Wait a minute, a collaboration between Nine Years Theatre and Haresh Sharma? You didn’t just misread that. First presented in 2006 by The Necessary Stage in its original English language, Fundamentally Happy has since bagged Best Production and Best Original Script at the 2007 ST Life Theatre Awards and is still making its rounds on the big screen via the 2015 film adaptation by 13 Little Pictures’ Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin. This time round, for the Esplanade’s The Studios 2017 season, Nine Years Theatre Artistic Director Nelson Chia has skilfully translated and adapted the award-winning play into Mandarin, bringing the lives of Eric and Habiba to a different audience in 《本质上快乐》.
Twenty years on from when they last met, thirty year old Eric (Timothy Wan) stumbles into the flat of his previous neighbours Habiba (veteran actress Lok Meng Chue) and Ismail, rekindling fond memories of an idyllic time in their lives. But twenty years of baggage soon throws up some inconvenient truths about this past. No longer is Eric an innocent 10 year old nor does Habiba seem to be his kindly, surrogate mother. Between the two, secrets are abound concerning the figure of Ismail – a husband, neighbour, friend and paedophilic predator.
Drawing attention to the site-specific nature of the character’s interactions, director Nelson Chia and his team have conjured a beautiful set (designed by Wong Chee Wai) full of intricacies which together bear the weight of over two decades of history. Within walls that are worn at the edges, Habiba’s house carries with it familiar signs of home, from the modest rattan living room set and its dark red carpet, to the plastic containers with lemon biscuit snacks on the marble-top dining table. Old furniture is juxtaposed with the new, such that enough remains to remind Eric of his “paradise”, whereas the stereo-hogging and desktop-savvy Habiba seems to be keen to move along with the times. The set also cleverly plays with depth and levels to create the illusion of space, with trees and rain being visible through the window and stairs showing that we are inside a mansionette.
Photo by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of Esplanade
Timothy Wan’s portrayal of Eric is nuanced and controlled, artfully taking the audience through the complex emotional states of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Given that Eric’s character traces the especially thorny journey from blame to forgiveness, Wan does a good job of making it all believably ir/rational. Acting opposite Eric, Lok Meng Chue’s Habiba is an overpowering bundle of impulses as seems to be fitting of such a precisely unreliable character. In her dialogue, Lok’s acting makes agile shifts in tone to adopt Habiba’s various positions of emotional defence and manipulation. Considering that many of the threats and transfers of blame occur on the level of subtext, both actors more than manage to convey the toxicity of Eric and Habiba’s interaction.
“How do we find happiness? Where can we find it?” These central questions are probably what have intrigued and will continue to draw audiences to Fundamentally Happy. Far from just being about paedophilia, the play’s topical concern instead serves to draw the audience into its characters’ human search for happiness. Nine Years Theatre’s adaptation powerfully captures this struggle and will be appreciated by anyone who is willing to ask what it takes to be fundamentally happy.
Fundamentally Happy (R18) plays as part of the Esplanades’ The Studios season 2017 till 19 March at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The play is in Mandarin with English surtitles, and tickets are available from SISTIC
This article is written by Nigel Choo for Bakchormeeboy.com.