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Production

Fundamentally Happy

Company

The Necessary Stage

Reviewer

Amos Toh

Date

23/09/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Necessary Stage Black Box

Rating

****

Fundamentally Shattering

Confronted with the subject of paedophilia, we typically have two responses: either we shrug it off because it doesn't seem to affect us or we condemn it utterly, because it is so terribly wrong. Fundamentally Happy articulates the emotional and social complexities of paedophilia magnificently, examining the apathetic response while hammering every button on the emotional console (tension, anger, hate, love, denial, pain) and exploring the condemnatory response without arousing knee-jerk reactions of disgust or condemnation in its audience.

Fundamentally Happy is also an epic yet fiercely intimate tragedy of love and loss; it is about emotion and conflict as much as it is emotional and conflicting. Approaching paedophilia with a calm, fierce authority, Haresh Sharma channels a comprehensive vision through a single person's story, recreating a specific and finite set of events that transforms Fundamentally Happy into a spectacle adequate to its incendiary subject matter.

Eric (Chua Enlai), a thirty-year old social worker, returns to his childhood neighbourhood and looks for the home of his old neighbours. He finds that the couple, Uncle Ismail (who never appears) and Habiba (Aidli "Alin" Mosbit) are still living there, older and with children. Habiba ushers Eric - and the deep, dark secret he brings with him - into their house with enthusiasm. As Habiba and Eric fondly recall "the old days", Eric shockingly reveals that Uncle Ismail is a paedophile who abused him as a child - and with this information, he throws all their lives into a series of emotional hairpin turns.

In something as seemingly unambiguous as paedophilia, we instinctively delineate the roles of victim (child and family) and aggressor (paedophile). Refuting this deceptive illogic, Sharma evinces the many faces of victimisation through brilliant sleight of hand. Eric's strained reiteration "I am blessed... and I do... I truly feel blessed" in his early effusive banter with Habiba is already an ironic indication of his vulnerability, while Habiba, in her startling insinuation that Eric seduced her husband, cloaks her denial and desperation under the easy cover of aggression.

Perhaps, as Fundamentally Happy indicates, the real aggressors are the strange paradoxes of human emotion. We not only feel the full effect of Eric's violation but are also privy to his complicated emotional response to Uncle Ismail: he is at once the predator of Eric's innocence, the father he never had and the great love of his life. Like Habiba, we helplessly grovel in denial, dismay and desperation as we struggle with the realisation that this perverse connection between Eric and Uncle Ismail is also genuine.

To say that Fundamentally Happy is about child abuse is accurate, but incomplete. Sharma lifts what could have otherwise been a conventional narrative of trauma and the faint hope of recovery into a vivid play about the strangeness and awfulness of life. He demonstrates that being a victim of a condemned passion is like being a traveller in a foreign country who cannot speak its language. I shall long remember the pain and bewilderment as Eric tries to claim his love and yearning for Uncle Ismail, straining to express the tragically inexpressible.

In light of this, it is only natural that a torn-up Habiba says, "He [Uncle Ismail] is Satan. But he is a also good man.", articulating one of the most poignant paradoxes of the play in the simplest and most searing way possible. Sharma and director Alvin Tan temper the inevitable grimness of the first two scenes with remarkable tenderness and beauty in the last: when Habiba takes off her tudung in the final scene, claiming Eric to be her anak ku sayang (beloved child), it is one of the most transcendental moments I have seen in theatre.

Admittedly, Sharma raises some big questions he cannot answer within the compass of an eighty-five minute play. Habiba's defiant retort that they found "girl" instead of "boy" porn on Uncle Ismail's computer could have been a potentially compelling study of ethical relativism - is having such perverse sexual relations with females (considered) more acceptable than with males? This was one of several interesting ideas raised but not satisfactorily pursued.

But what Sharma communicates powerfully is the mood of acute desolation that permeates Chua's and Alin's portrayals of Eric and Habiba. Chua superbly conveys Eric's frenetic isolation as his bottled-up secret of juvenile sexual abuse threatens to explode and his reminiscences take increasingly dangerous turns. He is a man in a nightmare, his face contorting with terror as a hunted look clouds his eyes. An oblivious Habiba, however, keeps up a stream of merry chatter, making Eric's rapid self-destruction even starker. When Eric presses his face into Uncle Ismail's freshly laundered shirts before the first scene fades out, it is only apt that the stunned expression on Habiba's face is paired with an anguished silence, articulating the cruelly ironic contrast between the tenderness with which Eric's secret is communicated, and its violent, perverse nature.

Lesser actors - and a less confident playwright and director - would have made Eric and Habiba case studies from a psychology textbook, but the power of their characters comes not from their status as victims, but from the precise nature of their victimisation and their responses to it. Chua and Aidli burrow deep into their characters, turning in tough, lyrical performances that stay with you. Under Tan's polished direction, even their seemingly minor vocal inflections and physical movements reveal their characters' depths: Eric's sentences trail off when he confronts his father's death, leaving pauses pregnant with the tension of things left unsaid; while in the following scene, Habiba nervously paces around the sofa, stalked by Eric's fierce accusations.

But that is not to say that there were no flaws in the virtuosic stagecraft of Sharma and Tan. The ambiguous, almost careless leaps in time and circumstance from one scene to another made for incoherent transitions, which were understandably met with puzzled looks from the audience. Nevertheless, this did little to mar what was one of the best plays I have watched this year. It is a heartbreaking and utterly convincing work of art, handled with clarity, simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.


"Sharma lifts what could have otherwise been a conventional narrative of trauma and the faint hope of recovery into a vivid play about the strangeness and awfulness of life"

Credits

Playwright: Haresh Sharma

Director: Alvin Tan

Set Designer: Vincent Lim

Lighting Designer: Mac Chan

Cast: Chua Enlai and Aidli "Alin" Mosbit

Production Manager: Isis Koh

Stage Manager: Joanna Goh

Sound Operator: Kevin Kwang

Lighting Operator: Jason Ng

Costume Co-ordinator: Molizah Mohd Mohter

Sets and Props Assistant: Jed Lim

Crew: Esther Teo, Resendos Yew

More Reviews of Productions by The Necessary Stage

More Reviews by Amos Toh

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.