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Theatre review: The Sound inside

Adam Rapp's complex two-hander presents a knotty relationship between professor and student.

The Sound Inside

Singapore Repertory Theatre

KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT, Tuesday (March 16), 6pm

What does it mean to connect with another person? Does writing obfuscate the truth as well as reveal it? How do life and art bleed into each other?

These questions swirl beneath the surface in The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp’s complex two-hander about a Yale University professor’s relationship with her student.

Serene Chen is perfectly cast as 53-year-old Bella Bird, a creative writing professor and fiction author who has not written a novel in years.

Bella, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, narrates much of the play’s action, almost as if she were writing a story. She swaddles herself in florid prose, particularly when describing awful things like the “constellation of tumours” in her stomach.

She gets into a relationship with Christopher John (Krish Natarajan), a brilliant but troubled student who is writing a novella about a man who commits a murder.

Christopher is a bit eccentric. He spits on her floor, talks about his distaste for e-mail, and describes Twitter as “cheap haiku for the overly caffeinated”. The actors do a good job at teasing out the wit and humour of the script, Chen slipping effortlessly into the shoes of self-possessed professor.

While Bella and Christopher seem to share a bond, the play also charts moments that strain towards deeper acts of intimacy but stop in their tracks before they are fully realised – such as when she makes to him a shocking request he accepts but does not fulfil.

(Related: Concert review: Bored of Bach? Two pianists venture off the beaten path)

Cherilyn Woo, who recently directed Nine Years Theatre’s Oedipus, has pulled off a confident staging of American playwright Rapp’s work.

Set and lighting designers Petrina Dawn Tan and Genevieve Peck have transposed the intricately patterned text into visual poetry, matching the script’s cleverness with some rather sound choices, so to speak.

The set, composed of white, book-shaped blocks, is as bright as the 2019 Broadway debut was dim. Under the scintillating light, the bare blocks seem at once obfuscated and overexposed. A candelabra hangs above, holding the leaves of a book in suspension.

Tan Jia Hui’s costumes are similarly suggestive. Christopher wears a blue jacket and Bella a maroon cardigan – a subtle nod, perhaps, to their “purple prose”.

The play is dotted with allusions to Fyodor Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace and a multitude of other writers, sprinkling a trail of clues which make the shocking ending seem almost inevitable, in retrospect.

One later learns that the play’s title comes from a scene where Bella takes part in a writing task – to think about the idea of doing something terrible, and then write whatever springs from that. “Listen to the sound inside,” she scribbles, over and over again.

The Sound Inside, to borrow former British premier Winston Churchill’s remark about Russia, is ultimately a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It sometimes feels too self-referential and involuted, too tied up in intellectual knots to ring true.

Or could it be that it exemplifies what seems to be its actual subject – the mental state of the artist as a middle-aged woman? This thought lingers on after the play’s conclusion.

Book it

Where: KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

When: Till April 16, 6 and 9pm (Mondays to Saturdays)

Admission: From $55 via Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to Sistic’s website)

Info: Visit the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s website

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.