NO PARTICULAR ORDER – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – a brave, bold new piece of writing

photograph by Lidia Crisafulli

NO PARTICULAR ORDER

By Joel Tan

Directed by Josh Roche

Theatre 503 – until 18 June 2022

https://theatre503.com/whats-on/npo/

With over forty characters, seventeen locations and a timespan of more than three hundred years packed into his script’s ninety minutes running time, nobody could accuse playwright Joel Tan of lacking ambition.

No Particular Order eschews a linear narrative in favour of a procession of tense, brief scenes offering snapshots into life under a number of unspecified totalitarian regimes: a married couple, wreathed in sadness, discuss a lost son; a liaison between soldiers turns nasty; protestors shelter from an unseen attack; a refugee pleads with a guardsman for her and her daughter’s lives; a head teacher’s warning to one of her subordinates becomes more sinister with every sentence… It’s an elliptical epic that’s at times reminiscent of Pinter at his most forbidding and obscure, but ultimately proves haunting and troubling on entirely it’s own terms.

The title could apply equally to the dramatic structure as to the fact that ruling parties and geographical locations are never named, as the piece explores humanity in the face of almost insuperable odds.

If Tan’s text is a lot, director Josh Roche matches it with a staging of elegant austerity. A superb cast of four play all the roles, with minimal changes in voice, appearance or even attitude. It’s an interesting choice that certainly bears out the concept that human beings and, accordingly, the way history tends to play out, never fundamentally changes…but it can get a little confusing. There is little humour and a lack of variety in pace and tone that may be a deliberate choice but doesn’t help in demystifying the text.

Despite these reservations, the cumulative effect of these scenes, many of which are pretty grim, stays with you some time after leaving the theatre. Sarah Sayeed’s compositions and sound designs – ranging from jagged to insistently hypnotic – enhance the text immeasurably. Some of Tan’s writing is remarkable though as he drops little thematic timebombs into apparently unconnected scenes set across vast swathes of time – birds and flowers are a recurring motif, to sometimes surprising effect – that serve as portents, reminders and, occasionally, emotional life rafts back to peaceful, less complicated lives. It’s interesting work, brutal but sophisticated, that often threatens to tip over into the pretentious but never quite does.

The four actors – Jules Chan, Pandora Colin, Pia Laborde-Noguez and Daniel York Loh – are terrific, investing each discrete moment with the requisite truth and conviction. The playing is naturalistic, as it probably needs to be in such a small space, which further adds to the sense of brewing dread.

No Particular Order isn’t perfect, and may prove too depressing for some, but some of the sections speak relevantly, scarily, to current world events, and it is invigorating to encounter a new play with this level of ambition and breadth of vision.

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