The Second Breakfast Company, still fresh in the local theatre scene, aims to revive a large and undiscovered canon of local texts and reestablish their relevance for a contemporary audience. Well, they’ve done a commendable job of it. This performance took me on a journey through the highs and lows of seventy-odd years of family politics, with bold directing choices that left me on the edge of my seat all the way till the show’s end. It left me wanting to find out more about a work I haven’t had the opportunity to read or watch before.
Prior to the show, cast members interacted with the audience, as if they too were members of the family. I spoke to Ah Bin (Hafiz Sanusi) about investing in real estate, and also talked to Nam Yew (Sharon Phay) before the show started. Immediately, the cast entered into a flurry of fast-paced narration and movement sequences I could barely follow. A ten-actor strong ensemble, plainly dressed, enacted the story by moving into abstract formations. I was quickly lost amidst the chaos, and all I could perceive was matriarch Mrs Yang (Chio Su Ping), poised with authority yet being enveloped in an ever-shifting sea of names and faces. This was an edgy choice by directors Adeeb and Mark, which paid off greatly as a flush of realism eases the unsettled audience into the following scene – a family gathering with an infectious party atmosphere. We were once again prompted to participate in a ‘survey’ by the hosts of the gathering, allowing us a brief but enlightening communion with the characters as we figured out their marital status, income level and the like.
The main narrative of Family follows Mrs Yang and her descendants from the 1920s to the present day. These scenes really took the ensemble to task as they began to play a diversity of characters convincingly and compellingly. With only brief projection sequences to separate each scene, the actors (each of them having at least two roles save Mrs Yang) absorbed the individual responsibility of juggling the roles of gossiping housewife, babbling toddler and overworked coolie, along with quickly getting the audience invested in these characters in the brief snapshots where they are present in the play. I particularly commend Alyssa Lie’s electrifying performances of her role as Bee Lian and Ah Lau, with her eyes capturing the fearful uncertainty of a son-in-law about to be sent off into the unknown, or a mother about to unleash the cane on her child. That being said, it was with the stellar performances of each and every member of this cast that kept the show as gripping as it was.
On that note, I found it interesting that there was such a visible transformation in the way the scenes were staged from start to finish. The start of Family freely broke storytelling conventions, leaving one little time to adjust to what was happening as they danced and threw names of local fanfare back and forth onstage. Towards the end of the performance, the scenes became much more grounded and real. The characters were more defined, even beginning to have their own garments – a privilege only Mrs. Yang enjoyed at the start. This set me thinking of how history always seems more dramatic and poignant than our mundane reality (perhaps this year being an exception) – is it because we as humans are naturally drawn to creating narratives of our lives?
Family engaged me as a participant, as opposed to a mere spectator. Throughout the play, I had the opportunity to ‘eavesdrop’ on several intimate exchanges between the characters. I choose ‘eavesdrop’ because when the whole ensemble was present on stage, they were almost never engaged in one singular activity. We were always guided to a main dialogue, yet privy to the whispers or even body language of the other characters. Also, moments like the toddler scene, where the cast clustered together with most of their backs facing the audience, involved me as I tried to peer into their banal arguments over God versus Buddha.
The technical team behind the production further enhanced the impact of Family. The soundscape of ambient music served to compound the mood of the performance, even at times being used as a tool for foreshadowing, but without being overly intrusive. The set was minimalistic and clean without being generic; each property and its material and position a clear directorial choice. The Persian Rug beneath Mrs Yang’s chair caught my eye – a visible space where time seems to stays frozen as other characters seem to live their lives in fast-forward. Also, the drawer upon which lies all the characters’ conflicting religious faiths and unfulfilled dreams, allowing the audience to perceive the fading significance of religion and ritual as as the family moves with the times.
Amongst the minor hiccups I observed in the performance, one aspect I wanted to feel more of was a palpable presence of Mrs Yang. Although her character’s physicality and demeanor were very believable, perhaps it is my personal interest to really feel that pressure which makes everyone initially ‘(comply as) she gives the final word’ as the synopsis suggests, and watch it decay with age, time and amnesia. That aside, I really enjoyed myself watching Family, and I am sincerely looking forward to the next course, Second Breakfast! Kudos to a great show.
By Michael N. for Bakchormeeboy
Family plays at Centre 42 until 16 October at Centre 42 Black Box. Tickets are only available for Friday night and Saturday shows from SISTIC