogue, it didn’t seem clearly self-evident. Perhaps the few raw, unpolished segments which were overdone in the play and particularly got under my skin…
ENTRAPMENT. The failure to present a radical revision of the meaning of family and home, therefore captured the essence of living within a ‘box’. You cannot escape the box, but you can make it better, familiar. ‘Home’ is the familiar. Home is also the box. The box is reality. The box also represents the mindsets, the ideologies and beliefs that we are trapped in. We are trapped in reality. Hence, the dissipation of happiness and the possibility of any relationship for the protagonist at the end forces audiences to consider the belief in the impossibility of having a real ‘family’ and ‘home’ without the presence of a child. The protagonist’s marriage fails due to the inability, and ultimate refusal, to conceive. Similarly, the soul-figure is ultimately trapped within the confines of the mind even as he tries to make its menacing surroundings ‘home’ and cannot escape his impending death.
All in all, kudos to Irfan for a job well-done! I look forward to his other plays in the future with much anticipation, as he finds himself and his style within ‘the box’.
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This review is part of ArtZine’s Special Coverage of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Read our reviews of the other festival performances here.