Picture from The Substation
Date: 4th May 2007
Time: 8 pm
Venue: The Substation Theatre
By Koh Xin Tian
7th May 2007
Umbral is the first installment of actress and theatre practitioner Cristina Castrillo’s “Travel’s Note” project, tracing how she views her creative journey not simply as a record of coordinates, but also an exploration of how one’s experiences are translated into a network of signs that stitches the language of memory together. Umbral was performed in Spanish and English as part of the Substation’s new In the Works: Performance Research Lab programme, an artist and theatre development initiative. A performer, teacher and theatre developer, Castrillo has been committed to Libre Teatro Libre, a renowned Argentinean company in the 1970s, and founded Switzerland’s Teatro delle Radici in 1980. Since then, she has conducted many workshops worldwide based on her “Theatre Lab School” method.
Castrillo reveals her central concern with how memory is a perception rather than a faithful record of the past, representing the nature of recordings rather than their content. She invites us to reflect on the authenticity of creative processes affected by such unstably transcoded memories by wondering if her performance should be called a play at all, and questioning the very relevance of her props to her expression. Her action of sitting on a chair, for example, appears to take on the colour of truth not because of any connection to reality, but because of its easy readability as an indication of waiting. Truth, after all, is hardly a function of reality; similarly, one cannot hope for theatrical representation to be composed of anything beyond its rendering of what is perceived in visible form.
As Castrillo sets fire with a gun to three paper roses, as white as their openness to interpretation, she announces as the ashes shower down, “I die standing up”- conscious of how death is associated with the inflammation of symbols, the destruction of the chain of associations upon which we organise our lives and widen the substrate of our imagination. Still, ever the well-versed thespian, she takes time off to succinctly poke fun at how theatre risks falling into the trap of overly serious self-consciousness, commenting on the English translator’s recorded intonations: “He’s very intelligent.”
Her fluent gestures also become self-reflexive comments on how they represent events and do not show them, merely conjecturing instead of deciphering. To her, such narratives, spoken and acted upon the geography of theatre, are explorations of how we form and look upon our personal histories, rather than objective proposals. Her refusal to believe in a single version of the truth is, however, simultaneously coupled with an understanding that one needs a passionate, absolute identification with a point of view in order to live; this is as fundamental to survival as the need to name oneself, proving one’s existence and wholeness. How then is one to retain faith in one’s purpose in artistic expression?
One could retrieve an answer to this from Castrillo’s observation that the less realism we have access to, the more we delve into introspection that can raise deep emotional responses despite its strangeness. The unconscious, after all, is a transpersonal arena, weaved from an unexplored, shared language, and dreams are a filter through which this underground territory permeates through to the surface, transmitting images that convey a perception of reality.
Musing “I am not sure how I want to finish this”, Castrillo memorably leads the play into a reflective, elegant close by repainting a white line between her eyes, reminiscent of the mythical third eye, the window to spiritual awareness. Covering half of her face in white, while tribal music fades and swells, she paints a poignant metaphor for the breaching of the threshold between consciousness and unconsciousness, signifying our wish to meld the two halves of our psyche into a totality as continuous as the stream of sand she lets fall to the ground. It is then up to the audience to search for the meccas housing the source of their expressions, keeping Castrillo’s strikingly personal and unexampled theatrical imagery as a poetic reminder of how we can retain some of our agency lost to unconscious undercurrents by taking a step outside our storytelling, perhaps rendering its source more lucid as we share in her vivid sincerity and honesty.
Koh Xin Tian is an English Literature undergraduate at NUS, where she writes for student magazine The Ridge and is the publicity executive for the NUS Literary Society.