Mental illness is never an easy topic to broach. In Singapore, it remains a proverbial bogeyman, eating away at someone’s coworker, friend or family. It is an unfathomable struggle, dealt with in the silence of one’s mind.
This year, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information’s (WKWSCI) Paparazzi pulls back the curtain on mental health with State of Mind, a series of four plays, written by local playwrights. This includes Sadness is the New Normal, written by Dora Tan, The Weight of Emptiness by Tan Suet Lee, Skin Deep by Jean Tay, and The Greatest Love of All, by Jacke Chye. Each play is centred around a different facet of mental health. Together, they present a strikingly raw portrayal of mental illness in a Singaporean context.
Sadness is the New Normal
Sadness is the New Normal introduces us to Boon (Jerold Lim), a middle-aged man with an apparently “perfect” life narrating his journey after a failed suicide attempt. I enjoyed Jerold’s performance as he deftly captures Boon’s cynicism with a streak of black humour, bringing life to the character’s musings. Notably, He embodies Boon’s character the most in moments of silence; the quiet vulnerability in his body language showcasing his masterful control over his acting.
The set for this performance was also the most dynamic of the four plays. The stage is divided into different sets that the characters move between, simultaneously Boon’s childhood bedroom, the family dining room, the psychiatrist’s office, and, at one point, tracks for an oncoming train. I really liked the creativity of the set design, especially in how the presence of the train was suggested with nothing more than strobe light and a few well-timed sound effects.
The Weight of Emptiness
Next, The Weight of Emptiness follows the story of Su-Lin (Beth Wong), a kleptomaniac woman who yearns to escape from the cluttered home of her elderly hoarder mother, Molly (Alisa Brigid Yeo). I find this premise to be the most unique of the four plays – while hoarding is a problem for many, it is rarely addressed in the media. I appreciate the play for shedding light on a real problem that is often unexplored. This play is cloaked in poetic metaphors, giving the story a more open-ended conclusion, which I found rather unsatisfying. In the ending, Su-Lin’s fate is left uncertain in the wake of her mother’s death. Though, this may be a matter of personal taste, as I generally prefer a more concrete ending. Others may enjoy the ambiguity of the conclusion, and the chance to ponder its complexities – I mostly felt confused.
The highlight, for me, was Molly – Alisa’s endearing portrayal of a lively but eccentric woman allowed me to sympathise with the character.
Skin Deep portrays the fraught relationship between Leah (Tammie Tang) and her mother (Leena Gan), as they grapple with the fallout of Leah’s self-harming. The performance revolves around the allegory of a fig wasp trapped in a fruit, a symbol of Leah’s struggles with herself and the people around her. I found the metaphors to be a little heavy-handed; the characters reference the fig wasp and the fig (the wu hua guo, or “flowerless fruit”, as they call it) in every other line. It was a little on the nose; personally, I would have preferred more subtlety.
The Greatest Love of All
Finally, The Greatest Love of All focuses on the story of Gabriel (Ahmad Uibaidillah), a hospital volunteer, and Ah Moi (Isabella Goh), an elderly patient suffering from delusions of being Whitney Houston after her daughter is killed in an accident. Isabella’s performance as Ah Moi is nothing short of magnificent. Her impersonation of Whitney Houston, in all its chutzpah, really sells the glamorous, larger-than-life quality of the character. This, coupled with Gabriel’s awkward charm, lends itself to an excellent comedic chemistry between the two; the emotional weight is carried by their talent. Their singing performance, while unexpected, was also a highlight of the play.
I could clearly see Ah Moi’s complexities through Isabella’s acting; as she grieves for her lost daughter in a rare moment of clarity, Isabelle conveys every aspect of Ah Moi’s heartbreak through a superb display of acting range. This play also served as a good conclusion to the whole performance, being a good balance of light-hearted and serious moments.
Overall, I really enjoyed this year’s performance. It was an interesting exploration of mental health performed by a solid cast that beautifully portrayed the intricacies of a topic often misunderstood. I am really looking forward to next year’s production, and have no doubt that WKWSCI Paparazzi will continue to amaze us!