Reviewer: Selina Chong
Performance: 18 March 2017
As you walk into the Esplanade Theatre Studio for Nine Years Theatre’s production of Fundamentally Happy, you’re immediately drawn into a familiar living room. The set is at once cosy and quaint, yet there’s also a sense of devastation. You feel as if you’re looking straight into someone’s home, their inner sanctum, because a wrecking ball has opened a massive peephole for you.
This is the first time that Haresh Sharma’s English play has been translated and staged in Mandarin. Director and translator Nelson Chia adapted the character of Habiba into a Chinese woman who married a Malay-Muslim man, converted to Islam and now participates fully in the community as a teacher in a madrasah. This adaptation works really well for me, in part because I’m more convinced of Habiba’s fervour for her adopted socio-religious culture and consequent denial of what may be unsettling and ugly about that culture. I assume that she converted because the Islamic teachings resonated with her. I can therefore empathise with her struggle through the five stages of grief, as she attemps to reconcile her husband’s criminal behaviour with their shared religious belief.
I am, however, a little disappointed by Lok Meng Chue’s performance as Habiba. She is clearly uncomfortable speaking in Mandarin, and it makes her victim blaming come across as comical and wholly inappropriate at one point. In contrast, Timothy Wan is much more confident as Eric – Habiba’s old neighbour – as he vacillates between being empowered and powerless, survivor and victim. Clearly, Wan’s Eric struggles with control, and Wan conveys that successfully through a highly nuanced performance.
Fundamentally Happy is a hard-hitting piece that throws the spotlight on abuse in the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore. Beyond the cultural and linguistic tensions arising from staging a Haresh Sharma play in Mandarin, the audience must also question what multiculturalism and multiracialism – purported pillars of Singapore society – really mean. As a Chinese Singaporean, I feel like sexual abuse is not in my mind space and perhaps that speaks of my privilege. I wonder how much of Nine Years Theatre’s audience feels the same way. We often rely on theatre to highlight and bridge social gaps, but much of the work really happens in the conversations we engage in after we see shows that question our values, beliefs and assumptions.
The dialogue must carry on after Fundamentally Happy, and we must be able to talk openly, safely, and honestly.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Fundamentally Happy by Nine Years Theatre
16 – 19 March 2017
Esplanade Theatre Studio
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Selina loves the theatre and its ability to engage, enrapture, and entertain. The magic of the stage never ceases to create joy and wonder for her. The potential of the theatre to educate also dovetails with her teacher duties and she wishes more young people had time to watch a show instead of attend another tuition lesson.