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Review: Happy Waiting by Grain Performance & Research Lab

Screenshot 2019-05-16 at 11.49.15 PM

Modern homage to Beckett’s works reflects on the crushing despair of mundane routines and walking depression. 

Taking both its name and inspiration from two plays by master of absurd theatre Samuel Beckett, Happy Waiting sees Grain Performance & Research Lab attempt to use the absurd medium to confront issues of joy and routine in daily life. Written by Beverly Yuen and directed by choreographer Bernice Lee, Happy Waiting combines elements of both Happy Days and Waiting For Godot by Beckett to produce an entirely new work.

In the show, we open on an odd, well-shaped mound, listening to the sound of an alarm ringing. We hear the sounds of teeth being brushed, before two disembodied hands appear from a tiny hole in the mound to retrieve a pair of bright red heels. This then, is the world of Vicky (Sonia Kwek), a housewife and mother who goes through one day after another, routinely taking care of her child while waiting desperately for her husband to come home, suspiciously, always finding a reason to work late. One thing’s for certain – she begins each day on a positive note, repeating the same mantra each time she awakens after the same alarm and same sounds of brushing her teeth: “today will be a happy day!”

Deviating somewhat from the absurd form, Happy Waiting is far more straightforward than a typical Beckett work, offering a narrative and characterisation that becomes clear before long. In that sense, Happy Waiting isn’t actually an absurd work, but instead, acts more as a homage to Beckett, such as how Vicky, like Winnie in Happy Days, is both physically stuck in a structure and metaphorically stuck in routine, the audience only ever privy to parts of her body, be it her feet or her upper body. The Waiting for Godot portion on the other hand, expresses itself as Vicky awaits her absent husband’s return, while dancer Neo Yan Zong enters the space from time to time, comical in his flighty movements and a break in Vicky’s routine. Whether he is an actual person or figment of her imagination is never made clear, and one instead sees him as representative of all that Vicky does not possess – freedom of movement, of expression, and allowed to enter and exit as he pleases.

As a performer, Sonia Kwek shows plenty of verve and potential in her portrayal of Vicky, wearing an almost consistent smile on her face as she struggles to maintain the facade of happiness. There is such dedication to this expression that it achieves its intended effect – an uncanny falseness to her endless optimism that only leaves us unnerved as she continues to get through each day. This only makes her momentary breaks in the Stepford Wife-like portrayal all the more discomforting, like a malfunctioning robot who has realised the futility of its existence, laughing maniacally when she suspects her husband of cheating on her while guzzling an entire bottle of wine, with all her days that follow haunted by a sense of something indescribably being off. Besides this mastery over controlled expression, Sonia, despite being confined to a single location, displays talent in expressing her body in the limited ways she is allowed. Whether it is using her feet as ‘puppets’ that ‘speak’ to each other, or her hands using fiery-coloured fans to represent butterflies, there is much that this young actress is certainly capable of that we want to see in future productions.

Perhaps the most absurd thing of all in Happy Waiting then lies in in Neo Yan Zong’s appearances. The frequency with which he appears detracts from his purpose as a fleeting sense of hope or as a symbol of Vicky’s desperation, while each appearance teeters on the edge of ludicrous or lacks a tightness in his physicality that prevents us from seriously considering his ‘dance’ as an actual solution out of Vicky’s sticky situation. In essence, there are no viable ways out for Vicky, whose only future lies in the hellish reality of continuing to plaster a happy smile across her face as she lives out the rest of her life in this limbo.

Happy Waiting is a work that has its roots in the absurd but ends up becoming something far more straightforward and cutting with its narrative. While the pacing does border on being a little draggy, this works with Happy Waiting’s intent to make us feel the ennui and existential angst bubbling beneath Vicky’s otherwise cheerful exterior. We feel frustrated and horrified at the prospect of someone being literally trapped in this nightmarishly mundane eternity of a routine, and certainly, walk away from this production a little more fearful and aware of our own invisible chains that bind us in our daily lives.

Photo Credit: Megan Chia

Performance attended 12/7/19

Happy Waiting ran from 12th to 13th July 2019 at Stamford Arts Centre. 

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