Sheltered But Not Safe
For The Time Being by The Mad Hatter Project
by Mackerel, 16 May 2017
The umbrella is a multi-tool. It is shelter, a fashion statement and, if necessary, a weapon.
But at its most elementary, it offers refuge from rain, which, in tropical Singapore, is almost a constant. Unpredictable, but still a constant. In a way, that metaphor is the consistent note that pulls together the Mad Hatter Project’s ambitious full-length concert, For The Time Being.
Playing three sold-out shows at the versatile (if echo-prone) performance space at Theatreworks, the band (Mark, John, ZZ and Jamie) wove a tapestry of songs, images and spoken word that charted an untrammelled line through Singapore’s history from post-independence.
Let’s now play a game of hide and seek
Choose what to find and what to keep
Reading through the lyrics online gave us a far clearer sense of the band’s attempt to revise Singapore’s de facto historical narrative through evoking the idea of ghosts and hauntings for what is lost in the first half of the show and finding meaning amidst the chaos of the present in the second half.
The vision of the band, as we experienced, was not about trying to subvert Singapore’s capitalist narrative but rather to offer a creative subtitling in both the visuals and the lyrics. Very much academic in terms of tone, the accompanying visuals by Ang Siew Ching and Ho Zhen Ming were, nonetheless, a retinue of mundane moments; someone ironing clothes, a multi-story car park and a woman exercising in a neighbourhood outdoor gym. These minutiae added a visceral candour to the more strident critique of Singapore that the lyrics presented. The music, too, morphed and wove itself in a variety of genres from upbeat, even zany, pop to flat-out rock and classic musical theatre. One might argue, though, that the subject matter was too easy, an over-large target ripe for yet another critique. But at least, this was done in a wholly original way.
So come, raise a glass
To gods and plastic plants
Watch how they climb to the sky
Cover the earth and make all the flowers die
from ‘Gods and Plastic Plants’
Mama, just ate the seeds
Now all that I’ve become
I'm both guilty and haram
Mama, I destroyed their KPI
But now the humans want to make me die
from 'Pig #154'
Physically, the show was an atypical music performance with the band spilling out and into the audience at points, making it more like performance theatre sans the interaction. Sometimes, it was plain distracting because there were far too many things going on against a very dense and layered set of lyrics.
But don’t get us wrong, we are very much enthused by the unabashed standard of high but not stuffy art set by the band. The use of Stephanie Dogfoot’s poems, in particular, were wonderfully performed by Mark, rendering them poignant, amusing interludes against the heavyset pieces that came before and after. Mark's versatile voice and the technical proficiency of the band was rejuvenating and such sheer talent deserves a bigger stage.
One odd note was the attempt at creating some kind of engagement, with the audience being given instruction to write down a childhood memory pre-show on post-it notes, which ended up not being used at all. Carolyn wrote a very long memory about one of her cats and felt that the notes should have at least been acknowledged in some shape or form. Changing seats ended up being more like moving chairs forward. Overall, it felt very tentative and unsure and perhaps more thought should have gone into this aspect.
But thankfully, audience engagement was only a tiny blip in an otherwise pitch perfect show. And to top it off, the band went and made an epic epilogue video. Spot-on in terms of both homage and gentle critique, we know now that Jamie has a potential second career as the new xiao mei mei of cheesy KTV videos.
So hold on to your umbrella, your home,
your stories while you still can, before you become
just another ghost searching for shelter under an umbrella.