By Kathy Rowland
(920 words, 8 minute read)
Eric, a social worker based in Australia, has returned to Singapore for his father’s funeral. He visits an old neighbour, Kak Biba/Habiba, whose home was a childhood refuge from his own impersonal family. The reunion seems like a genuinely happy occasion. There are hints however – a cockroach that only Eric sees and the incessant rain, a visual and aural presence – that presage the revelation that Uncle Ismail, Habiba’s husband, sexually abused Eric.
Nine Years Theatre’s Fundamentally Happy is the first Mandarin production of Haresh Sharma’s play, originally staged in English in 2007. Here, Habiba (Lok Meng Chue) is an ethnic Chinese who has converted to Islam, and teaches at a Madrasah. The multilingual world she occupies, and the more meta translation of the text from one language to another, is signaled with smooth economy at the top of the play, when Habiba changes the radio station, playing Belaian Jiwa, to a Mandarin-language one. Indeed, the sound design, by Ng Jing, captured mood shifts, built tension and reflected altered states adding depth to the performances. The action of the play is encased in vintage verita, clunky TV and computer, gaudy curtains and the same carpet on which young Eric (Timothy Wan) was abused. The set, designed by Wong Chee Wai, transmits that not much has changed about the house, or the dark secrets it holds.
We never actually meet Uncle Ismail. Instead of focusing on the abuser and the abused, Fundamentally Happy examines a more complicated and unstable relationship, that of the abused and the enabler. Eric and Habiba’s protean memories fill the vacuum. As they accuse, appeal, challenge and console each other, the audience recalibrates its own image of the abuser with each new piece of information: from Satan to good father, from child rapist to lover, from serial predator to weak penitent and back again. We never get the opportunity to form our own opinion of the paedophile because the actual person is immaterial. What matters is the different versions of him that Habiba and Eric conjure up, shaped by their relationships and sense of victimhood within the triangle of abuser, abused and enabler.
Although Ismail remains hidden, his presence permeates the play in other ways. It is the scent of Ismail’s shirt that breaks Eric: he inhales it deeply, like a lover, but it is also the catalyst that makes him report Ismail’s abuse to the police. Habiba at first refuses to believe Eric, but faced with his rage, she admits she knew. Director Chia sets a brisk pace to the scene, making Habiba’s turnaround so quick as to be unconvincing. Instead of confession and remorse, it is a strategy to placate Eric and salvage her family. She threatens to expose him to his mother and his fiancée and implies that he might be gay or even have the capacity to molest, himself. As Habiba astutely manipulates Eric’s enduring emotional connection to Ismail, the warm mother figure recedes to reveal a woman who is a victim of her husband’s predilections but also complicit in his crimes. “We had a secret,” she says, turning Eric, before our eyes, from steadfast accuser into once again, the vulnerable victim whose love and loyalty towards his abuser is still intact, 20 years later.
Lok’s Habiba maintained a controlled coolness that highlighted the more manipulative aspects of the character. Wan however, seemed overawed by the material, and never captured the emotional depth and range that the role of Eric required. At points, I found the restrained direction at odds with the intensity of the plot and the characters. In Act 2, when Eric and Habiab reach their emotional apex and slap each other, the scene was performed with such lack of commitment (that rehearsal slap!) as to elicit not a single gasp from the audience but a few incredulous laughs instead.
Fundamentally Happy is one of several issue plays written by Sharma. The work plunges into a minefield of the publicly unassailable view of childhood purity and the single tone villainous paedophile. Then it sets off a number of explosions that disorientate the audience, resetting the conventional moral compass of good vs. evil. We find ourselves somewhere south of judgement and north of empathy. Sharma does this by making the idea of family central to the play. Eric is consumed by a happiness headache when he first returns to what was ostensibly his childhood home. Habiba says that she wishes Eric was her own child, while Ismail gave him the affection that his own father withheld. When she says that Eric’s police report endangers her family, it’s a family that includes Eric, who loses the privilege of calling her Kak Biba. The play takes the normally feel good notion that we can construct alternative families through shared experiences and emotional connections to its darkest extreme.
In the final scene, Habiba removes her tudung and exposes her hair before she embraces Eric. It’s a profoundly moving gesture, for it brings a bodily intimacy that her religious belief disallows between males and females who are not family. He is indeed her ‘anak ku sayang’, no less loved for having been birth through shame, tainted love, dependency and painful memories.
‘Fundamentally Happy‘: An unflinching look at paedophilia by Kareyst Lin (Connected to India)
‘Review: Fundamentally Happy by Nine Years Theatre [Studios 2017]’ by Nigel Choo (bakchormeeboy)
‘Fundamentally Happy’ by Naeem Kapadia (Crystal Words)
‘Sound Fundamentals (Fundamentally Happy by Nine Years Theatre and Esplanade)’ by Eugene Koh (Write Wing Theatre)
Fundamentally Happy by Haresh Sharma, was a co-production by The Esplanade Studios 2017 and Nine Years Theatre. It was translated into Mandarin, and directed by Nelson Chia.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.