Note: This review contains some spoilers.
Why do we do the things we do? In the beginning, we are dreamers. We remain true to ourselves and our purpose, until some forces along the journey manoeuvre us, changing our trajectory. Our society and its present system pushes us to fit into certain templates. We react in different ways – some of us succumb to that shape, some are stronger and go their own way, while others turn towards themselves and hide in their corners.
The Necessary Stage brings back Haresh Sharma’s Model Citizens to its black box in 2021, 11 years since its first staging. Directed by Alvin Tan, this thought-provoking play is performed by its original cast of Goh Guat Kian, Karen Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal. The original staging garnered the Best Director award for Alvin and Best Actress award for Siti Khalijah at the 2011 Life Theatre Awards. The play both sheds light and makes us question the motives behind certain individuals’ actions in trying to conform within the rules and standards of our society.
Model Citizens is the story of three women: Mrs Chua (Guat Kian), an MP’s wife who tries to cope with her husband’s injury and deal with the media attention, Melly (Siti Khalijah), an Indonesian domestic helper who longs to be a Singaporean Citizen, and Wendy (Karen), Melly’s employer who struggles with the death of her son. Their lives are woven together when Melly’s boyfriend stabs the MP at a Meet-the-People session.
The play begins in Mrs Chua’s living room, where Melly is petitioning her for help to release her boyfriend Zul from jail. With Melly speaking in Bahasa Indonesia and Mrs Chua speaking in Mandarin, they have a difficult time understanding each other, resulting in Melly calling her employer Wendy who speaks both languages. As an audience member who doesn’t understand either languages, I had to dart my eyes between the surtitles screen and the actors to try to catch and relate to their emotions. The scene works on many levels – the way the characters misunderstand each other makes the audience around me giggle – and the use of different languages is a clever way to create multiple layers of conflict in the play.
Mrs Chua, portrayed by Guat Kian with playful mischief, goes on an adventure of liberation and empowerment after taking on her injured husband’s duties. We see that she is capable of being more than just an MP’s wife who sits in the backseat and teaches science. Somehow she’s been trapped in the image she is trying to uphold, or at least what others want of her. Despite her harsh words when she talks to Wendy about how poor people always ask for help, we can see as she approves financial assistance requests, that deep inside, she cares.
The play contains several darker moments too. We find out that Wendy’s son Tony has committed suicide, his story told through a series of muddled yet intriguing social media chat exchanges projected onto the wall of the theatre. It is unclear what pushes Tony to do so, but the chat conversation suggests that he is dissatisfied with life and unable to fit in. During the funeral, Wendy, played as weary and withdrawn by Karen, does not seem to exhibit the expected demeanour of a grieving mother. She does not shed a tear and says she’s okay when asked how she is, and so her love for her son is questioned. Perhaps as a way of coping, she becomes extra kind to Melly, which to me looked like a kind of motherly love. But from my experience as a domestic worker, the portrayal is somewhat too good to be true. In the real world, acts of kindness exist, there are more good employers than bad ones. However, we rarely hear about these as they are overshadowed by news reports of employers’ barbaric treatment of their domestic helpers.
One particular moment in the play inspired a visceral reaction in me. We see Melly performing her own abortion in her room at the exact same time that Wendy finds her son hanging in his room. The scene was so effective, especially how Melly screams her guts out and how the tension builds as Wendy enters the space looking for her, that I thought she was going to get caught. Instead, Wendy finds her son’s body, portrayed with a dramatic spotlight. The pain this scene evoked made me want to get out of the theatre. I could never imagine the weight of the reasons – why Tony took his own life and Melly’s willingness to risk hers and discontinue a life growing in her.
I found the character of Melly particularly compelling. She is self-serving and lives a double life. On her days off, she is boisterous, offering sex for money although she hates it; but she is a different person in front of Wendy. However, I find her brave and bold – to pursue a dream in a society where she is not a priority, where she needs to get approval from the authorities to get married and where getting pregnant would cost her job. To want to be part of a society she can’t afford. Melly’s story is relatable to me. Coming from a place of poverty where she is worried about her family getting kidnapped, killed or not having opportunities to go to school, perhaps a taste of Singapore luxury makes her yearn to become a citizen. Siti Khalijah nails her portrayal of Melly – her accent, down to the way she speaks and laughs, is the real deal.
It occurs to me that director Alvin Tan has the three actors occupy their own spaces within the predominantly white set (designed by Petrina Dawn Tan), and how relevant this is to the roles they play. Mrs Chua mostly occupies the sitting room which takes up the left and central area of the stage, which shows her authority. Wendy occupies the right side comprising a study and a room, as if she is withdrawing from the world. Melly’s space located at the right front corner of the stage sets her out to be an outsider. However, I love how, towards the end of the play, their monologues interlaid with one another and helped to bring each character towards a common ground and a sense of resolution. The end of Mrs Chua’s acting MP role but the beginning of a new adventure in China; Wendy, finding peace from a fake letter from Tony written by Melly; and Melly, manoeuvring away from her dream of becoming a Singaporean Citizen and going home instead – each finding peace and home with their respective new beginnings.
Haresh Sharma’s Model Citizens is a powerful play that gives a realistic perspective on issues that remain significant today – inequalities, the pressures society puts on us, and our treatment of migrant workers. Through highlighting three groups in our society, the authority, the privileged and the less privileged, it shows that no matter how much we classify ourselves into different moulds, each of our actions will affect the fate of the other. We will never survive without one another. We are always intertwined in this universe of complexity, no matter how imperfect we are at fitting into the templates society gives us.
Model Citizens was restaged on 24 March – 4 April 2021 in The Necessary Stage Black Box. It will be made available as video-on-demand from 19 April – 2 May 2021.