By Casidhe Ng
(1, 543 words, eight-minute read)
When the play ends (although it never really ends), Saloma sits on stage, alone, even after the house lights have been turned back on, with a look of uncertainty and shock plastered across her face. She feels – no, she is entirely real, and even more so after the aesthetics of play have been stripped away. I notice I am struggling to find words. I feel shock, awe – and a sense of dread. I want comfort, or order, a sense of what is “normal” or a return to the “status quo”. But Off Centre isn’t interested in what I want.
In fact, Off Centre is uninterested in catharsis and artifice, the things that keep the reach of a play within the confines of the four walls of the theatre. It seems hell-bent on the opposite, in doing so critiquing the audience’s act of voyeuristic consumption, and painting the audience as intimately involved in the marginalisation of difference. The act of watching Off Centre is deliberately painful as we become complicit in a main character’s eventual destruction. Perhaps pain, then, is a good place to start.
We enter the space to encounter Vinod (Abdulattif Abdullah) front-and-centre, his legs dangling over the edge of the Victoria Theatre stage and waving to audience members as they take their seats. The first thing he says is that he had waved to eighty-seven people, but only twelve had said hi back. “I guess it’s true. People can tell when someone is mentally ill,” he declares to the audience. He lists things he does that are no different from the “normal” Singaporean: he speaks Singlish, is obsessed with $1 chicken rice, and “can talk with as much sense and nonsense” as everyone else. Yet, he implores, “why am I labelled mad, siow, crazy, mental, psycho…and not you?” to the silence of the theatre. This is the pain upon which the play anchors itself: the pain of having been excluded from “normality”.
In the first half of the play, Vinod and Saloma are almost always flanked by other people, the unnamed ensemble meant to represent us. We never really hear much of them, but they are ‘loud’ and oppressive. Their mimed laughter and empty, unheard conversations become a tool for othering, and there is a palpable alienation (my instinct says it is self-inflicted, the reality is that it is perpetuated by us) impressed upon Vinod and Saloma, who find it difficult to participate in what we assume is the simple act of socialisation – unlike everyone else, for whom conversation seems to flow freely. Just as there are invisible demarcations separating the duo’s respective rooms on stage, it constantly feels as though there is an unbreachable wall between the two and everyone else (a parallel of the fourth wall), a device that heightens the emotional significance of their relationship, but pulls into sharp focus the reality of our society and, once more, our complicity.
In a heartwrenching scene at a restaurant, Saloma says of the crowd around her: “why they all here?”, then “why they all laughing?”, to: “why they laugh at us?”. In another instance, Vinod says: “they want to watch us sing and dance”. The lines are cutting. Our positionality as audience members are questioned, interrogated, and equated to the mutually-reinforcing stare of seclusion, not unlike the nonverbal acknowledgments we have with other Singaporeans in public spaces when another fails to conform to societal expectations of normality. Vinod shouts at the audience, yelling “Stop it! Stop talking about her!” The moment is all the more horrifying because of the realisation that we possess, and more often than not embody, those impulses with which we, the audience, are equated to in the process of us watching the play. We, too, are laughing at moments that seem comedic on the surface, but bear deeply unnerving and discomfiting implications for Vinod and Saloma within.
The breakdown of theatrical conventions is further sharpened by the fact that both the main performers also “narrate” the inner landscapes of their characters, who speak of Vinod and Saloma in the third person. The full force of this doubling of roles, however, is only made possible with the outstanding performances of real-life husband and wife duo Abdulattif and Sakinah, who blur the lines between ‘character’ and ‘narrator’ to a sublime degree. Abdulattif’s physical vocabulary, his idiosyncratic jerks and twitches, seep into his seemingly divorced third-person narrator counterpart, while Sakinah’s variations in articulation are so precisely calculated that we fully perceive these narrators as desired projections of their own selves, beautiful phantoms of their own making. Here, too, is yet another manifestation of pain, where the narrators are aware, omniscient and understanding of their character’s impulses, intentions and desires. They are powerless nevertheless. As they leave the restaurant, Vinod and Saloma argue about God. Saloma the narrator remarks: “Saloma was falling”, and Vinod the narrator states: “Vinod was pushing her” – before Vinod himself undermines Saloma’s faith, saying: “You sing to God also no use. Don’t know also whether he bothers to listen”. The narrators prefigure what is about to happen, but are unable to stop it, and the characters cannot help but give in to the other part of themselves, even if that self is flawed, hurtful and selfish. Just as the pain of exclusion is the root of some of their issues, the pain derived from what society has done to them perpetuates their problems in a kind of Catch-22.
The performances by Sakinah and Abdulattif are full of a tangible intimacy, and their interactions overflow with a deep concern for each other, no doubt informed by their familiarity as real-life husband-and-wife. They are evenly matched by Najib Soiman’s Razali, Brendon Fernandez’s Platoon Commander and Ellison Tan Yuyang’s transient and enigmatic Emily Gan, a resident in a halfway house who drifts in and out of spaces like a revenant, delivering her lines with such persuasiveness that we, too, are reeled into her contradictory but compelling rhetoric. Aidli Mosbit’s Mak is equally fascinating. She is both sympathetic and problematic, dedicated yet harmful to Saloma, despite being well-meaning. Wong Chee Wai’s set of two naturalistic bedrooms and an adaptive bare-bones centre space allows for a balance between the text-heavy monologues by Saloma and Vinod and the ensemble scenes: the final dance sequence is a claustrophobic assault on the senses, as if we were watching only a fraction of the chaos within Vinod’s own mind. It’s harrowing and effective. The audience watches helplessly as the narrative spirals to its inevitable end.
Off Centre first premiered in 1993, and the fact that it remains sharply relevant is a testament to the brilliance of its collaborative creators. Abdulattif, Sakinah and Aidli are reprising their original roles from 26 years ago, and their experience with the characters shows. Furthermore, Saloma and Vinod endure because of the extensive and careful research done by the team, who seat the play upon a crucial foundation of real and lived experiences. This staging feels almost effortlessly self-assured: the deliberate lack of subtitles and the minimal props are but a few examples of how the experience felt seamless, with the excellent performances serving to fill the gaps in our understanding of the text. In an unforgettable scene involving Vinod and his Platoon Commander, the PC verbally abuses the already traumatised Vinod, shouting “You are not fit to fight for your country! You expect other people to fight for you is it? Is it?!! Just die lah … just die. Do it for your country.” A soft but audible gasp follows. The text hasn’t changed in the past 26 years, but its pertinence has grown in the light of recent matters, and it remains sharp, searing and accusatory, compelling the audience to action rather than just seek to be entertained.
The play ends with, ‘there is no curtain call.’ I am brought back to Sakinah/Saloma, who now occupies a deeply uncomfortable space alone on stage. She is both herself and her character, caught between the ‘reality’ that comes with the end of a show and the need to face the audience ‘in character’ to give them some closure. People line up at the edge of the stage where she sits. One by one, they take turns to hug her, and offer words of encouragement. My fellow mentee, Xiao Ting, strikes up a conversation with Saloma with the desire to treat her as a human being, what was deprived of her for most of her life. To ask her how she was, and if she wanted tissue, and to let her know she wasn’t alone despite everything. As people filed out of the auditorium, some holding back tears, some, as I was, still reeling from the experience, I was reminded of the beauty and power of theatre and its capability to make change. As I write this, I am reminded that theatre is not fleeting, and it is not ephemeral. It has the power to conjure into reality what was once based in fiction. As I stood to leave, I counted the number of people in the line who shared an embrace with Saloma, who offered their sympathies, their thanks, and delivered heartfelt words before she left. They were shy of eighty-seven, but were definitely more than twelve.
Off Centre by The Necessary Stage is written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan. It was staged at the Victoria Theatre from 7-17 February 2019. This review is based on the performance staged on 9 February 2019.
Casidhe Ng is currently studying at Yale-NUS College, having graduated from School of the Arts, Singapore in 2015, where he majored in Theatre. In his free time, he enjoys binge-watching TV shows and films, as well as reading. His reviews can be found at centre42.sg and The Flying Inkpot.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.