Theatre review: Immortal Variables asks questions of tech and elitism in a world ruled by algorithms

Immortal Variables
Nine Years Theatre & Hsing Legend Youth Theatre

The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre@Funan
Friday, 8pm

This Chinese box of a play written and directed by Nine Years Theatre co-founder Nelson Chia is a talky, somewhat abstract treatise on the meaning of free will in a world governed by supercomputers.

In an unspecified Asian country in the near future, its president (Howie Chu) has been abducted by a crew of mysterious rebels.

Called the Eight Immortals, they want the president to hand over the password to a new programme he has developed that can influence people’s thought patterns – a slightly more sophisticated version of the advertising algorithims today that already steer consumers in myriad unconscious ways.

The rebels want to deactivate it before it goes online. Amid the standoff, the two sides debate political ethics, who gets to represent the people and the possibility of a government without hierarchy.

Immortal Variables is a collaboration between Singapore’s Nine Years Theatre and Taiwan’s Hsing Legend Youth Theatre, the youth wing of Contemporary Legend Theatre, which is known in Taiwan for pushing the boundaries of the Chinese opera form.

Here, the Taiwan troupe gets limited use of their opera skills. A fight scene at the start is forgettable, though Chu has a nice moment at the end when his nasal recitation of a poem by Tang dynasty poet Lu Dongbin at least ends the production on a transformative note.

Apart from Nine Years Theatre co-founder Mia Chee, who portrays the sage and scheming advisor playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers, there is a certain unnaturalness and overacting among the young crew, which could be a hangover from the Chinese opera form but here alienates the audience.

Chia’s script at least keeps it interesting cerebrally, with twist after twist revealed, hinting at past relationships and possible betrayals.

There are moments, though, when the rapid shifting of allegiances tire: What the audience is looking at is always the internal machinations of elites, and because there is hardly any real reference to ordinary people down the chain, it can feel just a little self-contained and without any stakes – as it will later prove in a needless reveal about gunshot wounds.

Then there are the Eight Immortals, a group of legendary characters in Chinese mythology who have the been the subject of many paintings, sculptures and writings.

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