[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!

Flawed Review Yields Unexpected Insights

I am pleasantly surprised that my review of Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabharata, is cited in an essay contained in The Methuen Drama Handbook of Interculturalism and Performance (2020).

Initially, I was slightly confused as to why my review was cited, especially when I was a novice back then, and have provided links to reviews written by reviewers from mainstream publications. While I did not have access to the full essay, I was amused to find out that Dr Tan is a Singaporean theatre academic, and his concerns in the essay is about sound design. That is certainly not my forte and my review did not cover sound design at all.

Upon closer reading of the excerpt and my review, I realised that my review detailed four reactions by different audience members, and it served as an indication of the audience members’ reactions to the performance. Hence, it allowed Dr Tan to cite that as anecdotal evidence that the audience was “uninspired and bored”.

At the time of writing, I knew that the review would ruffle many feathers had it gained a wider readership. It was a special review to me because I uncharacteristically privileged reportage over anything else.

Personally, I am not in favour of providing too much reportage. It spoils the show for those who are about to watch it, and it takes the space away from wider analysis, which differentiates one critic from another. Reportage should be in the form of examples to substantiate a wider point.

In that review, I made such a deliberate but uncharacteristic choice in response to the widespread adoration of the show, which seemed to be earned due to Brook’s reputation rather than the direction or performance itself.

I wanted to show that the drama in the stalls is much more interesting that what was happening on stage. And I have used this technique several times since.

That said, if I were to receive that review now, I would still stand by the writer’s decision, but advise him to add a little more context and details of the show.

At that time, I was quite a stickler for keeping to the word count as I believed that most people would not read beyond 500 words. While I am still of that opinion to a large extent, a clear and exciting review would put the readers in a forgiving mood.

[Theatre Review] Late Company — Awkward Company

Late Company
Pangdemonium!
22 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
22 February‒10 March 2019

“It takes a village…” It is rare for a play’s bigoted character to utter something which sends the whole audience recoiling in horror, while bearing a kernel of truth.

For Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company, it is Bill, whose son, Curtis, was one of many who bullied Joel online because of his sexuality. This results in Joel’s suicide.

Bill (Adrian Pang) may have uttered those words to selfishly protect his son (Xander Pang) from the perceived siege by Joel’s parents, Debora (Janice Koh) and Michael (Edward Choy).

But if we could put aside our knee-jerk reactions of yelling “victim-blaming” or “toxic masculinity”, as if they were incantations to cast out the demon of bigotry, is it just a simple equation of Curtis’s cyber-bullying leading to Joel’s suicide?

Set over the course of dinner hosted by Debora and Michael in the hopes of seeking closure with Bill, his wife Tamara (Karen Tan), and Curtis, Late Company brilliantly fleshes out an awkward encounter that is true-to-life, while raising pertinent questions, some of which are barely heard in discourses about cyber-bullying and suicides of LGBT teens.

Closure is never to be found with Debora wanting a sense of sincere remorse from Curtis (what that is, no one knows), while Tamara wanting everyone to get along. The chaotic mix is finished off with the two fathers, who do not believe in the purpose of the dinner to start with, crossing swords. Bill insinuates that Edward, who is a politician, is an absent father and is currently exploiting his son’s death for political gain. Edward parries by accusing Bill of callousness and selfishness.

Despite the ostensibly confrontational nature of this palaver, issues are skirted around, and the adults are none the wiser by the end of it all. It is through this awkward mess of human frailties and contradictions that director Tracie Pang manages to coax a fine piece of naturalistic acting from the cast.

Janice Koh as the sculptor and bereaved Debora sensitively navigates the currents of contradictory emotions that hits her as the evening unfolded. Edward Choy’s portrayal of the reticent Michael is an anchor to Debora’s unravelling. Adrian Pang occasionally hems it up as Bill and belligerently exploits Debora’s and Michael’s oversight as to what Joel was doing online in order to protect his son.  Karen Tan excels as the well-meaning, but unsophisticated Tamara who naïvely thinks all will be well as long as everyone tries to get along.

That said, I am not so sure about Xander Pang’s Curtis. Even though Curtis has very few lines, Pang still has room for interpretation. Is Curtis just keeping his head down till the storm blows over? Is he annoyed by his parents? Is he hiding behind his father? Does he want to reach out to Joel’s parents, but not quite sure how? Pang’s approach is unclear here. What my colleagues see as “sullen”, I see as inactivity safe for the scene in which he reveals his nightmare.

Yet, even though Curtis has few words, his apparent justification of his annoyance with Joel, the latter goes around greeting everyone, “Hey faggot!”, should be a pause for thought.

While this annoyance is never a justification for bullying, where is the line between being confident in one’s sexuality, and being excessively provocative? If Joel is merely acting out due to a sense of repression, how best should his parents help him? Is Joel never at fault in all instances simply because he has died and is part of a minority?

What about Curtis? Where does his fault end? What is an adequate punishment for him? Is he acting out, however misguided it may be, in some way?

How then should we stop cyber-bullying? How should we go about “educating” people not to bully others? Is that even effective?

All of these complex questions relate to the line I quoted to start the review. The chief merit of Tannahill’s play is to warn us not to be Tamaras, but to try and tackle these questions with honesty and in their full complexity.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: A deep look at bullying and suicide” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (*Only for subscribers to the newspaper)

Late Company: Nothing’s Normal (About Suicide)” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

Late Company by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalworlds

Late Company is just in time” by Lee Shu Yu, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Late Company by Pangdemonium” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

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Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

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