Off Centre : Mental Health & Stigma On Stage

(photo credit: Tucky)

When I first found out that The Necessary Stage was restaging Off Centre, I was hesitant to believe in the power of such a production. The piece must be updated, I thought. There are things in this text (which I have read and read for various reasons: teaching in schools, for personal reading pleasure, and for bragging rights of course) that are stuck in time, and absorbed in the context of its time. Oh I was so fucking wrong. I did not expect it to trigger a landslide of emotions in my system, considering that the portrayals of mental illness hit home so hard. It is one thing to read about Vinod ending his life, but another completely to watch him spiral into misunderstanding, confusion, and neglect.

How can a play that has been written so many years ago (I was seven) be still so agonizing to sit through? The slice of the diction, the slow death of Vinod. We have read the book, and we know Vinod is going to die. And yet, we watch the slow burn of this complicated space as it descends from the logic of mental illness and its cute and funny quirks, to a dark death. At first, it is easy to decipher the characters, as a culmination of their mental illnesses, and we let these characteristics define their moods, their motivations, before we realise that the spaces they occupy resemble a spatial production of complex socio-cultural meaning that seems imaginary, but is it really? I would go as far to say that this piece is the only truly Singaporean play I’ve watched in the past year. The characters are unique to our context, and carry such heavy burdens of complexities and character depth. At first of course, Sakinah Abdullah’s Saloma is grating, but she grows on you as an endearing portrait of a woman stuck in so many levels of oppression that shouldn’t exist in the first place, but still does, and still continuously traps women like her into crazy expectations and performances. It is upsetting that her cycles of oppression still function in the power dynamics of our society today.  But history is proven to function in a circular manner, and the fact that this play has come around with the same actors, speaking to a different audience, in a different time, seems to fold time in a way that is magical and yet saddening. Things are still relevant, poignant and riveting. What does this say about our society? Things haven’t really changed, well, they’re still shit.

The most painful part of this whole experience was that Vinod and Saloma still exist, in our everyday life, in our circles. We all know a Vinod, a Saloma, an Emily Gan, a Mak. When Vinod finally performs his last burst of life, I heard my area of audience break out into sniffles. All I could think of was, how many of them were going to go home and feel differently about the Vinods and Salomas they see every day? Will they continue to tut at the person talking to himself at the MRT station? Will they still refuse a second look at someone’s CV if they tick the mental illness box on the registration form?

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(photo credit: The Necessary Stage)

Saloma’s concluding monologue is a sudden break that makes your skin crawl with its predictability, I’m intrigued at how this senseless sense of ill fate worked. I was trapped on a ride in a downward spiral with no way of getting off. The seeming fluidity of Vinod’s and Saloma’s characters, exist outside of reality: in void-decks (it’s void here!) and in their bedrooms where things are neat and safe, and on gold class 90 fm, where they are heard through their various monikers. The time-space capsule they exist in is only disrupted by Saloma’s desire to re-align herself with the mainstream order. Only one of them can survive. Vinod’s only crime was to exist outside of the mechanistic systems that govern the country and its people. At the end, even his fluidity and liminal existence becomes pre-determined, he is weeded out, albeit by himself. He did his “national service to the country”. As a testament to toxic masculinity, and how power structures are sharpened by hurtful rhetoric in the mainstream, Vinod’s character ceases to exist. More Vinods will go, if this goes on.

Special mention to the set design, which was so thoughtful and carried nuances of the mental illness. Made like drawers, things slid in and out mechanically, drawing these characters to sit and stand, creating different spaces, with other people in it, with no one sometimes, yet carried hints of how things worked for someone like Vinod and Saloma. Sometimes these shifts worked with the actors standing on them. The bedrooms were created in a slant as well, and everything seemed orderly and neat on the outside, but shifted and slanted and allowed for many hidden corridors for people sometimes to move invisibly, sometimes with transparency that it seemed like they were not there at all. The lighting design was another beauty: with hints of different colours that descended into shades and spotlights that worked so well in highlighting specific moments in the piece. The creative design pulled itself together, and tied the production symbolically.

At the same time, we see these depictions of mental illness plastered on the newspapers, on the TV, and on the radio often in very negative light. Success stories are far and between, and buried with deeper agendas. Our facebook feeds are full of posts raising awareness, and with hate-comments. At some point they’re like Warhol’s test prints of the electric chair, we are so accustomed to these tragedies, we are desensitized to how bad the situation really is. We’re losing people daily, falling at the seams from all the pressure of living in this country. Like Vinod said: Slow Suicide – Stay in Singapore. I needed a Rajinikanth movie after the whole ordeal.

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