[Theatre Review] ‘The Karims’ Explores the Burdens and Warmth of Familial Ties

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

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.

Further Reading

Interview with Playwright Adib Kosnan about Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims by Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times Life!

[Theatre Review] Cerita Cinta — Cycles of Violence

Cerita Cinta
akulah BIMBO SAKTI
3 November 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
1–4 November 2018

Violence is a very delicate tool to employ in theatre. If one is not strategic and very intentional in its employment, there is a risk of harming the actors and audience. Its presence also demands so much attention, that it risks eclipsing any other issues explored in a show.

In Cerita Cinta (Love Story), which was first staged in 1995, playwright and director Noor Effendy Ibrahim does not merely get his actors to strike each other, but he deploys the full arsenal of violence; the trauma from a mere threat or anticipation of violence.

Throughout the show, we see cycles of Roslan Bin Hj Osman (Shaiful Amri Ahmad Elahi) coming home and hitting, threatening, or yelling at his wife, Maslina Bte Abdul Samad (Dalifah Shahril). The children, Juliana Bte Roslan (Shafiqhah Efandi) and Zaki Bin Roslan (Al Hafiz Sanusi) helplessly watch on, and the latter even manifests certain impediments due to trauma.

On the flip side, we also see Roslan taking care of his father, Hj Osman Bin Hj Hitam (Joe Jasmi), by visiting his grave and tending to it. This is embodied through Roslan carrying his father and putting him to bed. To add a further complexion, Roslan also treats his dog (Kaykay Nizam) with affection by feeding and rubbing its body—a definite religious and cultural taboo for modern Muslims.

Is Roslan a complex man who is capable of immense love and violence, or is he a monster for treating the dead and a dog better than his own family members?

This is ambiguous, and I found myself constantly changing camps throughout the show.

The real value of Effendy’s creation does not merely lie in bringing issues of domestic violence to light, but also to point out the various nuances of the matter. None of the characters are purely perpetrators or victims.

Maslina does not take her abuse lying down, but fights back in any way she can, even if it is something as feeble as only cooking leftovers for the family. It is also crucial that the only other person that she displays aggression to is her son, despite him being the most sympathetic towards her. 

Juliana may have kept her head down and focused on taking care of her brother throughout the whole ordeal, but she is quick to unleash a torrent of smacks on her boyfriend, Rizal Bin Hashim (also played by Kaykay Nizam), when the relationship sours.

Through these quick exchanges in a tightly-paced show, one gets the impression that domestic violence is borne out of intergenerational violence. One also wonders what sort of man Roslan’s father is that might have made Roslan that way.

Furthermore, the violence enacted can be, in a certain sense, reciprocal. This seems to echo family care activist Erin Pizzey’s view that domestic violence is perpetuated through cycles of violence. And while some of the most violent acts are done by men, women are not entirely blameless.

Effendy’s grip on the play also extends to his set design, which looks like a chicken coop being rendered as a HDB flat. With the audience surrounding the set on all sides, we are forced to be voyeurs as we look into this chaotic household. Despite the porousness of the set, the inhabitants cannot seem to leave the coop, nor could they see a way out of their situation.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and is unafraid to be vulnerable, yet intense when it comes to the movement sequences and violence. Top that off with the conscious choice of taking away proper chairs and making the audience sit on hard surfaces, we have a play that is also cruel to the audience.

While it is not healthy to indulge in the world of the play for too long, one cannot help but be compelled to watch the show multiple times while sitting at different sides of the room each time, just to see how different the show feels from different vantage points.

It is rare for a play to hurt, provoke, and confront its audience at the same time, while making this reviewer wanting to revisit the show. But given that the company’s aesthetics are inspired by sadomasochism among other things, only akulah BIMBO SAKTI can achieve that in a play.  

Other Reviews

“Family stuck in violence” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“A History of Violence: The Sharp Edges of ‘Cerita Cinta'” by Nabilah Said, ArtsEquator

“Review: Cerita Cinta by akulah bimbo SAKTI” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Saya Tak Sihat!” by Dumbriyani