Off Centre is still spot on

The issues highlighted in the play on mental illness are sadly fresh even after 26 years

Abdulattif Abdullah and Sakinah Dollah (both above) reprise their roles as Vinod and Saloma in Off Centre by The Necessary Stage.
Abdulattif Abdullah and Sakinah Dollah (both above) reprise their roles as Vinod and Saloma in Off Centre by The Necessary Stage. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY



The Necessary Stage

Victoria Theatre/Thursday

Last September, the National Council of Social Service released a YouTube video as part of its Beyond The Label movement to address the stigma about persons with mental-health conditions.

In the video, interviewers met strangers and asked them to share what they thought about those with mental illnesses, including their (un)employability and potential danger to society.

The interviewer was always either recovering from or dealing with mental illness. Interviewees were shocked by the revelation, probably because the person across the table looked so ordinary.

No one meeting Saloma or Vinod for the first time would be surprised if told that these characters have mental-health conditions.

Drawn from real life, the protagonists of Off Centre are different from the ensemble surrounding them. They are too loud, too intense, too weepy, just off in some way that sparks the primitive hindbrain.

That is the point of this vital, well-respected 26-year-old play written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan.

Saloma, who has schizophrenia, and Vinod, who has manic and depressive episodes, do not fit into society, though they attempt to do so with medical intervention and behavioural therapy. Is the problem theirs alone or a systemic issue that must be addressed?

The play is dated only in its pop-culture references. The issues it highlights are sadly fresh.

Those with mental-health conditions still feel they should keep these secret as it might hurt their chances of employment or promotion.

There is no happy pill that can be popped to solve all problems, either. For many, it is a choice between enduring crippling anxiety, for example, or the physical side effects that come with medication.

Returning to the stage after a quarter-century, Abdulattif Abdullah and Sakinah Dollah are harrowing as Vinod and Saloma, characters they co-created.

They are pitch perfect as suffering youth and their alternating ascent from and descent into mental hell is all too believable, if painfully protracted (perhaps the script was presented in its entirety for the sake of the students using it as an O-level literature text this year and next).

The actors' intensity is out of sync with the polished restraint of the rest of the ensemble but that just makes the protagonists more obviously outsiders.

The play honestly shows the prejudices and misinformation that make life harder for people like Vinod and Saloma.

Vinod's platoon commander (Brendon Fernandez) and absent parents seem to think he needs to shake it off and move on. Saloma's mother, Mak (Aidli Mosbit), is convinced prayer will drive out the devil that has possessed her daughter.

Some do offer support, such as Vinod's sympathetic sergeant (a poised Nicholas Bloodworth) and friend Charlie (a heart-warming turn by Joshua Lim) but one is limited by army structure and the other pushed away. What if someone does not want to be helped? That is another agonising point made by the play.

An isolated, withdrawn Saloma ends the production but the conclusion is left in the hands of the audience - to walk away, enlightened, or to act immediately?

A surprising number choose to hug the actress on their way out or comfort the character.

The play hits its target dead centre once again.

• Off Centre is sold out.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2019, with the headline Off Centre is still spot on. Subscribe