Visual by Wild Rice
4th August 2006
Drama Centre Theatre
by Zhuang Yisa
Never trust a playwright who writes beautifully. Sometimes, that is all there is.
Not in the case of local playwright Alfian Sa’at, though. The beauty of his writing is but an invitation to treat, an aperitif of sorts to a banquet of ideas that his audience generally cannot fully digest during the course of the meal, leaving the table carrying the contentedness of an easily filled stomach.
Alfian’s latest play Homesick is a well-made family drama that melded social criticism with dark comedy. The tropes were in the right place to elicit equal measures of laughter and lachrymose. It was a relief to see audiences responding appropriately at the right moments. Those familiar with Alfian’s output would not be disappointed with this effort. But neither would they be terribly excited by the prospect of being led somewhere they haven’t been before.
Allow me to reiterate the plot.
Set during the SARS crisis, the Koh family was reunited when the children heard that father was taken ill at the hospital. Once everyone was assembled at the Koh’s mansion, a phone call arrived from the hospital to inform that father’s illness might be caused by the SARS virus. A ten-day quarantine was then slapped on the household, adding pressure to the already tensed familial relationships marooned and fermenting in the hot-house of the fatherless mansion.
The first act was drudgery, full of witty repartees one time too many. Things began to get more interesting when Chermaine Ang made her entrance. Chermaine’s portrayal of father’s mistress, a study mama from Beijing called Cindy, was a stand out amongst the generally competent cast. Her exquisite expressions and deliberate stage movements brought to mind the inward sufferings of a Maggie Cheung’s screen persona. In fact, her character is the catalyst behind most, if not all of the play’s more interesting twists. And, if most of the characters were written with a dependency on the play’s narrative as a pretext to their own psychological growth – a kind of predetermined three-act structure in the actors’ experience in portraying them – it seemed that Cindy (or Chermaine’s portrayal of her) was one of the few who arrived fully formed, responding to threats, accusations and the occasional kindness of those around her like a perfectly formed crystal refracting light in a vapid enclosure of substance-less shadows. I said “one of the few.” The other was Remesh Panicker’s Manosh: an ex-Singaporean-turned-American-citizen married to the eldest daughter of the Koh’s all-Chinese family. His was, like Chermaine, a class act: a level-headed and sardonic commentator of the family’s perpetual histrionics.
Visually, the production had a stunning moment: at the end of the first act, the Koh household gathered at the dinner table to share father’s birthday cake; all were wearing surgical masks, none was touching the slice before him or her, but all intently looking at Cindy as she nervously devoured her first bite of the cake. It was eerily funny, like a scene from Takashi Miike’s Audition. The mild version, of course.
The mise-en-scene was audience-friendly in its design: a detailed interior of an upper-middle class family home replete with what looked like Ikea furniture, with all walls razed, such that when a particular story unfolding on stage became boring, one can easily divert one’s attention to the other stories that were simultaneously occurring at other locations on stage. I found myself drawn, for most of the evening, to Chermaine’s and Mr. Panicker’s performances.
In a play replete with beautifully written dialogue, one caught my attention most: in a debate between Manosh and Arthur (Nelson Chia) over what it means to be Singaporean, the latter replied: “A Singaporean is someone who spends too much time defining what is a Singaporean.” What Arthur is essentially saying is that action speaks louder than words.
Trust a playwright to tell us that.
During the Q & A session after curtain, many audiences expressed their admiration for the play. The general comment was that it expressed what most Singaporeans feel politically with regards to their country. To these audiences, their appreciation of the play was, I felt, hugely dependent on their inability, borne out by fear and a sense of futility, to speak out for any of the issues touched on by the play: sense of rootlessness, nation building that involves the tearing down of buildings with “national” in their names, to name but two. In this theatre, they found their haven for sanitised chest-beating.
Judging from the ubiquitous sentiment of the producer (Ivan Heng) and the director (Jonathan Lim) – echoed by the audience in their unanimous good appraisal of the production – one can safely assume a certain logocentric attitude in their sensibilities. Everyone felt there is message to be voiced, and this play has accomplished it. One of the aspects of this message is the mindless adoption of labels to cut up experience into echelons or binaries, the self and other, and then refusing to believe one is capable of the heinous deed of not being a proponent of solidarity. This form of narrow-mindedness – the refusal to acknowledge differences because it is just so improper to discriminate – was something I felt the production was rhetorically and polemically attacking. However, the conviction displayed by the panel that it has something to say, and that of its audience who believe what is to be said can actually effect some form of social change, was of the same nature as what is to be changed or attacked. I’m not sure if this trait is necessarily a fault line in one’s faith or conviction, nonetheless its aggression (however laidback it might seem) gave me the chill. And no one on stage was dressed fully in white.
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Zhuang Yisa reviews for Fridae.com and The Substation Magazine. His poetry has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and The Ridge, a student magazine of the National University of Singapore, where he is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature.