Inspired by The Bride Always Knocks Twice in 2013, director Kuo Jian Hong and playwrights Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiaoyi develop an online performance, The Bride Always Knocks Twice - Killer Secrets, for The Theatre Practice in 2021. Kat Goh serves as co-director for the films in the 'digital theatre'. Together, they deliver a sophisticated and multi-layer video presentation.
The story begins with a murder case in a house, evolving into a locked room mystery, which involves seven females from different historical periods of Singapore. With strong ambition and accomplishment, the troupe divides the storyline as well as the viewing timeline into four chapters: conflict, lies, crime scene, and revelations. This 'original multi-platform interactive murder mystery', claimed by the troupe, also utilises three different formats, including the 'digital theatre' with pre-recorded videos, the real-time 'online interactions' between the audience and the actresses, and the online 'crime scene' for viewers to investigate. Participants are also consciously referred to as 'players' in this 'play' by the troupe.
I do not intend to analyse the prototypes of these characters and the national allegory from each era, nor to decipher the interconnected crime structure in the script. Otherwise, this review will fall into never-ending after-show speculations. Instead, this article would propose 'windows of the world in the locked room' as three layers of Killer Secrets under the global pandemic: the 'national window' within the script, the cross-platform online 'medium window', and the 'diplomatic window' of cross-community alliance.
The National Window: From 'Them' to an International Gateway
With international marketing campaigns, multilingual content, and full online experiences, known participants are at least scattered in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Europe, and America across English, Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese users. Therefore, the contents and the productions are definitely not limited to domestic viewers in Singapore. This flexible strategy enables the show to shape cultural and soft politics, and to open a window to re-cognise Singapore for the local and international audience. The lingua-scapes are not only a prominent feature in Singapore, but also consistent with The Theatre Practice’s core as a bilingual troupe. Legitimately inheriting the ideals of the late co-founder Kuo Pao Kun, who had introduced Singapore to the world for over half a century through the window of theatre, the usage of multiple languages is internal to the troupe. As a result, even before we are exposed to the 'hybrid'【1】 media of online and offline narratives, the 'hybrid history' and 'hybrid language' in Singapore has already provided the exterior layer of fascination in the performance.
Surrounded by oceans, Singapore as an island country is a locked room herself. Seven women, who have all disappeared and been overlooked in different times of history, speak out the undocumented 'herstory' in Singapore over centuries. They also reflect the ethnic composition in the society, with seven completely different historical awareness and subjectives. As the paronomasia implied in the Mandarin title, these women become an 'anywhere door' across time and space, turning the haunted house into a shelter for historical phantoms. However, this review does not particularly highlight the vanishing females under male supremacy nor the marginalised narratives, simply because such selection and exclusion are no other than the apparent re-cognition of history. Instead, what’s interesting is that these seven figures not only bear the mission to overturn mainstream narrative in history, but also carry various secrets and crimes themselves, from challenging ethical taboos to betrayal or murder.
In the play, we heard one character put such emphasis in the play. When you bravely speak out the unknown secrets, they will become history. However, before they ideally team up to overturn 'History', how could seven ideologies and stances harmoniously coexist in a locked island country? In the time flow, confrontations and discourses among multiple historical cognitions and perceptions continue, but the floating vessels ultimately converge at this haunted house, and all those past blames have become stones thrown into the lake. Perhaps, before opening the door to 'herstory', we shall first open our mind to speak out those truths at any rate, even though they may ultimately be submerged.
Fairly speaking, those secrets thrown into the lake may only be understood by Singaporeans from beginning to end. Nonetheless, the locked room becomes a 'herstory museum', where different identities and histories are orderly showcased. When these narratives are performed to potential overseas viewers, it is then crucial for the story and the performance to become windows for the world to re-cognise Singaporean history. While the investigation process and the logic of the storyline may be closely reviewed, the revelation is actually not about the real perpetrator or how subjects are persecuted by the empire’s history. Instead, all their names are erased because everyone has once been guilty. Through alliance and coexistence, the divided peoples form a feminine community. They understand each other’s crime and punishment, and collectively help address respective traumas in the same locked room. Perhaps, as a former colony, this could be Singapore's strategy to live under such complicated historical contexts, and the 'national window' actively on display to the world is also an implicit form of cultural diplomacy.
Medium Window: From Frames of Screens to Windows in the Locked Room
When live performances eventually become moving images to play, the outputs are ultimately flattened within the frame of screen. Nevertheless, since online platform has become 'the second site', Killer Secrets well demonstrates how virtual/online 're-spatialises' and 're-contextualises' the network medium, as long as the inputs and outputs inevitably require all kinds of interfaces, including optic fibre technology, cameras, and screens. Over the history of image, 'Alberti's Window' first reminds us that when painters/spectators and objects are separated by window frames, the 'framed view' would be flattened, which has then become a phenomenon in visual studies. In her publications since the 2000s, North American scholar Anna Friedberg has accordingly quoted a line from the science fiction, The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells, declaring that we now completely enter the 'age of windows', as we have lived through the era of television and multi-screen Internet.【2】
As Microsoft names its operating system as 'Windows', we are used to switching between different online 'windows'. In the world under COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom, Google Meet and other virtual meeting platforms have gradually become the new normal. Under the lockdown, everyone’s room is like a locked room. All the people we normally see and meet are turned into figures within the frames. When we visit online 'chat rooms', we open windows, and meet with friends and family in 2D. Even so, we are still eager to connect and engage with others.
Consequently, through windows of various electronic devices, we see three different sites of platform in the Killer Secrets, from the framed aesthetics in the 'digital theatre', the interrogation window in 'livestreaming interactions', to the 'crime scene' in a 360-degree virtual set. Viewers switch positions from looking at 'the fourth wall' by windows, conducting two-way live conversations with the actresses, to finally breaking through frames and climbing into the crime scene like Sadako to collect evidence.
Originally, 'Window of the World' is a famous theme park located in Shenzhen, China, known for miniature landscapes from all over the world. Physically, visitors can travel around the world and enjoy global wonders in merely a few steps. However, as the Internet opens the 'window of the world', website visitors can even reach out to the world while sitting still in front of their screens. As for the 'crime scene' in the performance, viewers walk into a contemporary virtual 'window of the world', and look at props, garments, historical documents and files fabricated by the production design. The evidence for the extraordinary case in a locked room builds up a sophisticated space-time network across historical, cultural, social, and political factors around these characters. When we wander in the online virtual crime scene, doesn’t it feel like another 'miniature world'?
'Diplomatic' Window: From Public Housing to the World
The performance successfully attracts a considerable number of viewers to participate and immerse into it. Besides the aforementioned wonderful conditions and merits in terms of production, the troupe also offers enticing rewards, with sponsorships from the Singapore Tourism Board and a hotel, where the crime scene was shot. If players can identify the murderer with compelling evidence, they may win big bonuses and free hotel stays as rewards.
Understandably, the troupe has no choice but to transform the performance into an online version due to the pandemic. As The Theatre Practice Executive Director Daniel Goh says to its media partner Lianhe Zaobao, "Art and tourism are the two key industries plummeted by the pandemic. This game project perfectly demonstrates the possibility of creativity and cross-field collaboration. When we go hand in hand, we can be stronger." 【3】 This shows that the partnership between theatre and tourism is much more than creative breakthroughs based on the locked room mystery. Through the call for tourism and consumption, these rewards incentivise domestic players to revive the national economy, and invite international players to redeem their prizes in Singapore after the pandemic. As said before, the online theatre is first a 'national window', then serving as a 'window of the world' through the medium, and finally has developed into a 'window from Singapore to the world'. This kind of cultural diplomacy would surely be highly appreciated by the Singapore Tourism Board.
But, it is noteworthy that 'diplomacy' not only follows the idea of 'national window' as a method to communicate the international relations, but refers to the 'external engagement' in essence. If the theatre could be viewed as a public sphere, online theatre may further expand it to transnational, transcultural, and other trans- areas with the approachability of the medium.
I suppose external engagement, alliance of strangers, and commitment to public arenas may be critical to the Singaporean society. Dense public housing projects in urban areas often symbolise indifferent interpersonal relationships in sociological studies. Film director Eric Khoo Kim Hai was one of the early 'international windows' for Singapore. I recall Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997) portrayed how suppressive building design and repetitive windows obstructed human communications and alienated individuals as in confinement, exacerbating the social indifference. After the woman he loved and incarcerated passed away, Mee Pok Man immediately sealed off all the windows, and his home became an isolated locked room.
Under the current pandemic and lockdown, people all around the world are unexpectedly trapped in locked rooms as well. Isolated and separated violently, our loneliness, suppression, and claustrophobia may turn us into the next alienated and vulnerable subjects. Even though screens, interfaces, and technologies are cold and merciless, our emotions could actually bond with others through the medium window, extending from locked rooms to the world. Our windows are no longer closed or sealed.
The production team behind Killer Secrets encourages viewers and players to buy different combo tickets to build outside alliances. In other words, players can form ad hoc communities to discuss clues together, and even interrogate different suspects separately, as a great norm of 'unions against villains' in online games. Besides communities in private, the online collective interrogation section also connects unfamiliar accounts of many good fellows to advance common interests, including exposing more stories and accessing more clues. Through experiences, participation, and involvement, it constructs an information network and a collective response from the mass. While it may be too idealistic to break down indifference with a one-off online interactive play, it always takes a window for the strangers to team up through thick and thin first and foremost, and the 'diplomatic window' may tear down communication barriers and put aside identity differences.
Conclusion: A Window for A View
The cognition of history and languages opened by the 'national window', through the transformation of the 'medium window', transforms into the alliance of 'diplomatic window'. Therefore, they are interconnected and inseparable. On the other hand, we shall not forget that being a locked island country, Singapore has long been a trading hub, and a 'window of the world' sought after by colonial empires in history.
Coincidentally, as many people are stuck at home under the global pandemic, 'Window Swap'【4】, a website founded by a Singaporean artist couple, also invites Internet users around the world to submit window views at home. By 'swapping windows', the online community 'exchanges views' with the world. Sunny or rainy, these windows tell you how big the world is. Even though everyone sees a different view from the window, we all share the same ambience of the time, and windows are our medium to exchange information.
Likewise, Killer Secrets may offer a window of the world in this global locked room. We partner up with strangers against villains, and break through barriers and quarantine caused by the virus. 'Going hand in hand' may not be the ultimate solution, but at least, 'we can be stronger'.
1. From the interview of Lianhe Zaobao, retrieved June 6th, 2021: 王一鸣：〈实践剧场《她门的秘密》剧场结合游戏破解命案〉，《联合早报》(https://www.zaobao.com.sg/lifestyle/culture/story20210515-1146905)
2. Anna Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 102.
3. Translated by the quote of Daniel Goh in Mandarin, retrieved June 6th, 2021, from the interview of Lianhe Zaobao as following: 王一鸣：〈实践剧场《她门的秘密》剧场结合游戏破解命案〉，《联合早报》(https://www.zaobao.com.sg/lifestyle/culture/story20210515-1146905).
4. 'Window Swap' (https://www.window-swap.com) is founded by a Singaporean artist couple Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam. There is also an imitation project 'A View Outside' (https://a-view-outside.com/559933419) in Taiwan.
Read the article in Chinese.
The article is originally published on PAREVIEWS (Taiwan).
by The Theatre Practice
Date: 5 & 7 Jun 2021
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