Review: Opium (Hands Percussion, 2016)
Inspired showcase of artistic collaborations led by Malaysia’s top percussion group really gets you excited and walking.
Artistic Director: Bernard Goh | Music Director: Ng Siu Yee
Featuring: Mathilde Limal, Florian Antier, Azli Taslim, Ong Chia Koon, Muji Lee, Yuan Leow Yunn, Joe Chia, Wong Jyh Shyong, Gideon Alu8Khan Chen, Howz, Anne Deguerry & Bernard Goh
Created by HANDS Percussion with French and Malaysian artists, Opium is a set of four performances over a span of two hours. It takes place in three different parts of Empire Damansara and is notable for not incorporating much of its trademark percussion ensemble.
What about Opium?
As a young Francophile, Bernard Goh remembers vividly a poster of the Eiffel tower on a wall, back during the days his grandfather was still around. The old man smoked opium — a popular pre-World War I habit which was already rejected by society during Bernard’s childhood. That intoxicating, sickeningly sweet smell of opium has formed a strong bond with Bernard’s memories, which he revisits through music, installation and dance across Opium‘s four segments.
In Drumbeat of Pain, vocalist Mathilde Limal, cellist Florian Antier and accordionist Azli Taslim perform an original composition together. This happens amidst members of the HANDS ensemble in whiteface performing physical movement as they hoist around their drums. Meanwhile, calligrapher Ong Chia Koon paints lines and curves on them with his brush. Once it ends, audiences are ushered away to either Fake Freedom or Tunnel of Memories. The former is dramatic choreography from Wong Jyh Shyong utilising five dancers. Taking place outdoors, its dancers are deeply affected by the sections of the performing space in which they inhabit — on one extreme a girl is in the privacy of her own bathroom, on the other a figure is completing pose after pose. More characters appear and the space in between becomes a battlefield. Tunnel of Memories on the other hand delivers instrumental pieces from Yuan Leow Yunn on the piano and Gideon Alu8Khan on the guitar as well as an original ballad from Bernard. Opium then gathers audiences for the finale and unleashes its collaborators once again. After Chia Koon paints the floor black, red and pink post-intermission, Mathilde and the rest do variations of “La vie en rose”. They then say their thanks.
Now you know why tickets cost RM128?
What did we like?
Florian Antier’s dangerous and exhilarating turn on his cello was only rivalled by Mathilde Limal’s vocal control, power and range. Both bring Opium to a contemplative and theatrical start through Drumbeat of Pain, and Mathilde’s original composition is immediately memorable. But the segment peaks when ghostly HANDS performers gravitate towards both instrumentalists mid-performance then rapidly tap on their instruments with a stick to generate percussive rhythm. It’s an arresting, sensual sight and an affirmation of how much talent and trust visible on the stage. Wong Jyh Shyong’s choreography in Fake Freedom in contrast is cold, alien, and somewhat unnerving, making for a cerebral follow-up with a strong narrative. Paired with Lim Wei Sing‘s lighting design it is sometimes breathtaking.
Opium as a whole was something refreshing for HANDS and its audiences and it showed the ensemble’s continued dedication to new ideas. Without losing much of the impact HANDS usually garners with their famous set of drums, this showcase offered enough diversity and talent to appeal to a vast number of people — sold out shows saw a healthy mix of families, industry practitioners and even tourists all over Empire Damansara with smiles on their faces.
And given the time and effort requested of ticket-holders to experience the entire show, Opium‘s intermission was a solid example of HANDS Percussion’s appreciation of their fans and audience members. Besides marketing their own merchandise, HANDS also offered viewers artisanal chocolate from Love18.
What made us go errr…?
Bernard’s darker recollections inspire his most engaging collaborations in Opium. The rest, while entertaining, are less exciting. Tunnel of Memories for instance featured an installation by Anne Deguerry — both underwhelming and underwhelmingly utilised — comprising patterned paper blocks of varying thickness protruding from the wall. Images of a clock ticking backwards and other details pertaining to Bernard’s past is projected onto Bernard and the installation, as he sings in both Mandarin and French.
Like Tunnel of Memories, the finale too is a safe affair. There may have been a lack of enough valid ideas to warrant a site-specific arrangement for the entire set. Seeing as Fake Freedom gained extra edge on a ledge three floors above ground at nighttime, Opium could have employed its surroundings more. It might also draw too much from a proscenium theatre configuration and as result, falls short on immersion.
Opium is a highly-enjoyable and unconventional trip through the memories of a man who knows how much pleasure and beautiful things can mean to a fellow human being. Even if it chooses to favour polished song performances over the more conflicted memories which makes it so fascinating, HANDS Percussion’s latest has plenty of spectacle for a mass audience and enough intellectual stimulation for performing arts fans.
presents Opium at the from 26 – 31 July 2016. For more information, make sure to check out their official page! Featured image via STH.