Secretive Thing 215 by Lemon & Koko

By Akanksha Raja

In her fifth piece for GRC, Akanksha Raja reviews an entirely immersive and occasionally discombobulating experience, Secretive Thing 215, by role-playing theatre company Lemon & Koko. Like in the game itself, one is transported to a space of simultaneous choice and control, where suspension of belief happens only insofar as the irony of allowing yourself to be manipulated; perhaps a metaphor or just a game, the experience posits how space and environmental experiments can induce behaviours and anxieties…Love is Blind, anyone?

Page divider

I had never been inside Waterloo Centre before; the old, nondescript commercial block seems to hold nothing of much interest or consequence. But in Lemon & Koko’s Secretive Thing 215, the unassuming building on 261 Waterloo Street becomes an unlikely site of rebellion, of dissent, and of Orwellian subterfuge. Or, depending on the choices you make roleplaying as a new recruit of Glasgo Mascon Kline (GMK) Medical Institute, it could be about the mundane, soul-numbing ins and outs of conventional work life as a corporate ladder-climbing servant.

Secretive Thing 215, Lemon & Koko, 2020. Image courtesy of Lemon & Koko.

You are assigned to take on a series of tasks from your unseen, faceless employer, transmitted via WhatsApp. That the trajectory of this theatrical experience rests on choices made by you and you alone, is a strange, liberating, and perplexing responsibility. The labyrinth of staircases, corridors, and desolate wide lobbies within Waterloo Centre turn into symbols for the way we navigate the tough decisions we make in everyday life. It is eerie and sombre at night and something about the ‘80s-esque tiling of the staircases and floor, the feel of the architecture harking to more repressed, totalitarian times, makes it creepier, lonelier.

And the looming presence of surveillance is palpable, even more so than in everyday life. You keep stumbling upon scraps of letters addressed to you from an unknown “Cheryl”, imploring you to disobey the orders you’ve been texted, warning you they are traps, that you’ve had your memory erased and you’d be helping the evil company continue to brainwash other innocent people if you continue on your mission. As you read through these notes, you can’t help noticing out of the corner of your eye a figure standing at the other end of the corridor watching you like a hawk: the same person who’s been skulking around you for the past half an hour at different spots across the building, wearing the same reflective safety work vest you were told to wear. You see others wearing these exact vests—people who appear to be working on a construction project somewhere in the building and who probably actually need to wear the vests in real life. But you’re never quite sure at the moment who is real and who isn’t. You receive messages like “You’re falling behind.” and “Please report any suspicious activity immediately.” You receive pictures of yourself at unusual angles. Even though your suspended disbelief reminds you this is just a low-budget role-playing game programmed by a corporate-funded fringe festival, paranoia slithers in to speculate on the motives of the strangers around you, and the consequences of not simply following orders.

All this immersive work is a two-way experience and asks that you lean into its conceit and your role to fully engage. If you do, Secretive Thing 215 is a thrilling trip, a chance to live out your espionage fantasies a little. But the work isn’t without its flaws. The dystopian sci-fi premise is a little predictable, and if you’ve been to previous Secretive Things, you might sense a subtle steering-towards-a-particular-conclusion. There also was no significant payoff in this narrative for doing the “right” thing. But on the whole, it was an innovative and original way to have audiences be self-reflexive and challenged to make bold (or not so bold) decisions, guided by their values and perhaps informed by their relationship to authority and governance—to put these values into practice to explore what defiance and rebellion can feel like.

Each experience by Lemon & Koko is a transportive one, quite unlike any other performative experience, and their use of unusual public spaces is notable. Secretive Thing 14, their previous work in December last year, took the form of an installation set up on the beach at a coastal park, with the installation functioning as a kind of audio-tactile anthology of poignant stories of love, grief, and loss, told with simple materials and props, but in extraordinarily moving depth, and enhanced by the rushing sounds of the tide and the poetic light of a gibbous moon. The symbolic and emotive potential of spaces is clearly of importance in Lemon & Koko’s work, and no less so for Secretive Thing 215, their first work showcased as part of a festival. Interesting fact: the numbers in the titles of their Secretive Things refer to a list of numbered ideas for projects, which means there are hundreds up their enigmatic sleeves. Who can imagine what they will come up with next?

Page divider

Secretive Thing 215 ran at various timings between 9 – 19 January as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020.