By Faezah Zulkifli
(921 words, 3-minute read)
The setting is familiar—every Sunday night, my family gathers in the living room to watch TV. Tonight, we are watching Checkpoint Theatre’s Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims).
It was déjà vu; versions of this image of the TV in the living room have greeted my Instagram feed all week during the duration of this production—documentations of a communal theatrical experience in the domestic space.
Commissioned by the Esplanade as part of Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) and Pentas 2021 and written by Adib Kosnan, Keluarga Besar En. Karim follows the daily lives of Karim (Rafaat Hamzah), his wife Normah (Dalifah Shahril), and his two daughters Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah) and Balqis (Farah Lola), over a familiar concoction of West Coast rojak dinners, everyday family squabbles and rewang (i.e. the traditional Malay practice of helping out the family or community at an event) in an emotionally charged performance.
The Malay family drama is framed by the newest addition to the Karim family: Balqis’ husband, Aqil (Adib Kosnan), who masterfully structures the show with contemplative musings on belonging in an extended metaphor on football teams.
While this is one of many livestreams of a theatrical production since 2020—and one that faced cancellations before shifting to the digital—many ticket holders’ decisions to invite others to watch this show together was oddly fitting, yet a testament to its accessibility and relatability to the community in spite of the shift in mediums.
Claire Wong and Joel Lim’s direction offers new filmic perspectives to the stage production, presenting a literal lens into the lives of these individuals as they navigate the fragmented spaces in the Karim family home. Petrina Dawn Tan’s intricate yet functional production design and Shah Tahir’s whimsical musical motifs become the backdrop of these spaces of inclusion and exclusion: the different lines of communication, the many WhatsApp group chats, and the physical and emotional walls put up around the home.
From overhearing arguments through thin walls to accidentally uncovering secrets in shared photo albums, private and shared spaces bleed into each other while paradoxically dividing the family. Though the tight bond between the women in the family is fleshed out between frequent sleepovers in Balqis’ room and ‘boy talk’, we rarely get glimpses of the male relationships besides passing conversations about football and digs at Aqil’s frequent night shifts as a nurse.
At the core of the family lies a central loss, revealed only through the most private space outside the home: the grave of Karim and Normah’s late daughter, Diana. Next to the chaos of the family home which Karim dominates, the emptiness of Diana’s grave, portrayed only through a wide canvas of light, illuminates Karim’s pain. Here, Tan’s realist construction of the Malay family home is stripped down to a blank slate inaccessible to viewers except through Karim’s cradling of the gravestone and plucking of the weeds as he visually paints the site of his grief through a ritualistic performance of loss. In this meditative minute, Rafaat brings a reflective side to Karim’s strops and reveals the character’s inner guilt through a monologue that is delivered with grip and rigour.
In contrast to Karim’s cryptic character, Rusydina and Farah’s unmatched onstage chemistry, paired with Dalifah’s honest and authentic performance as the dutiful mother, brought new layers of complexity to the story as they cast light on the traditional and modern roles of women in the family. When an unexpected wedding invitation causes a rift in the family, Normah attempts to hold everyone together with food and small talk, while Karim’s two daughters threaten to move away, fed up with his emotional disconnect and domineering behaviour. The turning point only comes when Aqil half-willingly makes a compromise to accompany his father-in-law to the cemetery on his rare off-day—a gesture Karim later returns with a concession of his own.
Up until this point, the men’s relationship was mired in a failure to be emotionally attuned to each other, but it is this emotional barrenness that makes Karim’s return to the cemetery with Aqil more meaningful. Their visit speaks visually and viscerally through a dreamlike weave of images, offering viewers a glimpse into a rare intimate moment between the two men amid the family’s constant dissent.
As Rafaat performs Karim’s rituals with solemn reverence, Adib’s unwavering focus as he intently observes and mirrors Rafaat’s gestures reveals his character’s learned acceptance and understanding of his father-in-law’s forbidding nature and unyielding disposition. Together through these movements, they compose a transformative dance duet in one of the most beautiful, tender moments in the show—an evocative visualisation of Aqil and Karim’s newfound relationship, built on shared values and compromises which later become the foundation for Aqil to mediate the rifts between the men and women of the family he married into.
When adapting theatre to other mediums, I often ruminate if the medium is appropriate for the work. But here the question lies in whether alternative media brings nuances to the work that we do not get in a live setting. Even as the camera invites us into the family, the work isn’t intrusive as it is intimate and almost gentle, in selectively showing us parts of the Karims’ emotional labour in ways that invite us to empathise and invest in the characters’ journeys. Between understanding different love languages, revealing unspoken pain, and making room for compromises as the Karims manoeuvre around what it means to be a “real family”, this show is ultimately about finding your own turf on a bigger playing field, and finally ‘coming home’.
Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) by Checkpoint Theatre is available online on SISTIC Live. The screening has been extended to run till 31 Oct 2021.
Faezah Zulkifli is a theatremaker in new theatre practices and technologies. Her work examines the dramaturgy of new media and the politics of the digital.