The title Homesick refers to different things: a longing for home, and literally, being sick at home as the play is set in the SARS crisis of 2003. This suggests an exploration of the tension between two opposing impulses: longing for home, and being sick in/of it. Playwright Alfian Sa'at explores this and more. He proceeds to unpack this central dilemma with nine characters (including the absent paterfamilias) over ten days, the period of home quarantine imposed upon the Koh family.
The plot, briefly: the somewhat estranged Koh family gathers in Singapore from all corners of the world when the patriarch falls ill. When he is diagnosed as a suspected SARS case, the entire family is slapped with a home quarantine order. They are joined unexpectedly by a young woman whose appearance injects more secrets and lies into the already volatile mix. Over the course of the play, we get to learn about each character's history as secrets are unearthed and lies exposed.
This is an ambitious undertaking in both the scope of the story and the breadth of the issues covered. Homesick is really two plays, a family (melo)drama and a play of ideas about identity and belonging. It is to Alfian's credit that it feels like a largely coherent and convincing whole. One wishes, however, that there was more space for some of the ideas and themes to breathe, such as the prickly issue of racial prejudices which the mixed marriage between Marianne (sibling number two of five) and Manoj had stirred up.
The exploration of family dynamics and sibling rivalry was adroitly handled and had the ring of emotional truth. When Ma pulls out a secret photo album, Arthur realises that he was never the neglected middle child he had believed himself to be. Such moments of familial interaction and poignancy served to ground even the most potentially shrill and one-note characters, keeping them human and believable.
Kudos as well to director Jonathan Lim for his deft and unobtrusive direction. Given that the play clocked in at two and a half hours, pacing was of the utmost importance. Lim and the untiring ensemble cast kept the momentum going through each and every day of the ten-day quarantine. While all the actors pulled off the neat trick of standing out as individual characters and also coming together as a family/cast, Remesh Panicker's low-key affability and Neo Swee Lin's sweet matriarch with a spine of steel were particularly effective. There were also moments of visual wit, as when the entire family is wearing surgical masks at the dining table, with Ma urging the unmasked Cindy (the young woman who had arrived unexpectedly) to eat.
Interestingly enough, the most disturbing point in the play came from offstage - from the audience's reaction. When Daphne voices her frustration, saying that she does not want to live out one man's dream since doing so leaves no room for her own, and then proceeds to identify this man as Lee Kuan Yew, there was a collective intake of the audience's breath. It was as if the spectre of the bogeyman had been raised. How and when did our founding father turn into he-who-must-not-be-named, or more specifically, he-on-whom-aspersion-shall-not-be-cast? As a pointed comment on freedom of expression and OB markers (real or imagined), this was a moment that spoke volumes.
This scene attracted the most attention during the feedback session after the play, with attendant questions about censorship. While the MDA's approval of the play suggests a loosening up over freedom of expression in theatre, what was even more heartening was Alfian's response that he was not practising self-censorship. If anything, the reverse was true and he was pushing the envelope instead. Alfian added cheekily that the censoring should be left to the authorities; after all, they are the ones who get paid for it.
Alfian also claimed during the session that he was not into grandstanding and that he was more concerned with the integrity and credibility of the characters. Still, one cannot deny the baiting power of statements such as "Singapore is not a country" or that Singaporeans do not exist. This was soapbox rhetoric that was meant to provoke a reaction. But he was also scrupulous enough to provide multiple viewpoints on any one issue which he handled with aplomb by juggling the interactions of the various characters.
This was aided by the set design, which was essentially the interior of the Koh family house. The living room, kitchen and dining area, and bedrooms served to physically segregate the characters so that crucial exchanges could take place between two or three characters while major confrontations involving the entire cast played out downstage. For example, youngest son Patrick's struggle with his looming National Service commitment is examined from different angles, and in different spaces, in his separate interactions with his brother-in-law Manoj and newcomer Cindy.
Over the course of the play, the characters wrestle with so many fundamental questions: "Who am I?" "If my mother is Peranakan and my father speaks Hokkien, how does speaking Mandarin connect me to my roots?" "Where is home?" "What are my familial obligations?" "Should I stay or should I go?" Not every question is resolved, but the asking and debating is important. If we cannot define ourselves by answers, asking questions is at least a start.
As I think about the play, more questions loom. What does it say that the character who most strongly embraces Singapore and sees it as the land of opportunity is not from Singapore? What about those for whom staying or leaving is not a choice? How much say do we have in the construction of a national identity?
This was a most auspicious beginning to the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival. It bodes well for the rest of the festival, for the continued existence of the festival, and, most importantly, for theatre to play a vibrant and pertinent role in Singapore.
Boon was in the civil service for over six years and is currently
looking for another job. Even though waaay early retirement would be
nice, it does have the single, major drawback of not providing an income.
Apart from watching and criticising productions, his actual stage experience
dates back to secondary school.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /