by Alfian Sa'at
Singapore Theatre Festival 2006 (W!LD RICE)
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

It's 2003. The Kohs, scattered all over the globe, reunite in Singapore when the family patriarch is diagnosed with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus. The estranged siblings face a rude shock when the family is slapped with a ten-day home quarantine order and have to put up with each other for the first time in years. 

Using the family as a microcosm of the state, Alfian Sa'at's latest offering digs deeply into the politics of Singaporeans living overseas and focuses on the debate of "stayers" versus "quitters": the choice between leaving one's country for greener pastures and forging one's ties at home. Amusing, provocative and politically-charged it certainly is; transcendental - perhaps not.
Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

Unlike his acclaimed Asian Boys trilogy with its subtle unravelling of the gay psyche through a series of evocative vignettes, Alfian opts for bold, powerful speeches and statements on national identity and politics. National education is virtually rammed down one's throats. "This country has the tendency to tear down buildings with the words "National" in them," a character pointedly observes. The literalism also tends to be a bit jarring; a Raffles Institution T-shirt is used to deliberately make a point about Singapore's colonial roots while another character declares that, in this country, we are all "living out one man's dream" and as if we didn't couldn't figure out who that might be, she goes on to tell us his name.

The characters in Homesick, each with their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, provide much entertainment in and of themselves. However, one cannot shake off the feeling that they feel little more than caricatures. Elder brothers Nelson Chia and Lim Kay Siu, who portray a "born-again Chinese" waxing lyrical over his motherland and a haughty Anglophile desperate to cast away his Oriental roots respectively, are a classic case in point; their heated exchanges rapidly grow tedious. Serena Ho - who plays the feminist, environmentalist and vegetarian second sister - is saddled with angst-filled speeches that feel too laboured for one's liking. Hansel Tan, playing the teenaged youngest son, mother Neo Swee Lin and American-Indian son-in-law Ramesh Panicker are perhaps the only three actors who do justice to their roles, making their characters both believable and empathetic.

Jonathan Lim's directing proves generally competent and boasts a lovely, touching finale comprising of snapshots of the family members moving away one by one. However, there is a laboured feel to certain scenes which would clearly have benefited from better editing and pace. The set, essentially a floor plan of a house sans walls, allows for scenes to be held in different spaces while simultaneously offering a glimpse of what other other characters are up to elsewhere. While not really necessary for plot development, it's nice to be given a bird's eye view of the entire house at any given time.

Homesick is, without doubt, a powerful insight into the doubts and dilemmas faced by modern Singaporeans. It's witty and tremendously relevant but it would have worked a whole lot better if the play's message had been doled out in elegant, tantalising drops instead of rather forceful squirts.

The Crystalwords score: 6.5/10


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