An unhappy reunion

Lok Meng Chue plays the wife of the man who abused Timothy Wan's (both left) character when he was a child.
Lok Meng Chue plays the wife of the man who abused Timothy Wan's character when he was a child.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

The Mandarin adaptation of Haresh Sharma's Fundamentally Happy is a disquieting look at abuse

REVIEW / THEATRE

FUNDAMENTALLY HAPPY

Nine Years Theatre/Esplanade Presents: The Studios

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Thursday

It could have been a claustrophobic duel of words between two characters. Instead, Nine Years Theatre's staging of playwright Haresh Sharma's Fundamentally Happy offers space for dozens of disquieting thoughts.

Wong Chee Wai's roomy set, lit by Liu Yong Huay, is almost a third character in this Mandarin adaptation, directed and translated by Nelson Chia. Viewers see a spacious living room, furnished with a sofa, photo albums and a table, with the everpresent snacks one might expect to find in a Malay household. Ornamental ventilators are cut high into the walls and below them, windows open into a picturesque garden nourished by the rain.

This is a lived-in and loved home, laundry lies in a pile waiting to be folded. Habiba (Lok Meng Chue) bustling about the stage seems the picture of the happy matriarch, ready to reopen her heart and house to surprise visitor Eric (Timothy Wan), her old neighbour. Their reunion is fond, they recall his childhood spent in this home with Habiba and her husband, Ismail.

Then the lights change. Foreboding shadows are cast on the wall as Eric leaves and stagehands dressed as police officers enter and reshape the stage. Eric has come to confront the never-seen Ismail, his past abuser. The happy living space has expanded to a prison for both Habiba and Eric. One is trapped by her wilful blindness to the truth, the other by the heartbreaking pattern of victims caring for their abuser.

Fundamentally Happy was originally staged in 2006 by Sharma and his collaborator, director Alvin Tan, by their company, The Necessary Stage. It is among their best-known works, much discussed for its focus on paedophilia and the twists and turns as both characters prove themselves unreliable narrators.

This staging by Nine Years Theatre is a powerful example of the joys that can result when one theatre company presents the works of another - thanks here to this season of Esplanade's The Studios focusing on Sharma's works.

The original script is projected here in place of direct surtitles. Eric's often well-schooled English, versus Habiba's utterly Singaporean grammar and generous use of Malay, at first seems to establish a power balance in his favour. Then it tips as Habiba calls on the authority of an adult who has known another as a young child, or as the anchor of the household Eric has come to upset.

Chia keeps some English and Malay in his translation to retain these tensions. Having both Habiba and Eric communicate mostly in Mandarin also makes their interaction intimate beyond the scripted bonds of twisted yearning for the same man, since one can extrapolate that this is a language only these two share.

Lok and Wan pitch their characters quietly, but believably. They see-saw between wanting to return to the halcyon past, mutual affection for Ismail and unwillingness to name his actions as crimes. The self-hatred and shaming of the victim is painful to watch, especially as Eric seems to lean towards returning to the state he came to free himself from.

Finally, Habiba's acceptance of the truth and of Eric's complicated feelings sets him free to leave. Whether either will find true release is one of many unanswered questions left on the appropriately emptier stage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline 'An unhappy reunion'. Print Edition | Subscribe