Art that Moves is an occasional series where we ask artists and other creative workers to reflect on artworks, performances or events that were personally important to them.
This article is also one of three pieces on ArtsEquator this week focusing on the people, plays and processes of The Necessary Stage, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Aside from Embracing the Off Centre, we also feature Felipe Cervera’s profile of Alvin Tan, and our interview with Edlyn Ng and Shawn Chua on the upcoming online TNS Archive.
By Akanksha Raja
(1300 words, 6-minute read)
I first read Off Centre as a 15-year-old student in 2007. The play, devised by The Necessary Stage in 1993, had been assigned to be part of the literature curriculum by the Ministry of Education in 2006, making it the first local play to be read as a literature text. There are a few reasons this text still stays with me:
To start with, that was the year I’d just begun discovering Singaporean literature, so reading and connecting with this play was part of larger initiation into local art and theatre for me. For a sensitive teenager navigating the disconnect she was encountering between her dreamy ideals versus the pragmatic “don’t feel too much, don’t think too much, do what you’re told” environment she was growing up in, narratives of alienation and vulnerable voices were particularly resonant.
I’d naturally been finding these stories in the so-called “classics” of the white-washed Western canon, like Sylvia Plath, JD Salinger, and Girl, Interrupted. Interestingly most of the popular Western narratives that come to mind about mental illness or social deviance speak in the hegemonic voice of the white upper-class. Deviance and madness are then seen as somewhat romantic, poetic, cool; marginal enough to be edgy but not too marginal as to be unpalatable for majority consumption. Non-white perspectives are therefore rarely spoken for.
So it was inspiring to discover there were individuals in my country – artists, writers with experiences and accents more familiar – who relentlessly sought to breathe life into the humdrum, clockwork heart of Singaporean existence. To study a work of local literature such as Off Centre, as opposed to Shakespeare or To Kill A Mockingbird, is meaningful, because we read universal themes as lived, familiar experiences, not just abstracted and distilled from unfamiliar contexts and languages. It engages students’ individuality – to think of themselves socially, politically, culturally, in relation to the intersections of their history, their ethnicity, their class, their gender.
The multiple, disparate marginal identities of Off Centre’s protagonists (Vinod, a Singapore Indian ex-Raffles boy with Best Speaker trophies, wealthy parents, and severe depression; Saloma, a Malay girl from technical school with a single mother and schizophrenia) reflected a realistic diversity and depth I didn’t often see on TV and film, foreign or local. This play staged a reality so much truer to life, and Vinod and Saloma became good friends.
The many kinds of stigma they faced became a crucial reminder for me to constantly renegotiate my own socially conditioned preconceptions. I understood better that prejudice and discrimination are rooted in a lack of understanding of otherness – of certain groups of people, behaviours, or perspectives that seem “strange”, marginal from the vantage point of the majority, the centre. They are less visible not because they are less statistically significant, but because they have not been allowed the space to honour their difference and coexist.
The play is ridden with rebukes on local institutions – National Service, NUS, religion, psychiatric healthcare. I found a wonderful irony in having been assigned a school textbook containing such sagely appropriate advice as
“Who needs the Singapore education system? Life is too precious. Go to the beach! Don’t succumb!” (Vinod, Act 2 Sc 1)
Off Centre is rebellious in form and content, seething with dissent and defiance. Its blazing interrogation of the reader’s trust in Singapore’s societal systems, and conventional ideas of “rational behaviour”, is emphasised by structural and narrative disjuncture, and dialogue that neurotically breaks in and out of third-person internal monologue. It altogether derides the aggressive management of all aspects of the “Singapore Inc.” of the 90s. There’s a moving monologue that encapsulates this, from Saloma’s mother:
MAK: This country no good. People no good. When I sell food, I wear badge. Smile. I smile. I go Woodbridge. Got poster. Smile. I smile. I see Woodbridge doctor. He say how many percent become better, how many percent don’t become better. He smile. I smile. I see social worker. She say how many percent must take medicine only for few months, how many percent must take always. If daughter mad, how many percent mother also mad. She smile. I smile. I go home, I see mirror. I smile. I cannot laugh. I cannot cry. Because I only know how to smile. I only know how to smile.
By articulating that human psychology and behaviour are in their very nature messy and can’t be straitjacketed, Off Centre problematises the very idea of sanity.
I found it refreshing for a literature text to be so radically confrontational about contemporary society. Students and teachers can’t access this text with the same objectivity with which they would approach any other, because Off Centre has a vehement energy that pulls you under its skin, whether as a reader or audience. “Off Centre addresses an audience ready to be challenged,” reads a review by Hannah Pandian in 1993. The audience doesn’t have a choice. The fourth wall is smashed repeatedly, lending an immediacy and authenticity that reminds us this is not just a chronicle of events that happen “elsewhere” to “other people”, but are real and urgent. The play also teases and affronts the audience by decidedly implicating us as “them”, subverting the roles of who is marginal and who is centre:
Saloma: [to Vinod] Why are they looking at us?
Vinod: They rather look at us than at themselves.
Vinod: [to audience] I know you’re a bit uncomfortable with this whole mental illness thing.
Saloma: Vinod, why you talk to them? They laugh because we are mental patient, off centre.
Vinod: Off centre? Where did you pick that up from?
Saloma: [points to audience] They.
Vinod: [to audience] Did you use that word? [to Saloma] No, see, they said no.
Saloma: Ok, not them, but their brother, their sister, their children, father, mother, friend. Maybe they never say, but they also never scold people who say.
Vinod: Saloma, we are not off centre. We are very centre. We are the core. We are right on target, on the dot, the arrow that slices the apple.
Saloma: Merepek lah you.
Vinod: Eh, I never merepek. Ok, I sometimes merepek. But this time, I’m serious.
Saloma: Ok, serious, but I still don’t want to talk to them.
Vinod: You cannot disturb people who are too busy. These people here are also very busy. You cannot disturb them, they have no time. […] Er… busy working, busy watching TV, busy doing a lot of things. So cannot disturb.
Vinod [Narrator]: Vinod needed help. But they were laughing. Would they help?
(Act 1 Sc 3)
The audience is disturbed. We find ourselves implicated and accused. There is no curtain call, as the play refuses to offer a semblance of a resolution. Off Centre provokes the reader to face what disturbs us and to respond with self-reflection, rather than panicked attempts to control and sequester.
In the more conservative, self-righteous Singapore of the early 90’s, the play’s commission from the Ministry of Health was revoked. Considering this backhanded act of censorship, the 2006 decision to include the text in public school curriculum might arguably indicate a greater openness to dialogue, creative freedom and state critique. But even today, this openness seems spurious. We are still bedevilled by knee-jerk reactions to challenges of the status quo, which makes the play just as relevant and essential today as on its opening 24 years ago. Its message extends beyond the treatment of the mentally ill. It opens its arms to everything we consider off-centre – all the kinds of alterity that disturbs society’s illusions of harmony and cohesion.
Off Centre was written to raise awareness of the socio-economic stigma faced by the mentally ill, and therefore primarily focuses on the characters’ struggles with assimilating to society. The work however also takes on the delicate task of showing us the interiority of madness as a complex and personal psychological experience. I appreciated how the play explores madness itself as a deeply human, sane and emotional response to inhuman and unkind circumstances, especially when experiences of madness are still frequently depicted in freakish extremes in art.
One particular scene that stands out is a fantastical interlude where the 17-year-old Emily Gan (self-proclaimed mind-reader and gynaecologist) appears in Vinod’s dream and says peculiar things like “I’m in your dream lah, but that doesn’t mean this is not real.”
Later, in this introspective and psycho-spiritual scene, she speaks of madness as an important metaphysical experience:
“Remember when you had your breakdown? We have come out of our body and gone back in. What we have experienced, all these people have not. They need us. They don’t understand us, but they need us.” (Act 4, Sc 1)
Emily’s statement highlights the need for the experiences and voices of the mentally ill to be heard and validated, especially because they’re often just highly sensitive individuals broken by society’s unforgiving demands and the bullies that perpetuate them.
She also implores the cynical Vinod to try using his heart a little more than his head, “before [he] forgets how” – still an important reminder for myself. Her appearence in this text is short-lived but significant: she is the strongest voice of empathy, reason, and good humour, despite being a supposedly insane patient herself. As a fellow resident of Saloma’s at the halfway house, she is the only character other than Vinod who offers encouragement and makes Saloma feel special for her difference, in contrast to her mother’s more religious belief of devil possession that has been historically associated with insanity.
By the time Emily leaves the play at the end of Vinod’s dream, she is a somewhat disembodied, surreal spectre of a character, but her presence leaves a lucid and clear message of the need for open-mindedness, acceptance, and understanding.
So every time another debate arises about the “value” of studying literature in school, and its unpopularity as an elective subject, I’m reminded about how Off Centre felt as essential a textbook as my Social Studies or Human Geography. Perhaps even more essential in some ways, so deeply rooted as it was in authentic Singaporean experiences, than the didactic aims of the education system.
Off Centre was devised by The Necessary Stage in 1993 and staged by the company at The Drama Centre starring Abdul Latiff Abdullah and Sakinah Dollah. Subsequently it was re-staged by TNS in 2007 with Mislina Mustaff and Melvinder Kanth, by Yellow Chair Productions in 2012 starring Tushar Ismail and Nessa Anwar, and in 2015 as part of Esplanade The Studios: fifty, starring Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah Zainal.