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Production

Off Centre

Company

The Necessary Stage

Reviewer

Amos Toh

Date

11/05/2007

Time

8.00pm

Place

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Rating

***1/2

Almost Hits The Mark

In her review of the latest revival of Off Centre, Life! reviewer Adeline Chia astutely notes the irony of this play's success. She points out that the play's relevance hinges on whether the social stigmas and prejudices towards mental illness that the play so unflinchingly exposed fifteen years ago still exist in society today. So it is stark that, despite subtle shifts in our attitudes towards mental illness, Off Centre still strikes a resonant chord.

Off Centre traces the dysfunctional, yet fiercely intimate bond two young schizophrenics, Vinod (Melvinder Kanth) and Saloma (Mislina Mustaffa), share. It is particularly striking that the protagonists are never patronised as freaks but are immediately identifiable as variations of ourselves, should we ever go over the edge of what is called sanity.

Sharma meticulously presents a stylised portrait of a time (the early 90s) and place (the hothouse world of upper-middle-class Singapore) where the era's combustible social stresses drive sensitive students like Vinod into states of flailing desperation. With his tense voice and big round eyes popping with heated questions, Kanth's Vinod radiates the high-strung energy of a brainy young man who, despite his good looks, doesn't appear entirely comfortable inside his own skin. Watching Vinod on stage, you sometimes have the uneasy feeling that the wrong remark could trigger a tantrum that would send furniture flying in all directions.

Vinod forms an unlikely friendship with Saloma, a mental patient from a traditional Malay background who (as the former is shocked to learn) has only "VITB qualifications". At first, Sharma sets her up to be the weaker link of the two. At the beginning of the play, it is Vinod who constantly cajoles and comforts her, helping her overcome her hypersensitivity and fear of public spaces. However, by the end, it is almost as if they have switched bodies: Vinod is a bumbling, jittery mess who descends into reclusion, while Saloma is his steady mentor who has absorbed his will to prove to society that she is "normal".

One character's slow, but gradual path towards recovery is set against another's downward spiral into madness. The crucial difference between Saloma and Vinod is that while one acknowledges her illness, the other categorically denies it. Even at the beginning there are ominous hints of Vinod's impending downfall. Alvin Tan slips in certain scenes where Vinod, struggling to sleep, forces himself to throw away his medication. In contrast, Saloma rebuffs her mother's attempts to deny her illness and confiscate her pills, staunchly persisting that "Doctor say Saloma got chemical imbalance".

The starkly different fates of both reflect on the immense pressure to conform to social expectations of what is "normal" and "right". While some like Saloma possess enough fortitude to battle not only their inner demons but the stresses that society exert, others like Vinod are not so fortunate and crumble under such pressure. Off Centre is not so much an attempt to establish that mental patients are "normal like us", but a criticism of our inability to accept difference, an inability that is both stifling and destructive.

In this taut, compelling drama, the protagonists first address the audience with manic earnestness. At the beginning, Vinod laughs at how "I said "hi" to eighty seven people and only twelve said hi back to me". Towards the end of the play, however, such good-natured teasing escalates into explosive rants accusing the audience of "conveniently (putting) a label on us". The audience's circumscribed role limits our response to their barrage of questions. We keep awkwardly silent throughout and only dare to shout out non-committal answers occasionally. Much like Brecht's breaking of the fourth wall, Sharma's unnatural staging vanquishes the fine line between stage and audience. The sharp contrast between the characters' desperation and the audience's indifference is an ingenuous representation of the gulf social conventions have created between the mentally ill and the supposedly "normal" majority.

However, the producers' staunch refusal to update the script takes its toll on this revival. Certain scenes that may have been relevant fifteen years ago now only seem to be stripped-down caricatures that fail to identify with the subliminal shifts in society's outlook on mental illness. A perfect example is the scene illustrating Vinod's re-assimilation into Basic Military Training (BMT) after his stint at the mental hospital. While it might have deeply affected the audience when Off Centre was first staged, it has now devolved into unnecessary melodrama. Vinod's platoon commander hurls abuse and taunts him in a brash, affected manner that jars against present realities of how the army copes with such "misfits". The army might still misunderstand the mentally unstable, or think that their illness is just an act but it now displays much more restraint in the form of token goodwill, treating the mentally ill with wariness or at worst, subtle condescension. The disappointment is no longer overt, but underlying; harder to detect but present nonethless. In preserving most of the original script, this revival fails to capture this.

Off Centre relies on its lead actors Kanth and Mustaffa to convey the bulk of the play's heavily textured dialogue. They are competent, but not spectacular. Kanth and Mustaffa, who double as protagonists and narrators, struggle to switch from one role to the other. Flubbing more than a few lines, their rushed, clumsy narration sometimes diffuses the intensity and focus of the play.

It is a sterling supporting cast that lifts this production by turning in powerful performances which act as excellent foils to Kanth's and Mustaffa's characters. Particularly commendable is Josephine Tan's ferocious, white-hot performance as Emily Gan, reminiscent of Angelina Jolie's Oscar-winning turn as charismatic sociopath Lisa in the critically acclaimed 1999 hit Girl, Interrupted.

What is remarkable about Off Centre is its ability to not only connect, but move the audience through something as alienating as mental illness. Like many of Sharma's productions, this is in no small part due to his golden ear for the cadence of everyday speech, which appeals to our Singaporean sensibilites in a deeply intimate and hence unsettling way. While Off Centre might falter in parts, the clarity and force of the rational and emotional experiences it elicits are considerable, and make for an engrossing work.


"While Off Centre might falter in parts, the clarity and force of the rational and emotional experiences it elicits are considerable, and make for an engrossing work."

Credits

Director: Alvin Tan

Playwright: Haresh Sharma

Set Designer: Vincent Lim

Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen

Production Stage Manager: Elnie Shumastri Mashari

Asst. Stage Manager/Costume Co-ordinator: Molizah Mohd Mohter

Sound Operator: Caleb Lee

Crew: Mario Sismondo, Izzat Shine

Cast: Melvinder Kanth, Mislina Mustaffa, Aidli "Alin" Mosbit, Mohammed Saffri bin Abul Manaf, Andrew Lua, Joanne Ng, Josephine Tan, Najib Soiman (bijaN), Rajesh Krishnamuti, Tan Shou Chen

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Amos Toh

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