By Arjun Vadrevu
Growing up in Singapore, there is one common experience—one unifying factor—that we can all relate to: rote. We believe in the tried and tested; we revel in structure; conformity is our greatest aspiration. We rely on being able to predict the future, a reliance based on the assumption that the world is fundamentally predictable. However, it may simultaneously be observed that from the days of Apep in ancient Egypt, right down to Dickinson’s theories of international relations, mankind has understood that the world is inherently anarchic. All matter, all structure, is born only of that chaos.
The sole way we, as humans (or specifically, Singaporeans), can safeguard our comforting structures is by imposing control, which, when postured against the inherently ‘natural’ chaos of the world we live in, must logically be artificial. This control is imposed in two ways: time and space. And in his one-man play Off Kilter, Ramesh Meyyappan explores the boundaries of these impositions.
We’re introduced to the notion of time from the very get go. Ramesh’s character, Joe Kilter, is surrounded by alarm clocks that ring repeatedly. Contrary to what one would expect, though, he doesn’t show any signs of annoyance, rather revelling in the system he has in place to deal with his clocks. We are introduced to his other systems as well, such as the order in which he gets dressed and ready for work. It is clear that he finds great comfort in these mundane but finely-tuned processes. The impact of rote methods is also highlighted here, as evidenced by Kilter going to great lengths just to touch his toes, an action rooted in the belief that mechanical repetition invariably leads one to success.
During the play, Kilter is seen to thrive on audience interaction, bordering on participation (we’re all given a copy of the letter he receives). But this is so much more than a mere breaking of the fourth wall—a device I feel too often verges on the meretricious. At times, Meyyappan would repeat an action, or pause, until a desired reaction was elicited from his audience, thus supporting the notion of routine as performativity, and highlighting the importance of an audience to such an end. After all, what is performance without appreciation?
To me, Kilter thus far represents all of us—society—and the ruts we’ve subconsciously got ourselves stuck in. But then everything changes.
Kilter receives a letter. We don’t yet know who it’s from or what it’s for, but its delivery is done with such grandeur and persistence only befitting of a life-changing entity. After an agonisingly long period of grappling with the very existence of the letter, Kilter rips it open, much as one would rip off a bandaid, and we learn the truth: after 18 years of working in the same job, he’s been fired. In the time that follows, the audience processes this news with Kilter. We’ve only known him for 20 odd minutes, but we feel his pain. He signs, “I’ve worked for so long. Now it’s finished,” (a phrase that has far more impact in British Sign Language) over, and over, and over. Even in his emotional expression he is repetitive, indicating how ingrained repetition is in our psyche.
All the while during the performance, there is one clock out of anyone’s reach, and it is this clock that sees the audience through the play—it doesn’t follow any intelligible pattern or logic. However, even upon Kilter’s termination, the clock doesn’t stop and the ticking noise—one that the audience becomes all too familiar with by the end of the 50 minutes—reverberates through the theatre. Thus, at some junctions, its message is clear: time goes on.
Life as Kilter knows it, though, does not. His routine isn’t just thrown off course; it’s obliterated entirely. We thus become privy to his coping strategies, many of which are compulsive in nature. He taps on the table, obsessively cleans his glasses, continuously rearranges the stationery on his desk, and generally becomes perfectionistic to the point of paranoia. We see a gradual unravelling of his reality, to the extent that he performs his ‘getting ready ritual’, but in reverse this time. Yet the lack of structure is most obvious when he tries to throw his keys into a cup, a trick he performs flawlessly each morning—the clatter of the keys upon the wooden floor is almost jarring. This unlearning of new habits, a prerequisite to adjusting to a new reality, is a painful experience to witness.
Thus we enter what I am referring to as the “Twilight Zone” segment of the play. Imagine reality on steroids: the entire time-space continuum is thrown out of whack. We’ve already established that time is arbitrary, but its chaotic nature comes to the fore at this point, as Meyyappan displays great mastery of theatric timing (ironic, isn’t it?), portraying Kilter’s actions in a ‘pause-and-play’ sort of sequence. Space, too, is shown to have no limits in this world—shelves slant, cookies regenerate and then grow to great sizes, some things disappear, while others multiply. The tapping that Kilter clearly found solace in now becomes erratic and panicked. Logic, boundaries, systems—such ideas are irrelevant in this universe.
The most devastating part of witnessing such a degeneration is Kilter’s helplessness through it all. Stapling the letter to the desk only results in him stapling his own finger, just as stabbing the paper with a pen barely harms the letter itself, injuring his hand instead. Possibly what Meyyappan is trying to convey is that, in trying to impose control on nature, we only end up hurting ourselves.
As sound, action and lighting climax, Kilter makes his choice: he shreds the letter to pieces. As they rain down around him, the audience comes to understand the implication of this decision—that he has chosen to deny reality; that he is to return to the world of schedules and systems, of structure and chains. By doing so, the inconvenient reality Kilter battled with for the better part of the last hour…is now lost.
The most striking, and I dare say defining, segment of the play was its ending. The audience had entered the theatre with the following poem in hand:
…I live like a cuckoo in a clock,
I don’t envy the birds of a flock
They wind me up, and I cuckoo
A fate like this—sad but true…
Bringing the play full circle, Meyyappan wraps with the same image of the cuckoo clock. In a beautiful display of gestures and handwork, he depicts birds flying gracefully through open skies. He, on the other hand, is a bird of a different variety, specifically the artificial one stuck in a cuckoo clock, satisfied by cuckooing on the hour, every hour. Just as the poem begins and ends will ellipses, so does Kilter’s life return to the monotone of his reality and of the denial of nature.
In some ways, he leaves us all hanging. He fingerspells: “F-A-T-E”, but then adds a dramatic “?”. In the silence that ensued, that question mark was akin to a wake up call. Maybe what we thus far assumed to be every person’s inherent fate—working within the bounds of socially-defined structures and systems—is actually a choice, and that is up to us to question this notion. That is what I personally took away from that spellbinding conclusion, but I’m sure each person in that theatre was affected in a different yet equally personal way.
And then there is the fact that Meyyappan is Deaf. Honestly, it wasn’t an arbitrary decision that landed Meyyappan’s Deafness such a late feature in this article. Instead, it is a reflection of its lack of importance to the entire production—at no time during the play did I feel a scene was in need of dialogue. Recently, Meyyappan spoke at an annual forum on arts and disability in Singapore, where he signed, “First, I am an artist. Then I am Deaf.” He clearly prefers to let his art speak for itself, and in this regard, he achieved great success with Off Kilter.
We live in a world today where theatre is equated with voice. Any lack thereof grants the performance the far less glorified label of “mime”. Off Kilter, however, was testament to the power of silence. In fact, the entire play was a silent soliloquy of sorts. Even though there was music—which, as a side note, was arranged to excellent ends—Meyyappan was able to convey the same emotion, frustration and mood as the music through his own body language and facial expression. Typically, silence is defined as the absence of sound. However, Off Kilter showed us all that silence is truly an entity unto itself.
To venture into the meta, in a sense the entire play mirrored its message. It broke barriers, challenging commonly accepted notions of what theatre is and demonstrating a fluidity of normally rigid concepts. The lack of voice additionally opened doors to exploring other forms of expression, such as dance and mime, whose influence could be observed regularly through the play. Last year, during his production of Butterfly, Meyyappan toyed (mind the pun) with puppetry. In keeping with his proclivity for pushing boundaries, Off Kilter delved into the world of magic. In the context of a play about illusions and the contrast between illusions and reality, the use of magic provided an incredible platform to show the thin line between our contrasted reality, and the actual chaotic one.
I have long enjoyed patronising the arts, and recently have been rather involved in the Deaf landscape. We often hear talk of “inclusive arts”; however, this still works on the assumption of incorporating marginalised (usually disabled) individuals into existing structures. This was my very first time in an environment where art was designed for Deafness, rather than catering for it. And it was a truly breathtaking experience.
It was therefore interesting to observe hearing audience members’ reactions to Off Kilter. One, in particular, suggested that they subtitle the portions in which Sign Language is used (of which there is only really one, for the ending scene relied on visual gestural communication). It was something this particular individual apparently felt very strongly about. Ironically, this is how Deaf people feel on a daily basis, resulting in a complete lack of access to the broader arts scene. This then raises the question of whether it is alright for Deaf-friendly to, in some aspects, include hearing audiences. For my part, I don’t view this as particularly harmful or insidious, rather as a way to celebrate the Deaf arts. (And besides, there were sufficient non-signed visual cues from which one could gauge meaning, as highlighted by other hearing members of the audience.)
At the end of the evening, we emerge from the theatre and pour collectively out into the street. It dawns on me that even the location of the theatre may have been intentional. Sure, we’re in the heart of Singapore—just along the Singapore River—but concurrently most of us had never been to the pocket of space in which the theatre was situated.
I now realise I can’t help but see the world through the lens that Meyyappan has so gracefully provided us. It’s our choice whether we want to be a bird in the sky, or one in a cuckoo clock. Ultimately, the only reality we can really know is change, and that our world is off kilter.
About Ramesh Meyyappan: Ramesh is a Glasgow-based Singaporean theatre creator who develops performances using an eclectic mix of visual and physical theatre styles. He is currently part of the Programme Design Team for the BA Degree for the Deaf at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
DISCLAIMER: The author of the above article is a volunteer with ExtraOrdinary Horizons. All opinions expressed herein are thus the personal views of contributing individual authors. They are not indicative of any endorsement, political or otherwise, or lack thereof, either on the part of the organisation.