[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] Two Songs and a Story – Taking Stock of Locks and Barriers

Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Two Songs and a Story
Checkpoint Theatre
Online, Sistic Live
6–31 August 2020

Apart from being a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a life audit. We are forced to reëvaluate all aspects of our lives and confront uncomfortable truths that we would rather conveniently forget.

For Checkpoint Theatre, they cancelled their first production of the 2020 season and turned The Heart Comes to Mind and A Grand Design into audio presentations. Two Songs and a Story marks the company’s first major production conceived to be presented online in adherence to the government’s guidelines.

As the title suggests, we get five writer-performers taking stock of certain aspects of their lives with a monologue largely bookended with two songs.

While the format may sound like an open mic gig on film, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim worked closely with the performers and the cinematography to ensure diverse and surprising modes of presentations.

ants chua performing “at least i have words now” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

In “at least i have words now”, ants chua explores the dynamics of friendships vis-à-vis romantic relationships and how the former is much more ambiguous with lack of rituals and clear markers of beginnings and endings.

It is a wise choice to anchor the monologue with a childhood story about making friends on the school bus as a reflection—and almost an allegory—of the friendships made and lost later in life. The situation is simple enough to understand, but there is a sense that one carries a certain naïveté into later life, which results in hurting others. This is in stark contrast to chua’s insightful analysis of the difference between romance and friendships—a realisation for which chua has the words to articulate now.

chua’s restrained performance allows the text to breathe and sink in as we inevitably reflect on our own friendships.

Inch Chua performing “Super Q” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

It is easy to think of Inch Chua as a singer, but if her consistent forays into theatre over the past few years is not enough to rid you of the idea that she is merely “dipping her toes” in the theatre industry, then “Super Q” should do the trick.

Chua plunges into the heart of the COVID-19 crisis by relaying her experiences as a volunteer in sanitising operations. The disjuncture between the comforts of her home and the seemingly draconian measures at the workers’ dormitories is disconcerting to say the least.

Chua’s experimentation with rhythm and poetry in her text enhances the emotions of frustration and confusion it evokes. This is complemented by the cuts and lighting design in the way the video was edited.

If the first piece is contemplative, Chua is on the other end as she bores into your heart with original songs written for the show. She cries: “All this must mean something more / when you have the privilege to be bored.”

Jo Tan performing “A Bit” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Ever since the success of Forked (2019), Jo Tan has been prolific in writing and performing monologues that feature quirky characters, but their experiences or desires reveal something insightful about the circumstances that we live in.

In “A Bit”, Tan plays Bit Wah. An unassuming office lady who gets through life merely doing what is expected of her. While her lack of ambition makes her existence seems mechanical, she finds solace in her favourite anime.

Tan’s comic timing makes this short piece a joy to watch, and the ending is oddly entertaining.

To a culture that glorifies productivity, watching anime may seem frivolous. But if all that hustling is akin to the conformity of the grey skyscrapers of Tokyo, perhaps Bit Wah has a point in wanting life to be a little bit more colourful.

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai performing “And Then I Am Light” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s “And Then I Am Light” is a refreshing change as the diagonal angle of the shot and the breezy delivery of her monologue feels like a casual interview as compared to the performative nature of the other pieces.

On the whole, it is heartfelt and life-affirming as she comes to terms with being able to accept herself and move on from her trauma of her childhood and past relationships.

However, with the breezy delivery and tight pacing of the editing, one does not feel the full gravity of her words. This results in the piece losing some of its bite as it sometimes feels like a behind-the-scenes interview for a sleek music video.

This is a pity as the potential of the monochromatic shot of her monologue transiting into full-blown colour when she sings in a beautiful blue costume with embroidery is lost. However, the option of turning on the captions and reading the text does compensate a little.

That said, this does not completely detract from the heart of the piece and Rebekah’s luscious vocals is always a treat.

weish performing “Be Here, With Me” / Photo: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Fresh from her collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre on Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner (2019), weish takes centre stage in “Be Here, With Me”. An evocative performance about her struggles with trying to get over a traumatic experience.

In her music practice, weish uses live loops of singing, vocal percussion, and instrumentation. While we see that here, it not merely a transposition of her forte into this piece. Instead, the live loops that are present in her songs and monologue become a soundscape of her mind.

This allows us to see how she tries to appear normal so not as to burden others, while desperately wanting affirmations from others, even though she knows that it does not assuage her insecurities, self-doubt, and blame.

Having the camera suddenly charge up to her face-on after her opening song is uncomfortably confrontational, but it creates a sense that she is speaking directly to us as a particular person rather than an audience in general.

This is an inspired move as we then get to see her slowly crumble as she tries to explain herself and her experience—a rather different side of her as compared to the one who is in absolute control of the sonic textures, rhythms, and tempo when she is singing.

Despite its seemingly simple premise, Two Songs and a Story proves that Checkpoint Theatre is equally adept at bringing their brand of producing local works for the digital medium.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Checkpoint Theatre’s Two Songs And A Story presents intimate, heartbreaking monologues” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life!  
♦ Article is behind a paywall. 

Resources

Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue