By Matthew Lyon
(480 words, 6-minute read)
The Necessary Stage’s Best Of (His Story) is a response to the company’s 2013 monologue, Best Of that detailed a day in the life of a young Malay-Muslim woman.
The project of the original piece was to endow a racial stereotype with such verisimilitude that when she fails her PSLE, when she visits her cousin in prison, when she files for divorce, the audience sees a person, not a people; a sister, not a statistic. Siti Khalijah Zainal so convincingly embodied Haresh Sharma’s writing that had I not known she was an actor, I would have thought she was telling us about her own life. The piece made me re-ask myself questions I thought I had already answered: questions about the portrayal of minorities and who has the right to speak for whom.
Best Of (His Story) tells the story of the divorce from Siti’s now-ex-husband’s perspective. But that is what this new instalment is: a story. In contrast, Siti’s version was the seemingly unadorned truth.
In Best Of, all signifiers that This Was Art had been removed: Siti spoke to us from a single chair under static lighting. In Best Of (His Story), Vincent Lim’s set is admittedly minimalist, Gabriel Chan’s lighting is a sedate sequence of crossfades, and Alvin Tan’s blocking of actor Sani Hussin falls well within the ambit of everyday movement … . Nonetheless, the design and direction feel curated by comparison to the 2013 production.
Sani’s performance is in the same vein. He is moderately engaging and is equal to the role’s requirements, but – apart from a scene where he re-enacts a Muslim prayer and his muscle memory takes over – he is obviously acting, not being. It doesn’t help that he keeps stumbling over his lines, which draws attention to the hopscotch rhythms and constructed camaraderie of Sharma’s writing.
Let me be clear: nothing is bad here. Everything is professionally executed, and the piece asks interestingly phrased questions about gender relations and the crisis of modern masculinity. And that’s despite the fact that the answer to those questions is clearly, “Women are your equals, men, so grow up and deal!”
I daresay if I believed in the socio-psychological truth of the character Best Of (His Story) depicts, I’d have more sympathy for his beta-male plight. But this is a parable pretending to be a case study. Its creators have perused the relevant data, sure, but their conclusions are too convenient to take seriously.
If newcomers or journeymen had produced this work, I’d no doubt be praising it as a strong piece of craft. But Sharma and Tan are past masters at working with form, and when I consider the confronting cubism of Gemuk Girls (2008), the shifting symbolism of Model Citizens (2010) and the double-take photorealism of Best Of I can’t help but feel disappointed at this slice of fake-vanilla naturalism, this uncanny valley that is theatre’s most bourgeois, most default position.
The Necessary Stage’s Best Of (His Story) by Haresh Sharma was directed by Alvin Tan and featured Sani Hussin. It was staged at the Necessary Stage’s Black Box from 2 – 13 Nov 2016.
Guest Contributor: ArtsEquator Contributing Editor Matt Lyon has taught theatre at the School of the Arts Singapore since 2012. For 15 years, Matthew was editor of and a writer for the now-defunct review site The Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance, and he has conducted workshops on theatre criticism for several local institutions. This review was developed as part of an Art Writing Workshop by The Guardian’s Theatre Critic, Lyn Gardner, organised by the NAC Singapore.
Selected Previews and Reviews of Best Of (His Story)
“Necessary Nuance: Best of (His Story)” by Kathy Rowland (ArtsEquator)
“The Necessary Stage: Exploring The Other Perspective On ‘Best of’“ by Teo Dawn (popspoken)
“The Necessary Stage takes on Gender Issues in the Malay-Muslim Community” by Reena Devi (Today Online)
“A Divorcee Tells His Story” by Helmi Yusof (Business Times)
“Hard to Appreciate Divorcee’s Inner Turmoil” by Akshita Nanda (Straits Times)
“See Divorce from a Man’s View” by Akshita Nanda (Straits Times)
“Theatre Review: Best of (His Story)” (Buro247)