by Tracey Toh
Creative thinking might mean thinking outside the box. In Singapore Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Caught”, it means “going outside the inside of the outside of the box by going back inside the box to be outside the outside of the box”. As intriguing as it is bewildering, “Caught” frustrates the audience’s attempt to get a proper grasp of it, at each turn. This immersive theatre experience ironically draws attention to the idea of multiple frames, revealing the theatrical device for what it is, and exposing each character and storyline as a fiction.
The play is set across two floors of the Miaja Gallery, a contemporary art gallery with a current exhibition centred on the theme of “dissonance”. Before the show, audience members are ushered in by earnest hosts, who encourage us to view the pieces on displays. Many of these works provoke a degree of cognitive dissonance by introducing new elements. There are goldfish painted into bowls and made to look 3-dimensional through an optical illusion, and a rendition of the Mona Lisa in a more modern graphic art style. As the crowd mills around, it isn’t clear when the performance will begin, or if it has already begun.
The marketing of the show, directed by Ed Iskandar, purports to be about “Lin Bo”, a Chinese dissident imprisoned for his protest art. It all sounds very mysterious. But the Lin Bo we eventually meet upsets any expectations that have been set up; his Chinese accent seems contrived, his sartorial choices inauthentic, his mannerisms rehearsed. His sharing of his own tortuous experience feels too much like a Ted Talk. Our suspicions are confirmed. Lin Bo is a fictional character who exists only in the world of “Caught”.
The surprises do not stop there, and each segment reveals more lies. A scene in a swanky office shows how Lin Bo had lied about his imprisonment to win fame for himself. An interview with the “playwright” Wang Min, which at first seems like a Q&A, becomes a mock-Socratic dialogue between two characters, who expound on the nature of truth and lies. Another scene in a dressing room shows the actors playing Wang Min and Lin Bo talking intimately about their relationship with Yu Rong, to whom the play is dedicated—whether Yu Rong refers to a real person or not is left ambiguous.
In a world of rampant misinformation and fake news, meta-theatrical shows like “Caught” straddle the fine line between reality and fiction. Once they get through the initial confusion of trying to understand what is real and what isn’t, the audience comes to expect that everything is fake. It is a difficult, cynical realisation, though appropriate for the times we live in. But the cynicism that follows that expectation is also, by the end, challenged. The play asks if the only way to subvert cynicism is by returning inside the box—trusting that Yu Rong could be real, that some things in the world are true, even if not everything is.