The warning sirens are going off shrilly. That can only mean one thing- that a vampire has broken through the defense grid. It is coming for us. We wait, unsure of what to expect, and my imagination runs amok. Perhaps the fanged intruder is already lurking in the shadows, ready to sink its fangs into an unsuspecting victim. Perhaps this is just a prelude to a vicious bloodbath, as more vampires are drawn towards our scent. Perhaps we are given weapons to fight back. But alas, there is none of that- all we glimpse is a dark figure darting past on the upper levels.
These were the thoughts running through my head during the experiential show They Only Come At Night: Pandemic, by UK theatre company Slung Low. Set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Old School at Mount Sophia, this show is the final installment in the vampire trilogy. In Pandemic, it imagines that the entire human race has succumbed to an unstoppable vampiric virus, save for a few. It is here in Singapore, where humanity gears towards its last battle against these dark forces. Unlike a conventional play, the audience has to work to experience this 1-hour long, interactive drama. Specifically, they play the part of the remaining pocket of survivors, who take refuge in the Old School, one of the last strongholds to fall. It's like something straight out of an I am Legend movie. Or so it promises.
While it capitalizes an intriguing premise, the performance is severely lacking in bite. That said, the audience needs to put their skepticism aside, before they can fully commit and engage in this illusion.
It starts off promisingly, however. Equipped with headphones tuned into a common radio frequency, a map which marks off the unsafe areas, we edge our way in cautiously. With its stark vibe, Old Sophia is the perfect setting to transport us into this grim vision of the future. So far, so good. But the production design, which spans three levels of the entire Old School building, fails to do the space justice. There is the smell of incense, broken salt circles, faux bloodstains, words printed all too neatly on the white wall and white sheets hung randomly around- all of which look more decorative than spooky. The headphones keep up a running commentary throughout, making it difficult to process both the voice-over and the exhibits at the same time. Trying to navigate my way among a 150-strong crowd in an unfamiliar space is no help either.
At the main hall, the motley crew of vampire hunters take the stage, each with their own agenda. For instance, there is the charismatic, religious guru Chester Rickwood (Nicholas Shaw), former industrialist Maggie Tan (Amanda Tee) and deadly killer Grace (Lucy Hind). Unfortunately for them, the script is clunky and laden with dense, rambling monologues, causing the dramatic tension to sag. Spare us the verbose dialogues and New Age waffle, and perhaps the show would be more accessible. The over-reliance on headphones also make the piece seem all too staged, with ominous-sounding music and hissing played on cue. Throw sweltering heat into the mix and it's a recipe for disaster.
Personally, I am hugely disappointed by the failure to fully exploit the interactive element, though there are plenty of chances to do so. We are asked to choose between fighting, fleeing, or staying put, but our decision is not factored into the plot. Without actual vampire-slaying, or going on a personalized quest, I am resigned to being just a passive spectator. The plot unfolds, of artistic director Alan Lane's accord, and we are shepherded to another hall, while the hunters stay behind to fight off the first wave of vampires.
Clearly, for this doomsday scenario to work, you cannot just rely on the cast alone. It's a shame that the audience doesn't really get into the mood of things. They plod their way up the four flights of stairs in an orderly fashion, oblivious to the cast's cries of “ Well, come on, there's vampires coming after you!” And if that's not cause enough to rush up, they add drily,“there's air-con!”- thus breaking the illusion.
Despite the hiccups, Pandemic should be credited for bringing a fresh and novel concept that subverts the traditional theatre-going experience. And finally, if the production's main aim is for us to confront our fears, I would rather duel with the bloodthirsty vampires up close, perhaps see them bare a fang or two. Now, that would really get my blood pumping.