Arts online Review Singapore Theatre

Review: (un)becoming by Sim Yan Ying “YY” & Nabilah Said

Generational trauma passed down from mother to daughter, but to what end?

There is a sagely line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that states that ‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.’ For most people then, they engage in an active process of ‘unbecoming’, actively rejecting mothers’ advice and closeness, in order to become an independent agent. But is it truly possible to shed our parents’ histories, and lead a life free of inherited trauma?

That’s the key issue explored in Sim Yan Ying “YY” and Nabilah Said’s Zoom (un)becoming, where the complexities of motherhood are unpacked through a combination of live performance, pre-recorded film, and screen sharing on Zoom. Over the course of the evening, we watch as single mother Elaine (Isabella Chiam) struggles to keep her rebellious teenage daughter Rina (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen) in check. Rina, meanwhile, runs off to befriend their neighbour Dewi (Suhaili Safari), an amateur doula facing difficult clients. Finally, supernatural, supposedly immortal Eggkeykey (Chanel Ariel Chan) flits around, telling stories of mythological maternal figures and motherhood in the animal kingdom.

(un)becoming strength lies in its plethora of ideas, with an almost chaotic aesthetic as it references everything from the Hantu Tetek to menstrual cups in its attempt to unpack the many issues of motherhood. Of the many ideas raised, we found ourselves most drawn to Eggkeykey’s stories, such as her attempt to explain how mothers are often misjudged for their acts of love. This is emphasised when she tells us about animal mothers accidentally killing their children, seemingly unrelated at first, before linking it to Singaporean tiger mothers pushing their children to the limits, even if it eats away at the parent-child relationship. While not explicitly stated, this forms a strong parallel to Elaine and Rina’s relationship, where Elaine is simply trying her best to protect her daughter, only for her to react as if she’s been suffocated by her love.

The main issue (un)becoming faces then, is that it tries to cover too much ground, often leaving it in a touch and go situation, where its ideas are never given enough time to really develop or be properly woven into the narrative. For example, Elaine and Rina’s main conflict is simply that they can’t stand living with each other anymore. Initially, it’s hinted that Rina may even be in some kind of mortal danger, only for it to be resolved as easily as her just coming home. The remainder of their storyline then, is just the two of them allowing their angst and rage to simmer over, reconciling once they’re finally out of each other’s hair, without much emotional attachment on the audience’s part.

On the other hand, of the four protagonists, the most interesting one is Dewi, considering the doula’s role in facilitating pregnancies and therefore, motherhood. Her potential as a character however, is squandered, by never taking the doula idea further than it just being a job, and focusing instead on her ambiguously abusive relationship with her mother and difficult clientele. It dances around her role as a doula, treating it as any other role, rather than capitalising on the uniqueness of the job and its connection to the play’s main ideas.

Still, what (un)becoming has going for it is its myriad of engaging presentation styles, synonymous with YY’s previous digital theatre experiments. Stand-out moments include when Elaine helps her daughter with a stuck menstrual cup, by having her tools flash across the screen, while a volcano spews bloody lava, allowing us to leave the more graphic bits to our imagination.

Elsewhere, Dewi curses and swears navigating between frenzied WhatsApp convos via screen recording, incorporates elements such as irritating eight-second voice recordings, and captures the stress of responding to and managing multiple messages at once, leaving her a complete mess. At one point, audience members are even given a chance to ‘spy’ on each character’s screen activity, each desktop and open tab carefully curated to add layers of personality to their character (Rina’s screens where she scrolls through Instagram, with posts from natureismetal and yourgirlfriendwhosia, is a wonderful reference).

As one of the few people who dived headfirst into Zoom theatre, expanding and developing her experience over the last year, from Who’s There, to Where Are You, and now this, YY deserves recognition for constantly pushing the medium to its limits, capitalising on it as a tool rather than a crutch to express her unique point of view. But if she wants to take it beyond the label of experimental theatre, then she must find collaborators willing to help her push her writing to another level, and offer dramaturgical support that lets audience members connect to her core issues, rather than always relying on her ability to create work that is visually engaging, but thin on narrative and unfocused in its purpose.

(un)becoming is ultimately a tribute to mothers, and a call to be less afraid of becoming one, to forgive our mothers for their mistakes, and to know that they always have our best interests at heart. While it does take some puzzling together on the audience’s part to get, it leaves us with this: if all women become their mothers, it is not a tragedy; it is merely the cycle of life since time immemorial, and our duty to become better versions of her when given the opportunity.

(un)becoming ran from 14th to 17th July 2021 online. The 2021 Festival of Women, N.O.W. (not ordinary work) runs online from 13th to 31st July 2021. More information and full lineup available here

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