When one thinks of The Necessary Stage, it’s nearly impossible not to think of a production that was based off Resident Playwright Haresh Sharma’s scripts. Having been with the company since its humble beginnings in 1987, Sharma and TNS are inseparable, and Being Haresh Sharma celebrates both the man and the many scripts and unforgettable characters he’s penned over the last 30 years.
Although presented by The Necessary Stage, Being Haresh Sharma was directed and conceptualised by Cake Theatrical Productions artistic director Natalie Hennedige, offering a very different interpretation of Sharma’s scripts than TNS’ typical fare. As the development of a project initially started at the National University of Singapore in 2014 (We, the Inhabitants), Being Haresh Sharma takes a closer look at Sharma’s entire body of work, distilling the most memorable and essential characters and themes he’s created and reconstructs them as what is essentially a rollercoaster showreel of the best of Haresh Sharma.
Being Haresh Sharma is by no means an easy play to watch. Even if one is well-versed in TNS’ production history, the sheer amount of content makes this play akin to a puzzle to solve. But perhaps that is precisely what Natalie Hennedige has set out to do. Hennedige takes TNS’ signature use of magic realism and ramps it up a few notches, revealing unexpected links and overlaps between scripts and characters while re-interpreting scenes under her vision. There are times the play felt like an extended music video, segueing from one sequence to another (and of course featuring plenty of unusual song and dance numbers typical of a TNS play), and this was helped by the lack of an intermission, which really allowed for the audience to fully immerse themselves in the weird, wonderful world that Hennedige has crafted from Sharma’s words.
Being a production headed by Cake’s artistic director, even though Being Haresh Sharma started off with an easy to follow comic sequence poking fun at how Sharma was so revered he might have written Waiting for Godot, it quickly transformed into something much more abstract in nature, as characters from his various plays come into being and perform lines from the original scripts, interacting with each other in new ways. Off Centre‘s Vinod (Ghafid Akbar), for example, talks about the idea of suicide, while Model Citizens’ Wendy (Karen Tan) reflects on her own son’s suicide in the same sequence.
As a self-aware, meta-textual piece reflecting on the both the history of TNS’ productions, it was fascinating to watch the cast reprise their roles from past productions, such as Karen Tan in Still Building from the 90s. Being Haresh Sharma even gave TNS regular Siti Khalijah her own segment, having performed in some of TNS’ most acclaimed productions. In the segment, Siti channelled her past roles as Malay women of varying backgrounds in Gemuk Girls, Model Citizens, Poor Thing and Best Of. It is Sharma’s scripts that propelled Siti to stardom, allowing her to showcase her immense range of characters and develop her craft, becoming The Necessary Stage’s actress of choice when it comes to casting for a Malay woman everyone can relate to.
Despite not appearing in the original Gemuk Girls, Ghafir Akbar infused one of its most heartwrenching monologues with deep emotion and pain, enhanced by a highly stylized sequence as he stretched from chair to chair, his movements calculated perfectly, but confused when he ultimately decides to stay true to his morals and forfeit his freedom. Ghafir also played Off Centre’s Vinod in various scenes, equally ripe with emotion and culminating in a showstopping moment as the skies open up to rain down upon him, the silhouette of his body poised and powerful.
One of the most fascinating scenes was the reproduction of Sharma’s Lizard. Having only been staged once, this was a play that few audience members would be familiar with, and follows a mother, son and maid as they argue with each other and chaos ensues. Taking on a campy John Waters-esque direction, this version of Lizard suggested that these problems were not isolated incidents, but common, in having the cast split into two groups and take turns performing the sequence.
Although utilizing a relatively simple set, much like the play itself, Neontights’ set unveils an increasing number of elements as time goes by, from children’s rides to a tree that appeared in multiple scenes, not to mention plenty of props from lion masks to an entire spectrum of coloured wigs. One of the most creative set pieces were the platforms used in the Still Building segment, which, lined with small yellow squares, resembled small buildings reminding audiences of the play’s discussion of Hotel New World, contributing to the thematic relevance of the set. Of course, Andy Lim’s precise lighting design helped as well, while Philip Tan’s sound design conveyed TNS’ wry mix of fun during the more light-hearted segments, but also tempered it with simple yet devastatingly moving pieces during the more serious parts.
One of the most important set elements however would be Brian Gothong Tan’s incredibly mesmerizing video design. Playing abstract images on the supersize screen at the back of the stage was key to setting up each scene, adding thematic effect and depth. Our eyes were fixated on the affecting sequence during the Model Citizens segment showing Karen Tan as the grieving mother of a deceased son desperately searching for any trace she can find of him, amplifying Tan’s performance onstage as she reprised her monologue from the play.
Being Haresh Sharma ultimately teases out just what it is about Sharma’s scripts that makes them so appealing and current: granting a voice to the underrepresented, the silenced and the forgotten in Singapore, shedding light on issues that have gone under the radar for too long. Although prior knowledge of TNS productions isn’t necessary, longtime supporters will be rewarded with little tidbits such as genderbending God (Jo Kukathas) in the godeatgod.
Whatever you make of the carefully chosen series of vignettes that make up Being Haresh Sharma, one cannot deny the incredible impact that Haresh Sharma’s works have left on audiences and made TNS the company it is today. In the closing sequence, the cast repeats the opening one, in which they number off Sharma’s plays and interpret the titles. Only this time, there is no laughter, and as the lights fade to black, the numbers continue on endlessly in the darkness, an infinitum of still more scripts to come from Sharma, and further expanding on the already amazing body of work produced. Being Haresh Sharma is a labour of love paying tribute to one of Singapore’s most timely and relevant playwrights, and there’s no better year to celebrate that than TNS’ 30th anniversary.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Performance attended 29/6/17
Being Haresh Sharma plays at the Drama Centre Theatre till 2nd July. Tickets available on SISTIC