[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!

Teater Ekamatra presents Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu

In the second instalment of Baca Skrip, a monthly series of online readings of Singaporean Malay plays, Fezhah Maznan and Teater Ekamatra presents Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Anak Melayu

I interviewed some of the actors involved in this read (Izzul Irfan, Rusydina Afiqah, Farah Lola, and Ali Mazrin) to find out about their experiences with performing via a digital medium. 

Could you give us some insights as to what the rehearsal process was like?

Izzul Irfan: The rehearsal process has been very interesting for me as an actor because I sort of have to come up with a new vocabulary as a performer. You are playing the dual roles of both performer and technical team in a sense, because if you freeze or get cut off or your connection’s down, it’s on you to bring yourself back online and working well. So, there’s that headspace that I have had to get used to. Other than that, I think learning to connect over Zoom has been interesting—I have always seen this mode as purely a communication platform and not so much a ‘connecting’ platform. But the process has really been about re-learning how to reach out to the audience (when you can’t see them) and it’s been challenging but rewarding.

Rusydina Afiqah: To start off, there was a read to understand the flow of the story and the characters. Then we went straight in to cover the play bit by bit, a little more in depth each time. Questions were raised as we understood this world a little better.

Farah Lola: All of the rehearsals were held over Zoom calls. Other than it being tricky tehnically, the reading and blocking was easy enough to do.

Ali Mazrin: Basically, we have been going through rehearsals online via Zoom. Which includes all the cast, director and also the crew. Having to pick a spot in my own house and making sure everyone at home do not interrupt the rehearsals is quite hard but fun at the same time.

What were some challenges you face, especially when you are not in the same room with the rest of the cast and crew?

Izzul Irfan: Honestly, it drives me crazy that I cannot ‘feel’ everyone’s energy properly because we are not physically present together (which is something I really miss). So I think doing an ensemble piece where there is contant ping-ponging of energy on a virtual space has been difficult. With Anak Melayu, getting the tempo right is important and we’re really working hard towards that.

Rusydina Afiqah: For me, understanding the story took a while longer. There were a lot more things to juggle than just imagining the world. There were five more tiny screens during rehearsals that I had to be aware of, all at the same time.

Farah Lola: Perhaps physical and eye contact. Our eyelines were a little different because we were looking at different points of the screen, and you really needed to refine vocal inflections to know who the character is addressing but we’ve managed to work it out. We also had to bounce off energy more vocally as there was no physical space with other actors to feel out.

Ali Mazrin: Because it is an online rehearsal, we face quite a number of technical challenges such as the connection of the internet and also capturing of the cast’s voice. Being in a different space then the rest of the cast makes it more challenging in having the same energy as everyone during rehearsal.

Has this process made you look at the piece that you are involved in a new way? How so?

Izzul Irfan: Effendy’s plays are always very physical, and as he told us about the past iterations of Anak Melayu, you can clearly see there is a physical vocabulary that he builds and it’s beautiful. He always says he’s not much of a ‘text’ person. But as I was working on this play on a virtual platform, his words really come to life – all the subtexts in all its glory, and three-word lines from one character hold entire worlds in them. While it has been close to 20 years since he created them, his characters are still very much alive and kicking.

Farah Lola: It is my first time familiarising myself with this piece, and my first time doing a play on camera in my own home! I think everything has been whittled down to the subtleties due to it being closer to the audience, therefore it would feel more intimate.

Ali Mazrin: It’s amazing how we still manage to do rehearsals and shows live, online. But I definitely still wish that this was a staged show where everyone is together, so as to also feel the audience’s energy when we are performing.


Baca Skrip: #AnakMelayu will be presented via Zoom on 26 June 2020 at 8 p.m. Tickets at $10 from Peatix.