Sometimes it’s those closest to you that you can never escape from.
Euginia Tan has always excelled at work dealing with the complexities of interpersonal relationships. And in her latest play, The Rat Trap, Euginia has shown how she’s continued to grow as a playwright concerned with such themes, this time exploring the toxicity that one’s own family can breed in each other.
Directed by Hazel Ho, The Rat Trap focuses on the relationship between a retired, elderly father (Lim Kay Siu) and his daughter Shih-An (Yap Yi Kai). Living together, her father’s alcohol addiction becomes increasingly hard to bear, and Shih-An’s patience for him is fast running out.
Upon first entering the theatre, we immediately see a maze onstage, reminiscent of those used to experiment on lab rats. We are reminded of the many routes in life, and how complicated they can be to manoeuvre. This manifests itself in the play’s complex central relationship, immediately established by the tensions felt between Shih-An and her father as they settle an issue at the Land Transport Authority (represented by smart, moveable set pieces that allow us to know exactly where we are at any point of time throughout the play).
Learning that a rat is in the house, Shih-An wrestles with tasking her father to buy a rat trap, knowing that any money she gives him will likely be spent on alcohol. Her fears are proven true when he returns home with bottles rattling in his bag, despite promising her otherwise. Yet as they have dinner, they deliberately avoid the elephant in the room, allowing themselves to discuss the rat as a way to distract themselves from their difficult, strained relationship. The rat itself, appearing before them, is expertly played by Darren Guo, using all his puppetry and physical theatre experience to realistically portray it.
While simple in plot, The Rat Trap pads its runtime by unraveling more and more of their complex father-daughter relationship. Throughout the play, as more of their past is revealed, we come to understand that the two have become trapped by each other. Even though it seems like the obvious choice for Shih-An to leave this alcohol-addicted man, constantly drowning himself in beer to ease his pain and loneliness, she cannot bear to leave out of obligation, knowing that she owes her childhood to her father, who single-handedly brought her up. It is now her turn to take care of him, whether it’s providing money, or simply moving him into a more comfortable position when he falls asleep on the couch.
There’s a saying that it is the ones you love who will end up hurting you the most, and this holds true for both Shih-An and her father, caught in this endless, back-and-forth cycle of pain. On the next day, they seem to have settled into a routine, as her father once again asks for money to hire his friend to catch the rat. Here, he reveals a smug smirk at the sight of the cash, and we realise that some habits will never change. They fight, they try to fix things by helping each other, before they hurt each other again, even verging on physical violence. It seems that the real rat trap is the one they themselves are caught in, haunted by and unable to move on from their pained histories.
It is only when Shih-An chooses to separate herself that the healing process can begin, as she declares she’s moving out, much to her father’s shock. On the street, she bumps into a fellow musician friend that her father was involved in an accident with, and confronts her lingering guilt, and fear of meeting him out of her own responsibility over the incident. As they talk about their dreams and struggles as budding musicians, she realises that he has already moved on, while she’s still clinging tightly to the past. It is this that leads to Shih-An finally speaking candidly with her father, as the two of them open up to each other, sharing their vulnerability and fears in a heart to heart conversation, and connecting over their shared love for music in an emotional moment.
For the most part, The Rat Trap is a well-performed and well-paced emotional grind, with each of its three cast members bringing out the full gamut of personality traits from their characters. Kay Siu is a veteran actor, and portrays Shih-An’s father as a cheeky yet deplorable old man, reeling from deep-set pain, trauma and self-hate. Yi Kai, as the long-suffering daughter, incurs our sympathy with how she maintains a positive attitude in spite of how battered she is emotionally. And Darren shows off his chameleonic versatility with his plethora of characters, playing everything from the rat to a beer-drinking, karaoke-singing, rat-catcher extraordinaire.
By the end of it all, Shih-An and her father are still stuck in the same situation, more understanding of each other but with plenty of unresolved issues, represented by the rat snooping around their traps, yet never actually caught by them. We watch as Shih-An’s father swears off alcohol, in an effort to no longer make his daughter worry. Speaking directly to the rat and even feeding him, we come to see the rat as a symbol of how their problems have bonded and shackled them to each other. But as Shih-An comes in, she sees the rat, and kills it at last, hitting it time and time again until its heartbeat fades away. The silence that remains is deafening, as Shih-An finally feels free and able to move out, and her father realises how little of his daughter he’ll see in future, even with her promise of visiting at least once a week.
As the two of them share a moment of tenderness, with Shih-An performing at a gig while her father cheers her on, they sing a beautiful duet titled “Hope You Will Be Home”, bittersweet but hopeful. He sits there with a bottle of beer in hand, resisting the temptation to fall back into alcoholism, and the rat appears again, highlighting his loneliness and hinting that their problems are far from over. We are left to ponder over the double-edged sword of love, wondering if we can ever truly leave family behind, no matter how bad they may be for us.
The Rat Trap played at the Gateway Theatre from 26th to 28th February 2021 at the Gateway Theatre Black Box, with a livestream running from 28th February to 7th March 2021 online. Tickets available via SISTIC