Dancing with the Demons: “The Son” by Pangdemonium

By Naeem Kapadia
(914 words, 4 minute read)

Everyone tells us that a person battling mental health issues should seek professional help. But how exactly does one find the means to get the help they need? When confronted with a loved one who experiences such issues, how does a family unit react and figure out what is the right thing to do?

Pangdemonium’s latest production, The Son which kicks off its tenth anniversary season, is a gripping excavation of teenage depression. Written by acclaimed French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller (whose plays The Father and The Truth were both recently staged here), this blistering family drama took the West End by storm late last year.

Very little is offered by way of explanation as to why sixteen-year-old Nicolas (Zachary Pang) has seemingly lost the will to go on; he hardly says anything and we learn he has skipped school for three months. The only clue we have is the fact that his parents have recently divorced. Yet, things hardly seem to improve when Nicolas moves in with his lawyer father Pierre (Adrian Pang) who now lives with partner Sofia (Sharda Harrison) and their infant son.

Part of what makes Zeller’s script so gripping is its simplicity. There are no showstopping monologues, special effects or colourful characters here. What we have is an honest and utterly relatable story of a family being wrenched apart by a threat no one knows how to handle. Christopher Hampton’s lyrical translation adds a crispness to the dialogue. When asked by his mother Anne (Shona Benson) what troubles him, Nicolas replies “Sometimes, I feel I’m not made for this life”.

Indeed, no one seems to understand why Nicolas keeps withdrawing into himself and the smallest actions trigger a dangerous reaction. The spectre of his parents’ divorce and its emotional impact cannot be denied and no one can tell if those scars can ever heal. A joyful sequence where Sofia goads Pierre into re-enacting his dance moves in front of a bemused Nicolas quickly turns tense when the latter storms out, presumably reminded of the new life his father has built.

Nicolas (Zachary Pang) and Pierre (Adrian Pang) in a scene from The Son. Photo: Pangdemonium.

The pairing of real-life father and son Adrian and Zachary in the lead roles adds a rich emotional texture to the production. There’s no denying Adrian Pang’s skill as the consummate entertainer but it’s in a performance like this that he comes into his own, paring himself down to unravel the naked, conflicted emotions of a father trying his best to do right for his child while managing the demands of a new family. In a poignant scene, he viciously berates Nicolas for his frustrating behaviour at school but just as quickly apologises for having lost his cool. He is ably matched by Zachary, whose sullenness does not mask the desperation of a boy at his wit’s end as to why everything seems so difficult to endure. The chemistry between the pair is electric and, needless to say, comes from a deep, authentic place.

There is fine support from Harrison as a woman genuinely torn between concern and apprehension at the unexpected “weird” presence in her household and Benson as a mother at the end of her tether, not knowing what went wrong with her sweet, smiling little boy.

I’ve written about the sensitivity and nuance that Tracie Pang brings as a director so many times over the years that it seems like a cliché. Yet, it is exactly in a small family drama such as this where one finds such clichés so thoroughly warranted and we truly see her skill as a theatre-maker. Each delicately paced scene unravels seamlessly, drawing us into the story while unlocking a quiet tide of emotion. One is reminded of her greatest hits over the years such as Rabbit Hole, The Pillowman and Falling.

Collaborating with the company once again after last year’s Late Company, Petrina Dawn Tan, who recently nabbed her first ever Life Theatre Award, gives us a pastel-hued set which is both stylish and practical. Walls slide up and down, forming a variety of separate, yet entirely cohesive, spaces which are augmented by Jing Ng’s soundscapes and James Tan’s lighting. It makes for some beautiful scene transitions and also acts as a symbolic nod to the many layers that lie within a troubled mind.

My only cavil to this otherwise superb production was why a little effort had not been taken to localise the script. Pangdemonium has shown itself more than adept at this with plays such as The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Falling which transplanted effortlessly into a Singaporean setting. Considering the high incidence of teenage depression in Singapore itself, this may have gone some way in allowing the text to achieve a deeper resonance.

The Son encapsulates the fantastic work that Pangdemonium has been creating over the past decade, shows that not only entertain but which seek to proactively tackle important social issues with empathy. This is essential, nourishing theatre – a play which urges us to open our hearts to those suffering from mental health issues and do all we can to stop them from dancing with the demons.

The Son is directed by Tracie Pang and presented by Pangdemonium. It runs from 20 February – 7 March 2020 at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Naeem Kapadia is a finance lawyer who is also an arts lover, theatre blogger and sartorial enthusiast. He co-hosts the Arts Equator monthly theatre podcast.

About the author(s)

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

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