Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn / Photo: Crispian Chan
The Fourth Trimester Checkpoint Theatre 4 August 2022 Drama Centre Theatre 4–14 August 2022
Getting pregnant and giving birth may seem like the most natural thing to some of us. But to do so safely and ensuring the child thrives can be absolutely mind-boggling.
Faith Ng’s The Fourth Trimester features three couples and a single woman who span the spectrum of circumstances regarding pregnancy.
Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim) struggle to care for their newborn. In contrast, their neighbours, Sofia (Rusydina Afiqah) and Johan (Al-Matin Yatim) struggle to conceive. While Lisa (Julie Wee) and Daniel (Hang Qian Chou) seem to be doing fine with two children, their communication problems regarding intimacy issues strain the marriage. Having just come out of a relationship, Ann (Oon Shu An), who is Lisa’s sister, strives to be independent as she faces the attendant pressures of being a single woman in Singapore.
While medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds, pregnancy is still a very personal process with each body responding in different ways. As someone who has yet to witness the pregnancy of a partner, the choices that Samantha and Sofia have to consider are bewildering.
The acronyms and abbreviations of various readings or medical processes rattled off by the characters will give any rapper a run for his money. And the pump-and-rest routine, recommended by the lactation expert for Samantha, sounds like a manic choreography created by an evil robot.
Add the emotional burden of self-doubt; comparing oneself to others; and familial and societal expectations, it sounds nothing short of a messy ordeal.
Far from avoiding it, Ng takes a deep dive into the messiness of human relationships and writes them in very affecting ways.
From the audience members cooing in sympathy with the opening scene to the countless post-show Instagram stories yapping about how “relatable” the play is, it is clear that the audience is in for the ride at every second of the three-hour emotional odyssey.
However, all these knee-jerk reactions overlook something that director Claire Wong has done that is rarely achieved. She allows the scenes to breathe and run its emotional course. Many directors often cut their scenes short after a revelation or climax, almost apologetic about taking up the audience’s time.
This is complemented by the actors experiencing every crinkle of emotion. Witness Isabella Chiam as Samantha going from anxiousness to anguish, before picking herself up; or Julie Wee’s Lisa starting with annoyance, but ending with red-faced rage.
The other characters have similar moments as they cycle through the whole gamut of emotions, undergirded by an inability to articulate, or expecting the other to know and fulfil one’s physical and emotional needs. This makes the relationship familiar and infuriating, yet all too human.
That said, how everything settles into the ending is a little unsatisfactory. As we are taken to such emotional highs and lows, the way the show ends feels as if it is because the allotted time of three hours is up.
At the curtain call, director Claire Wong mentioned that the production took many trimesters for it to be put together. For a play that makes one feel so much and reflect on so many issues, it will be remembered for many more trimesters hence.
Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) Checkpoint Theatre Online, Sistic Live 29 September–15 October 2021
If one were asked, “What makes a family a family?” How many of us would be able to provide an insightful answer beyond displaying birth certificates and family trees?
In Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), playwright Adib Kosnan explores the dynamics of a Singaporean Malay family through the new addition of a son-in-law, Aqil. Likened to a new player joining a football team, he wades through the entanglements and expectations of his new family, as long-held resentments surface.
In his new team, Aqil (Adib Kosnan) has to contend with his father-in-law, Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah), who expects everyone to attend to familial obligations, sometimes at the expense of their desires. This leaves his sister-in-law, Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah), seething in resentment as she believes her father will never understand her.
Normah (Dalifah Shahril), his mother-in-law, may appear to be a typical housewife obsessed with K-dramas, her maternal instincts keep her own family drama from spiraling out of control. His wife, Balqis (Farah Lola), is trying to put off being independent from her family as Aqil is considering emigration.
While the conversation is seemingly quotidian and the show feels like a dish in a slow cooker, there are several plot lines that untangle quite quickly as we move along. Through Claire Wong’s sensitive direction and Adib’s knack for storytelling, we see tensions rising to the surface only to be dispelled or deferred just before it veers into melodrama.
With the bulk of cinematography, directed by Joel Lim, consisting of very tight close-ups, there is no space for the actors to hide except to inhabit their characters with complete sincerity. On that score, the actors really stepped up to the plate. I find myself being fully involved; ardently wishing for Karim and Rinny to meet each other halfway or giggling with the women as the daughters discuss their mother’s taste in men.
Speaking of cinematography, this production resists any neat categorisations such as theatre for film or a short film. Despite the tight shots, it does not try to convince you that it is filmed in an actual apartment and there are a couple of scenes in a car, depicted by the well-worn conventions of actors sitting close together with some cursory miming from Karim as he seems to drive on a very straight road.
The shot occasionally zooms out and we see an empty square which represents the grave of Diana, the child that the Karims lost. In a scene where we see Karim and Aqil performing a ritual while tending to the grave, the camera focuses on the hands and multiple shots are superimposed, forming a kind of palimpsest. Such gestural language is characteristic of Checkpoint Theatre’s productions.
Yet, this also points to unrealised possibilities—if the creative team does not want this to strictly be a short film, why not make better use of the Esplanade Theatre Studio and introduce more theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling?
Throughout the show, we gradually learn about the motivations of different characters as well as the backstory of some events, and all of them come to a head at a family dinner. As all of this has been on a slow simmer, it is slightly discordant that they are resolved so quickly by Alqis’s comments about the importance of family.
It is as if playwright Adib Kosnan is apologetic about taking too much of his audience’s time that he quickly deploys Alqis-Ex-Machina to take all the messy strands and tie them into a bow.
Despite that minor flaw, we are more than compensated by a stunning performance by Rafaat Hj Hamzah as he portrays Karim shrinking from an obstinate patriarch to a scared and broken man. His strident voice at the beginning of the dinner shrivels into a whimper as he reveals his fears.
Looking up from my screen as the credits roll, I cannot help but wonder which character I resemble most in my own family. Just as an ‘outsider’ casts a light on something that the Karims took for granted, this fictional family would do the same for many others who have the privilege of paying them a visit.
The Untitled Funeral Play by Luke Vijay Somasundram
This is a comedy of errors surrounding a family that consists of an Indian husband and a Chinese wife. Hilarity ensues when the undertaker is late and the husband’s uncle and the wife’s mother arrive unannounced to help with the funeral arrangement.
This play criticises bureaucracy and how inflexible it is. While one may see the influence drawn from Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, Somasundram certainly has his own voice that makes this play absolutely hilarious. I was literally laughing out loud, as I was reading his play in my room, to the point of squawking. Yes, squawking.
Aside from criticising bureaucracy, this play stands out by exploring a diverse range of issues such as interracial marriage, negotiation between the races, and what death means to the living. These themes are well placed in the play and it doesn’t feel like that playwright is anxious to discuss everything that interests him at one go.
Finally, as a testament to the skill of his writing, the play does not merely start from being somewhat funny before escalating the humour. Instead, it actually starts on a slightly tense and poignant note before transiting to the funny bits. The transition is not rushed and it feels like a natural progression.
This play is certainly refreshing as most plays that comment on social issues are often serious and morose. One hopes that the playwright continues honing his craft and puts his stamp of comedy on the Singapore stage.
For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng
For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng was nominated for best script at the Life! Theatre Awards and it’s not difficult to see why. This play depicts the long marriage between Gerald and Swen; warts and all. It is structured with alternating scenes between the couple as they are now and when they were young. Ng’s ability to portray the differences between a young, hopeful love as compared to one with years of emotional baggage shows Ng to be a sensitive and perceptive writer.
The choice to play with absences by making all the other characters invisible allows us to hone in on the marriage of Gerald and Swen. If you remove everyone and everything that one must deal with when one is married, what does marriage; this relationship between two people mean?
Perhaps the greatest merit of the play is that it does not offer any easy resolution. Yet, the readers are taken on a journey as we experience all the joys, pains, laughter, and sorrows that comes with life. We are made to dwell in a shared humanity.
The only bone to pick with this play is that the level of colloquialism in the dialogue seems to be overdone. Given that Gerald has a diploma and Swen studied at a very good school, they are generally better than average in terms of education for their generation. That said, I am open to the fact that it might not sound so jarring when spoken considering that the theatre reviews did not raise this issue.
Maggie And Milly And Molly And May by Leonard Augustine Choo
Three gay men in their 30s and one gay teenager, for their own individual reasons, decide to throw themselves off a cliff. Interestingly, all of them chose the same cliff as they each arrive at different times only to find that someone is already there. They bicker, taunt, challenge, and justify why they should commit suicide. In this morbid situation, they form an unlikely bond.
What makes this play a good read is the subtlety in exploring issues about homosexuality. Gay stereotypes and tropes are weapons used by the characters to annoy and confront each other which make for great comedy. Yet underneath the comic exterior, the conflicts among the characters disclose personal difficulties they face as gay men in society.
The choice for the slow reveal captured my attention as I was eager to find out what drove them to suicide. Choo certainly struck a right balance between entertainment and mystery which makes for an intriguing and thought-provoking piece.
While the gay men are not related by blood, the bond that they form is just like one regardless of whether they would like to admit it or not.
#UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An
I had immense pleasure reading #UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An because it brought back happy memories of watching the stage production earlier this year. It reminded me why I liked the play so much. To top it off, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my review of the production was quoted to promote the play! For those who are interested to read the whole review, I’ve placed the link in the description below.
#UnicornMoment is sort of a partial auto-biography of Oon, except that it is much more daunting for her. Rather than just recollecting various episodes of her life, she went back and asked the questions she has always carried with her. Based on a series of interviews with family, friends, and teachers, what emerged is an honest and witty script that captures the various facets of life. It is impossible not to identify with at least one of the scenes.
It is rare for one to say this but I am impressed by the stage directions of the last movement sequence. When I was watching the show a few months ago, I was wondering what would the stage directions say and guessed it would just say “final movement sequence.” But what was written in the script did capture the essence of what I saw.
I don’t see this play being restaged at all because it is inextricably tied to a point in Oon’s life. But it is worth publishing based on the writing and how it captures a deeply personal experience. After revisiting this play, the title of my theatre review still rings true: #UnicornMoment #Heartfelt #Compelling.
Family Outing by Joel Tan
Before reading this play, I thought Family Outing would probably be about everyone being too busy with life and they finally realise the importance of spending time with each other. After reading it, I can’t get over how clever the title actually is as you’ll soon find out.
Due to an absurd accident, Joseph is electrocuted while trying to fix the TV. One year later, Joseph’s boyfriend, Daniel—in accordance with Joseph’s wishes—appears at Joseph’s family dinner commemoration to tell them that their son is gay. This does not bode well for them, especially Joseph’s mother who is a staunch Christian. Family Outing thus explores what happens when a son posthumously comes out to his family. Get the cleverness of the title now?
One thing that stood out to me is how Joel Tan deals with memory by weaving the past and present into the same scene. While this is nothing new, I like how he uses the same device to show the family reminiscing or re-constructing the past. The revelation of Joseph’s sexuality then forces the family to deal with how to carry on their lives while holding the memory of Joseph dear to their hearts.
While it is possible to criticise the ending for being too easy and too neat, I think it captures the wonderful thing about familial bonds. It is this indescribable instinct we have of our family members, and they of us; a sort of inherent knowing. We love and hate this instinct at the same time, that’s what makes being part of a family so intriguing.
While the play explores the conflict between religion and sexuality among other issues, Family Outing is more about love than anything else.
Recalling Mother by Claire Wong & Noorlinah Mohamed
As the title suggests, Recalling Mother is a play in which Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed play as themselves and they recall what their mothers are like at various stages of their lives.
Parallels and contrasts are at the heart of this play. We are made aware of the different backgrounds and cultures of both women, yet certain struggles or concerns are very similar in any parent-child relationship.
One element that fleshes out these parallels and contrasts is language. From the get-go Cantonese and Malay are used whenever they converse with their mothers. In certain situations, the mother tongue represents a generational and language gap. In others, it is comforting as it allows both ladies to access their childhood memories. It is, at the same time, a tool of isolation and reconciliation.
This review would be incomplete without discussing the words in the script itself. The simple conversational style makes it very accessible. In fact, the shortest sentences tug at one’s heart strings the hardest. It is no wonder The Straits Times review of the stage production states that the play will “make you go home and hug your mother much harder.” I couldn’t agree more.
If I were to sum up my experience of reading this anthology in a sentence, it is this: reading these plays makes me regret not catching these productions when they were staged. So if you are free and have some cash to spare, go catch a local play. You never know, you might be the first to encounter a gem.
The Weight of Silk on Skin Checkpoint Theatre Drama Centre Theatre 3–7 August 2011
They say that you can never forget your one true love and no matter what you have achieved, nothing matters if she is not here. Sulaiman’s latest offering of “The Weight of Silk on Skin” for this year’s Man Singapore Theatre Festival certainly provides an intimate insight into the male psyche with regards to love, sex, career and the arduous journey called life.
John Au Yong is the envy of every man. Rich, stylish, educated and rakish. Having achieved everything that one could wish for, he revisits his life of blossoming romance, lost love, empty affairs and sexual intrigue. And through it all, he still can’t forget Anna, a girl whom he met in college and could never forget. After 25 years, both of them are single again. Will John be able to reclaim this lost love of his or will Anna be a fond but painful memory?
By all accounts, The Weight of Silk on Skin is a raw beauty. The relationship between playwright, actor, director and audience has never been so palpable in this one man show. Sulaiman’s witty and thought provoking script is like a prism. While the input may be the storyline of meditation and reclaiming lost love, it sheds light on so many aspects of not only a man’s life but even life as a Singaporean.
It is amazing how the script is able to capture snatches of life and even become a chronological indicator as there are references to the music of the time periods and the advent of technology when John mentions merely being friends on Facebook with his ex wife. The recurrent metaphor of clothes not only provided a sartorial education but it brings across the idea of the pretense we put on and strip away in different stages of our life.
Ivan Heng certainly did justice to the exciting script with his impeccable portrayal. His acting is nuanced and thoughtful. His account of his life transists from moment to moment with great ease while bringing about a different and renewed energy to each scene. Additionally, he was able to switch his vernacular and accent with ease when the lines shift from standard English to local expressions. His control over his voice, movement and stance is commendable as even when there was a major disturbance from the audience as the latecomers were entering the theatre, he never faltered and carried on with the show. This is certainly admirable as the chances of being thrown off is greatly multiplied when it is a one man show. Heng’s involvement in this production is a masterclass for all aspiring actors.
As the play closes and Heng cuts a Bond-esque look with him in a tuxedo, his final imploration of forgiveness is without a doubt, the most poignant moment of the show. The two words, “forgive me” set within a bare stage and raw lighting certainly emphasised of how John, while dressed to the nines, is stripped bare of all pretense and the only desire now is to atone for his mistakes and reclaim his one true love.
This show undoubtedly entertains but more importantly, it provokes some soul searching and perhaps a hard look at the lives of men; their impulses and desires. A great exposition of how men work.
This review was first published on the blog, Essential Culture. As it is now defunct, I have republished it here as a backdated post.