Gabriel Chia

Crashing realities: “Acting Mad” by The Necessary Stage

By Nabilah Said
(747 words, 5-minute read)
Content warning: References to self-harm and sexual assault


Someone cried. 
Someone squeezed my hand.
Someone felt seen.
Someone drank tea.

The Necessary Stage’s latest offering, Acting Mad, pulls no punches. It treats mental health in an almost matter of fact way, like a doctor might gently, yet assuredly handle a human heart. It is the theatrical equivalent of open-heart surgery, if surgery begins with a communal act of drinking tea on straw mats and ends with a Kumbaya-esque circle of affirmation. Or is that theatre as church, and have we undergone a spiritual journey of sorts with the actors as our guide? There is, after all, uplifting piano music. At one point, a character says that mental illness has helped her gain perspective on life. As the millennials might say, how wholesome. 

But Acting Mad is not afraid to walk down darker paths. The text, composed of verbatim accounts about mental health by 20 Singapore theatre practitioners, does not shy away from descriptions of self-harm, suicide attempts and harrowing experiences in the Institute of Mental Health. Pieced together by SOTA graduates Harris Albar and Maryam Noorhimli under the guidance of TNS’ resident playwright Haresh Sharma, the script merges and dips in and out of the bi-fold themes of mental health and the pressures of the acting industry, via the device of a play-within-a-play. The result is a sometimes unfocused, but ultimately powerful, emotional piece of work. 

This device – of actors Liz Rajoo (Masturah Oli), Au Wei Jie (Andre Chong) and Zac Osman (Al-Matin Yatim) auditioning for a play about mental health with seasoned director Kate Lim (Karen Tan), who each grapple with issues of mental health, means that dramaturgically, the play hits emotional peaks with startling frequency. Not that we are not warned, as TNS’ Karmen Wong rightly offers a content warning at the start of the play. Early in the show, perhaps barely 10 minutes in, Liz recalls an incident of sexual assault as part of an exercise in rehearsal. We see the actor, Masturah, go dead in the eyes as Chong and Matin stand-in as the male perpetrators, their hands and bodies gestures of power even as no actual violence is depicted. The moment breaks. The rehearsal continues. The effect is open-ended enough to be disturbing, and lingers over the course of the play. 

Photo: Gabriel Chia


Yet, for a play about mental health that goes there, Acting Mad is surprisingly light in parts, sometimes even verging on twee. There is an incident involving a search for Hansaplast in the heartlands that is darkly comedic. The play is also noticeably musical, with the liberal use of hopeful-sounding music curated by Sharma. In one scene, Chong’s Weijie has a breakdown during rehearsal and when the younger cast members cannot placate him, Kate gives him a ukulele as a coping mechanism. He tentatively strums the instrument, before playing the early 2000s’ indie hit I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab For Cutie. The room is dark, save this one moment of calmness. Just like Weijie, we needed this. This moment of lightness in a play that gets heavy.

Acting Mad might draw comparisons to TNS’ iconic play, Off Centre, for its depiction of people with mental illness, but it is very much a different animal. Where Off Centre was solid and realistic to the lives of its two protagonists Saloma and Vinod, Acting Mad feels amorphous and universal, even as it gives us insight into the lives of working actors in Singapore. Though it does get specific – from showing how actors are encouraged to draw on their personal pain to power their performances on stage, yet draw a line once they leave the rehearsal room, to the pressures younger actors face having to compete with more experienced actors with more social capital and better-established networks. In lesser hands, the play might be reduced to mere assemblage, but this talented cast deserves praise for realising the ambitions of the text.  

The specificity of Acting Mad draws the audience in, but it is its universality that folds us into its world. Just like the verbatim interviews at its source have combined and dissolved into this story of four actors trying their best to work, to live, with all their burdens and past experiences crashing into their present realities, Acting Mad blurs the boundaries between us and them. This is not so much a play about actors with mental health issues and an audience that is watching them, but one that unites everyone in the theatre over that feeling of a world chewing you up and spitting you out. We are the source of each other’s comfort. 

Someone cried.
Someone squeezed my hand.
Someone felt seen.
Someone drank tea.

Acting Mad was presented by The Necessary Stage as part of The Orange Production. It ran from 7-11 August 2019 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. More info about the show here.

Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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