Theatre review: Off Centre revival is profoundly affecting

Ebi Shankara (left) and Siti Khalijah Zainal star in the revival of Off Centre. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Off Centre had a difficult birth in 1993.

First, The Necessary Stage landed a windfall of $30,000 in funding - and then the Ministry of Health yanked it and they had none. Playwright Haresh Sharma, director Alvin Tan and the original cast coaxed painful real-life stories from the residents of halfway houses and the former Woodbridge Hospital, as well as their social workers and psychiatrists, with the intention of creating a play as true to their experiences as possible. The Ministry of Information and the Arts responded that "the script of Off Centre ... presented a prejudiced view of mental disorder, its treatability and the therapists, besides ridiculing God, religion and national service".

But does it? Off Centre is a baptism of fire. It breaks your heart in several places and salts open wounds. It is a difficult production about mental illness that grapples with a great deal of pain, heartbreak and tragedy; its characters are often frustrating and flawed. But you emerge from it with an enduring empathy for all humankind, and the need to envelop your neighbour in a hug.

This is true of the play's revival at Esplanade's theatre retrospective The Studios: fifty, a profoundly moving and achingly sad production skilfully wrought by director Oliver Chong and his cast. Chong has long been open about his own struggles with depression and schizophrenia, and he brings a heightened sensitivity to the text. The powerful 1993 production had a breathless urgency to it, unfolding at breakneck speed and leaving a devastated audience in its wake, but Chong chooses to draw out the work at a slower simmer, full of surreal images and precise emotional pivots.

Two characters anchor the story: Vinod (an excellent Ebi Shankara), a sharp, almost cocky straight-A student from an affluent family wrestling with severe depression; and Saloma (Siti Khalijah Zainal), a lower-income former vocational student who struggles with schizophrenia.

Because they were carved from real life, Vinod and Saloma are so richly detailed it often hurts to watch them try, fail, and fail again at navigating the world around them. They grope around the dark for a handhold but often find none except each other, both outcasts frequently misunderstood. They switch between two personas, one calm and rational, observing every triumph and breakdown with the same clinical eye; the other an emotional fount they simply cannot keep in line and what makes them "off centre".

Chong sharply foregrounds these two characters, allowing the rest of the cast to orbit around them as a strong, understated ensemble, representing the reactions of the world at large and also fragments of their imagination. Animal masks and fake heads (a la Frank Sidebottom) drift through scenes, forming striking images on a largely bare stage. These are a strong visual foil to Sharma's incisive text; whether a feet-shiftingly awkward encounter at school, or a dramatic breakdown in the army, his writing is at once blackly funny and painfully bleak, and the force of his pen finds its groove right in the gut.

Shankara turns in his finest performance to date, giving Vinod a vulnerability but also a steeliness that is captivating to watch. He brings an edge of desperation to the part, veering from confident caretaker to frightened child, and so fully inhabits the nervous tics and fluttering gestures of the character that you forget he exists, and only see Vinod instead.

Siti Khalijah complements him well in a consistently strong performance as the sweet, timid Saloma, using her giant stage presence to her advantage and never overplaying her hand. The rest of the cast, many of whom play multiple roles, is a well-oiled team, from Erwin Shah Ismail's condescendingly abusive army officer, to Ellison Tan's whimsical, endearing Emily Gan (a sly nod to Emily Of Emerald Hill), who lives with delusions and a terrible secret. The only blind spot that nagged at me was Chong's decision to cast Neo Swee Lin, who is Peranakan Chinese, in the part of Saloma's Malay-Muslim mother, Mak. Neo's performance is tender and well-wrought, but her casting leaves an odd aftertaste when it comes to minority representation.

Chong has made some minor updates in terms of contemporary references - pop songs have shifted in time, the characters now use mobile phones, and they refer to the Institute of Mental Health. The death knell of "Woodbridge" may have softened over the past 20 years, and there is generally a greater awareness of how those grappling with mental health issues need to be supported, not shunned. In this light, the mechanics of the play might feel dated to some - surely we are more progressive than we were? But the facts are that people still stare, and people still flinch, and many still keep their struggles a secret for fear of exclusion or a career-ending exposure.

It is the fierce authenticity at Off Centre's core that manages to leaven the passing of more than 20 years. It was the first Singaporean play to enter the 'O' level literature curriculum, and in this heavyweight production it is clear to see why it should continue to be studied and debated - not just by students, but by us all.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Off Centre is sold out.

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