By Eugene Koh
(970 words, 10-minute read)
The stage is bare, somewhat bare, with the lighting set-up visible from the wings and a simple structure fixed upstage that prominently features a wide screen for multimedia projection. At one definitive moment in the play, the multimedia projection zooms in to focus on a young Haresh Sharma seated in the audience, the actors on stage playing out a classic scene from an early play he wrote. The camera lingers on his face for a while.
Hold that image in your mind. It will be referenced later.
Being Haresh Sharma is not, as the title might suggest, a theatre piece about the life of the playwright himself. Rather, the various promotional materials tastefully suggest that Being Haresh Sharma is more about being his various characters in Singapore than himself. We are plunged into a kaleidoscope of scenes, a myriad of quotes, peppered with the similarly kaleidoscopic multimedia (by Brian Gothong Tan), lighting design (by Andy Lim), and raw power of human emotion.
Natalie Hennedige has brought out the best in a cast of actors who are themselves already forces to be reckoned with. Not only that, they are all no strangers with one another, which is a great recipe for potent and palpitating chemistry between the actors: an energy that could be felt all the way into the cheap seats.
The camera fast-forwards and/or reverses. We now see a close up of a young Karen Tan’s pained expression.
Hennedige’s well-known unique and bold direction gave Being Haresh Sharma the treatment that a revisiting of his works deserves. Hennedige skillfully plots out the scenes in this piece to roughly remind us chronologically of the history of Singapore, starting from a satirical piece about the many ‘foundings’ of Singapore, up until a scene where a mother, son and their maid quarrel in a tiny apartment. The running theme is clear here: Being Haresh Sharma is all about being the many characters in Singapore.
Speaking of his many characters, the actors themselves must be applauded for their energetic display of emotion, humour and satire. In one particular segment, the actors split themselves into two groups of mother, son and maid to perform an excerpt from Lizard. The results are clear: from one text, two very different synergies are felt between Karen Tan, Ghafir Akbar and Jo Kukathas’ portrayal of the scene in one hand, and Jean Ng, Julius Foo and Siti Khalijah’s in another. The strength and unique capabilities of each individual actor play off each other to create life to Sharma’s texts in a myriad of different ways.
And at this moment, a realisation sets in: without the power and constant dedication of these actors to their roles, there could be no life breathed into the characters that Sharma had written and devised. We see now that Being Haresh Sharma is not only dedicated to the playwright himself, but also to the many people who, by being themselves, made this possible.
We see this in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek segment of “Being Siti Khalijah”, where Siti herself reprises her many roles that she has played, differentiating each role with a change in the colour of her wig. She’s dexterous and sharp in the transition from character to character, with the changes becoming increasingly frequent as she continues until signalled to stop. As she stops, the audience erupts in rapturous applause.
The camera focuses on Siti now, in slow-motion, as she wears one of her many wigs; smoking, waving her hand, cursing.
This is like a reunion gathering, a joyous occasion landmarked by a piece of terrific entertainment, the lifeblood of these practitioners. At this gathering, everyone in the room partakes in the Parade of Titles at the start of the show. The first title is announced, Lanterns Never Go Out, and book Shorts 1 that the play was published in is held up, a mime gesture is made to signify the title, and the count continues. The count continues to number ninety-seven, skipping a few numbers in between. Suddenly, the following titles announced were not authored by Haresh Sharma: Emily of Emerald Hill, Waiting for Godot and The Holy Bible: King James Version.
Of course, this self-reflexive joke is inserted to remind us that we are not venerating Haresh Sharma here, we are only watching a piece called Being Haresh Sharma.
Many inside jokes are shared among those familiar with the plays. Owing to the long and illustrious list of works, the people who recognise all the references would most likely be veteran theatre practitioners. The young people in the audience would have to sit by, smile, nod and chuckle if they have not read or watched any of the plays referenced.
It is a pity then that a young generation will not appreciate fully what they are seeing before them. Within all the power and beautiful force that this piece is executed in, we are reminded that we are peering into the soul of one man and one company.
The camera zooms in on a young Haresh Sharma seated in the audience, the actors on stage playing out a classic scene from an early play he wrote. The camera lingers on his face for a while.
The play ends as the Parade of Titles begin again, starting from Lanterns Never Go Out. As it reaches number ninety-seven, the actors are all already on stage, walking slowly towards the audience, continuing to count upwards, ever more softly, as the lights fade out to black, promising many more years and a number of plays yet written. Look where we are, we have come so far, and there is still a long way to go, they suggest.
Metaphorically, the audience claps with the energy of fireworks. A great play is better than a monument to celebrate a man. Remember Ozymandias!
“Review: Being Haresh Sharma by The Necessary Stage in Collaboration with Cake” by bakchormeeboy
“Manic and magical” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)
“Reviu: Being Haresh Sharma” by Pengkritik Sandiwara
“Being Haresh Sharma: Artistic Outlook of Singapore’s Changing Landscape” by Dawn Teo (Popspoken)
Being Haresh Sharma is a collaboration between The Necessary Stage and Cake Theatre. It ran from 29 June to 2 July 2017 at the Drama Centre Theatre. It was directed by Natalie Hennedige who created the dramaturgy with Michelle Tan, from text based on Sharma’s plays.
Guest Contributor Eugene Koh has a wide and varied plethora of interests, from banknote collecting to creating constructed writing systems. His greatest interest lies in the craft of theatre, and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is committed to encouraging and engaging with a new theatre scene that is brave enough to tackle uncertain issues in a challenging world of the future.