Poor Thing

by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage
Necessary Stage Black Box, Singapore

TNS has always been at the cutting edge of theatrical expression. Back at the turn of the century, it took the local stage by storm with a slew of eclectic, multimedia-saturated works that sought to break away from the conventional linear narrative. With this latest devised production, it has once again emerged a pioneer of a new form of theatre: one which embraces the world of social media and makes bitter love to it.

A day before watching Poor Thing, we are encouraged to “friend” one of the characters, Jerome Koshy, on Facebook. It gives us a certain voyeuristic thrill to be privy to Jerome‘s photographs and status updates and we immediately get a glimpse into this camp, earthy character. Shortly before entering the theatre, we are shown a video clip of two pairs of characters driving along a quiet road at night – Jerome and his best friend in one car and a young married couple in another. One car suddenly brakes upon seeing a stop sign and the other car rams into it.

Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage

As we enter the theatre, we are thrust, quite literally into the middle of the action. Set designer Vincent Lim has impressively put together two partially stripped-down cars and the action proceeds seamlessly from the point of the crash. Over the course of the sixty-minute play, Jerome posts real-time updates, photos and even a video of the events unfolding before our eyes. As an audience member, it’s both thrilling and confusing. On the one hand, we can read and comment on Jerome’s posts, allowing us to play a role in the narrative. However, on the other, our reactions are indubitably coloured by the context in which everything is happening in front of us. Through this simple device, the production team, led by playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan, effectively captures the conflicting hold which social media places on us.

Although the car accident is the catalyst of the play, it is the simmering tensions between the characters that drive the action as the play progresses. We have Alisha (Sharda Harrison), a rich, fairly drunk Indian woman with an uppity English accent, Jevon (Joshua Lim), her level-headed Chinese husband, Sharifah (Siti Khalijah Zainal), a working-class Malay girl dealing with relationship woes and finally, Jerome (Dwayne Lau), her garrulous, unemployed gay best friend on his way to army reservist training.

Sharma’s writing is as sharp as ever and he gives us shades of the lives of each of these characters while weaving in wry anecdotes about Singaporeans that strike a chord. In one scene, Alisha compliments Jerome on his good English because, according to her, most Singaporeans can barely string together a coherent sentence. It’s a perfectly valid observation from someone who’s spent some time abroad but, hearing it said aloud, one immediately realizes how condescending it may sound.

The play is not without its flaws. There are a number of repetitive tropes in the dialogue and several scenes have obviously been milked for dramatic effect. Would someone like Jerome be quite so forward with a perfect stranger, especially when wearing his army uniform? Considering how drunk Alisha appears, would she really be able to totter around quite so much? Yet it's hard to fault these minor imperfections: the form of the play here is far more vital than the actual substance.

Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage

Poor Thing draws its inspiration from recent events that have sprouted over the media about people shooting their mouths off online and things spiralling out of context. The real theme here is the irrational rage that Singaporeans seem to have when dealing with each other, where we seem to take offence at the slightest provocation. The polite and mild-mannered Jevon, pushed to his limits by Jerome, resorts to unleashing a stream of Hokkien vulgarities into the night, leaving his wife in speechless horror. “Yes, this is who you married,” he remarks savagely. It’s a scene that chillingly depicts how easily we can shed the civilised clothes we wear and reveal our true ugliness.

Because of the way the play is structured, with the characters making banal conversation at the start, it comes as quite a shock when political correctness is thrown out the door and they go for the jugular. Race, class, sexuality and religion are bandied about like cruel weapons and the result is a raw, visceral onslaught of emotions. There are strong performance by all four members of the ensemble cast. Harrison and Siti in particular do an especially good job at inhabiting their characters and prove equally arresting in the midst of tense confrontation and the fractured pauses in between.

It’s certainly interesting being part of a play that is not limited to the sixty minutes of live action we witness but where the conversation continues both before and after the main event. And it is here that TNS have made their most significant contribution: showing us that theatre is not a static object that is digested in one bite but an ongoing conversation in which all of us are encouraged to participate.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5


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