A Dull Itch
The difficulties of raising AIDS awareness are cruelly ironic. The alarming prevalence of HIV means that it is crucial constantly to dispel the myths and proselytise the truths about the virus - but unfortunately it is precisely the constant drumming-in that is the problem: the onslaught of strident and often repetitive campaigns means that people become desensitised to these messages.
So The Seven-Month Itch was certainly a clever concept - using forum theatre to give an edge to the old but vital message of HIV prevention. It comprised thirty minutes of scripted drama (which set the context and presented a provocative situation to the audience) and this was followed by a hotseating session (where the audience interrogated the characters) and finally by the audience suggesting alternatives to the characters' actions and playing the roles themselves.
But this interactive play fell severely short of its noble intentions. The playlet was a minefield of clichés. Jason (Timothy Nga) and Daniel (Danny Yeo) have been in a relationship for seven months; one day, Jason meets a stranger, Nick (also played by Yeo), at a club and has (surprise, surprise) unprotected sex with him. Although he regrets his actions, it is, alas, far too late. In the spirit of all things melodramatic, he may have been infected. To be fair, this scenario may be trite, but it is hardly contrived. The fact that it has become a cliché is nothing to be flippant about: its frequent occurrence reveals the disturbingly cavalier attitudes we have towards the risks of unprotected sex and HIV.
However, theatre is never meant to "tell", but to "show" or "suggest". Very broadly, good theatre should be probing, asking difficult questions about the human condition and unsettling the audience. The Seven-Month Itch chose to blandly regurgitate a situation that was all too familiar; worse still, it was marred by sloppy performances, ungainly language and, above all else, an overdose of didacticism.
And this is especially surprising, considering that playwright Haresh Sharma had just come from one of his finest, most layered examples of socially conscious theatre, Fundamentally Happy. The main problem, I think, is that The Seven-Month Itch was first and foremost an AIDS awareness campaign, and theatre was merely a vehicle for the HIV prevention message. Therein lies this production's crucial error - the point of the event was the message you took away from it rather than the characters or plot; the tragic consequences of AIDS were far more important than the tragedy itself. Thus the characters often devolved into loudhailers disseminating instructive messages against infidelity and unprotected sex, thinly and predictably veiled with anger, desperation or regret.
Later on in the hotseating segment, Sharma and director Alvin Tan acted as facilitators to encourage the audience to join in, and they called on Action for Aids (AfA) volunteers at opportune moments to surreptitiously slip in bite-sized bits of information about HIV and AIDS. Admittedly, some of it was interesting: for example, I gleaned that there is a thirteen-week incubation period before HIV can be detected, and using two condoms simultaneously is ineffective because friction would cause the condoms to rip. Nevertheless, these randomly scattered facts only affirmed my initial reaction to The Seven-Month Itch - I felt like a reluctant student waiting for the lunch bell to ring in AIDS awareness 101, instead of a theatregoer engaging with the cast and audience.
What also really irked me was the awkward language that issued inorganically out of the characters' mouths, and which inevitably drew uniformly poor performances from the cast. Again, this is surprising, given that Sharma has written some of the most emotionally evocative scripts in Singapore theatre. Nga was certainly pretty to look at, but his performance was flat as a worn-out cover of Men's Health. And who can blame him, when he is made to mouth tacky one-liners ("I love one-syllable names, there is something sexy about them") and reiterate the painfully obvious ("We had sex... unprotected sex")?
Danny Yeo was mediocre as Daniel, Jason's boyfriend, and corny as Nick, the lecherous clubber who eventually seduces Jason into having unprotected sex with him. The mediocrity of Yeo's portrayals was in no small part due to the unrealistic natures of his characters. As Daniel, his visceral reaction to Jason's indiscretions was petty and maudlin: he erased pictures of daniel and himself, along with all Daniel's SMSes, from his cell phone in an incredulous hissy fit. Nick, on the other hand, was a lesson in What You Should Never Do on a Date rather than a saucy, mysterious stud. With pick up lines like "I love your eyes" accompanied by supposedly flirtatious tugs of Jason's T-shirt, there were cringes aplenty.
Peter Sau was the best and worst actor of the night. He delivered the most engaging (even if slightly OTT) performance as Kim, Jason's clubbing sister. The twinkle in his eye sold him as the delightfully campy "safe slut" he was supposed to be. However, as Jason's best friend, he inexplicably transformed into a curiously angry and sententious Hock Seng. Besides being subjected to a perplexing plot twist (at the testing clinic with Jason, Hock Seng abruptly reveals that he has AIDS) what really butchered his performance was, again, unwieldy language. He seemed to have an angst-ridden explanation for everything ("It used to be the seven-year itch... now it's just seven months!"), and also delivered the most ignominious one-liner of the play, the classy "Ignorance is bliss!".
The dreadful acting and language was a real pity, given that Aidli "Alin" Mosbit's confident and textured direction provided a slew of opportunities for this play to sparkle. The tongue-in-cheek role reversals played on many levels of irony, while the transitions from clubbing scene to HIV testing clinic were seamless; but all this was ultimately lost on characters that had the personalities of cardboard cutouts.
Fortunately, the difficult adjustments and nifty improvisations the actors made in the forum segment of the play redeemed it to some extent. In forum theatre, it is difficult to expect the unexpected: the audience can throw curve balls at the actors that the latter can neither pre-empt nor prepare for. So even if some of the audience's questions and the actors' responses were befuddling, the cast managed to successfully cajole an initially (and understandably) tepid audience into interaction. Also, the efforts of facilitators Sharma and Tan were admirable. Even if the forum segment hobbled on for too long, they managed to sustain an even exchange of ideas and opinions on topics ranging from positive peer pressure to forging contracts of commitment in relationships.
The Seven-Month Itch, like any other HIV awareness event, did rekindle some sort of spark in HIV awareness. It attracted a sizeable audience on the second-last night when I saw it, and who is to say that it did not sufficiently pique the crowd to "think again", as the slogan for AfA's latest campaign goes?
Sadly, the positives end there. Where it could have been emotionally and intellectually probing, it was a tired tale that played to the least sophisticated of the groundlings. For example, Yeo's character, Nick, could have transcended his one-dimensional role as a plot function - it would have been disquieting to see how Nick's recklessness, and the vulnerabilities that surely lurk under his cocksure cover, unravel. I was left wanting something more unsettling, powerful and evocative - a dull, unsatisfied itch that this production could barely scratch.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /