Being Haresh Sharma

text excerpted from plays of Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage / Cake Theatrical Productions
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

The Necessary Stage's 30th anniversary season has been a fascinating blend of old and new. The year kicked off with new monologue Actor, Forty, the first collaboration between the company's Artistic Director Alvin Tan and Resident Playwright Haresh Sharma to premiere in Mandarin. In March, we had a revival of Those Who Can't, Teach, a popular and topical play about education that was revitalized for a new generation. August will see the inaugural showcase of The Orange Production, an exploratory platform to feature the works of new artists in an intimate space. Sitting in between is this collaboration with Cake Theatrical Productions - a broad, sprawling retrospective of Sharma's oeuvre spanning three decades.

Directed by Natalie Hennedige, herself a former protégée of TNS, Being Haresh Sharma both respectful and playfully irreverent. Hennedige takes viewers on a thematic journey across Sharma's many works that have graced the stage over the years while throwing in her trademark aesthetics of non-linearity, absurdism and quicksilver changes of tone.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

The show is performed by an ebullient ensemble of well-known faces comprising Karen Tan, Siti Khalijah, Jean Ng, Jo Kukathas, Ghafir Akbar and Julius Foo. It begins and ends with the actors reciting, in chronological order, the titles of the many plays written by Sharma - some familiar, some less so. A good number of these hundred or so plays have been immortalized in various TNS publications over the years, held up for the audience to see. It's a fantastic way of letting us know just how much of the Singapore theatre we know is the theatre created by Sharma.

The action then breaks off into various segments with captions such as Beginnings, Sickness, Grief, Detention and Love, where scenes and characters from various plays are revisited and reworked, uncovering interesting parallels and contrasts. Characters who enjoy the spotlight include Saloma, the shy, schizophrenic Malay girl from Off Centre, the first Singaporean play to be made part of the 'O' and 'N' Level literature syllabus, Wendy, the beleaguered Peranakan woman from Model Citizens who grapples with the her son's recent suicide and Marzuki, the photographer from Gemuk Girls who chillingly describes being incarcerated under the Internal Security Act and being told that the only way he can see his family is to confess to crimes he allegedly committed.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

As much as the production celebrates the many iconic characters Sharma has created, it also recognizes the actors who have inhabited these vast and varied roles and brought them to life. Tan and Ng perform an extract from 1992 play Still Building in front of video footage of the original stage production, showing them in same roles a quarter of a century earlier. Frequent collaborator Siti Khalijah even gets her own moment (cheekily captioned 'Being Siti Khalijah') as she relives five iconic characters she's played over the years, from Juliana in Gemuk Girls to Nelly in Model Citizens to Sharifah in Poor Thing, switching between each persona until the overlapping conversations reach fever pitch and earning herself a thunderous round of applause.

The production is augmented by a dizzying array of costumes and sets that range from surreal to highly realist, providing a constant treat for the eyes. Echoing the strong multimedia influence in TNS's work, designer Brian Gothong Tan places an oversized screen in the centre of the stage and uses this to great effect, providing stirring visuals, sounds and filmic sequences to accompany the spoken text. Karen Tan's monologue as Wendy, for instance, plays out against the haunting image of a mother walking along deserted corridors, searching in vain for her son.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

While the range and curation of works is impressive, Hennedige's production feels a little too long and loud. Tighter editing would have been welcomed to rein in the text. A protracted scene from rarely performed play Lizard, which is portrayed by two groups of actors with varying nuances, outstays its welcome. Other moments feel oddly distanced from the black box space in which they were conceived, the actors overcompensating to fill the large stage and needlessly amping up the theatrics.

Being Haresh Sharma is ultimately a fitting homage to a successful and prolific writer, one who has brought a truly staggering wealth of stories to our stage. In video footage from an old production, it's nice to see the camera linger on the face of a young Sharma, giving this man a well-deserved moment in the limelight.

At the same time, the production celebrates one of Singapore's most vital and socially relevant theatre companies. Since its inception, TNS has been at the forefront of exploring the Singaporean voice through the lens of theatre and has brought its audiences on a remarkable journey of what it means, fundamentally, to simply 'be' a part of this country. Long may its fine work continue.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

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