Off Centre

by Haresh Sharma
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's impossible not to be astounded by the timelessness and thrust of Haresh Sharma's Off Centre. This searing production, directed by Oliver Chong as part of The Studiosfifty season, reminds us why this play ranks amongst the very best of Singaporean theatre. There is a freshness to Sharma's writing about mental illness that renders it just as compelling today as it was when it premiered some 22 years ago.

Off Centre charts the unlikely friendship between two individuals - confident, loquacious ex-school debater Vinod (Ebi Shankara) and timid ITE graduate Saloma (Siti Khalijah Zainal) - who are diagnosed with manic-depression and schizophrenia respectively. The pair meet at a social event and over the course of a year, grow into pillars of emotional support for each other in their desperate attempt to prove to the world that they are not the unbalanced, abnormal individuals the title of the play refers to.

Vinod and Saloma are simultaneously characters and narrators, jumping smoothly from first person to third as they tell us their story. The play moves back and forth in time, taking us through various events in the character's lives and grounding us in their interactions in the present. The idea of the silent, judging world pitted against these two kindred spirits is always made manifest. It is society, after all, that places labels like 'off centre' on these individuals, making it so difficult for them to blend in. The fact that the play itself, originally commissioned by the Ministry of Health, had its funding withdrawn due to its overt depiction of mental issues, only adds a powerful meta-narrative on what it means to go against the norm.

The path taken by these two characters in dealing with their problems is quite different. Saloma learns to accept her illness and just wants to lead a normal life; she takes her medication regularly and is ever aware of the "devil" within her that must be exorcised. Vinod, on the other hand, rebels against his condition from the outset. He blames his parents, friends and religion, refusing to accept help. In the end, he is unable to pull himself together as his world implodes. Sharma traces the development of these characters - who differ not only in race but in their socio-economic background - with wonderful sensitivity and nuance, throwing in sharp observations about society's tendency to alienate anyone with a difference.

Shankara, winner of the Vasantham Star in  2007 and last seen in a minor comic role in the musical High Class, truly shines as the glib, gregarious Vinod. His cheeky antics suggest that he uses humour to mask a deep fear of being forgotten and his eventual crumble is electrifying. He is perfectly matched by acting heavyweight Siti who brings tremendous empathy to Saloma. Siti's ability to infuse emotion into the simplest of lines never ceases to amaze and her quiet, unaffected delivery gives the character great pathos. There is fantastic support by the ensemble of five actors who fill out the supporting roles and scenes. Erwin Shah Ismail stands out as a tactless army officer and Ellison Tan is magnetic as flighty mental patient Emily Gan. Neo Swee Lin also shines in an emotionally-wrenching performance as Saloma's mother; her delivery of the iconic "I smile" monologue leaves one fighting back tears.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

A lot of the success of this production lies in the approach taken by Chong, who pares down the play to its basics - just one chair each for each character - and allows the story to slowly hurl itself at us. Chong's use of oversized masks by the ensemble is a simple visual device that brings home the idea of the characters being just slightly out of sync with the world around them and these surreal incursions augment the text, suggesting the constant battle between real and unreal that all mental patients grapple with. Music (updated to reflect the times) is skilfully integrated into the narrative, giving the scenes a strong emotional anchor.

If I have one cavil about this production, it is the length. It runs for a good two and a half hours without an intermission. Editing some of the scenes to make things tighter would certainly have been helped. There seems to be a trend for Singaporean productions these days to eschew intervals and I think one can only get away with this if the play itself is not longer than ninety minutes. If there's anything above that, one should give the audience a break unless there's a very good reason not to.

It's sad that there's still so much stigma associated with mental illness and the very fact that Off Centre remains painful and gripping is because not much has changed over the past two decades. As much as it is an exploration of the life of mental patients, Off Centre is a bitter commentary on the type of society Singapore has become: cold, ruthless and devoid of empathy. The fact that this is the first local play to be taught in the 'O' and 'N' Levels is only a testament to its power as a great work of literature. One hopes that our society moves on and eventually accepts people like Vinod and Saloma. Till then, this play will remain a vital piece of theatre that deserves to be seen again and again. 

The Crystalwords score: 4.5/5


Popular Posts