Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: The Concubine by Isaiah Christopher Lee

You are worth more than the sum of your broken relationships.

Nobody likes feeling like the third wheel. But far too often, even in a ménage à trois, it is inevitable that one of the three members will end up being the least loved, something Isaiah Christopher Lee realises when he unwillingly finds himself part of a throuple.

Directed by Adeeb Fazah, The Concubine sees Isaiah bare it all as he tells his true story of heartbreak to the audience, and how it unwittingly fuelled him towards becoming a better person. Co-written with Izzul Irfan, the semi-autobiographical monodrama sees Isaiah opening point blank – with a glass of whiskey in hand, he admits he’s assaulted his ex, and needs no one to forgive him. But underneath this bravado of strength lies the wounds from a breakup, and this play then acts as a means of catharsis, as he recounts the events leading up to this point, and paves his own road to recovery.

The main narrative is a familiar one; boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, and they live happily ever after; Isaiah’s descriptions and memories of Alvin come from a genuine place, recalling time spent cycling with each other, dinners with the family, and the sweet, tender moment of lying his head on his partner’s chest and hearing his heartbeat.

The problem arises when a third party enters the picture, shattering the perfect equilibrium in Isaiah’s relationship. It is clear that this new romantic rival, Dennis, is more ‘accomplished’ than Isaiah, as a scholar, and that Alvin takes a far greater interest in him. Isaiah is dethroned as the primary boyfriend and relegated to the titular ‘concubine’, while the other two go on to belittle him as time goes by.

Isaiah makes it clear that the throuple situation is completely bad news, as they continue to psychologically abuse him, and leads Isaiah to begin questioning his entire existence and sense of self-worth. From the two of them drawing up a contract regarding the pros and cons of Isaiah remaining in the relationship, to a casual mahjong session with friends going awry when Isaiah is openly reprimanded for not knowing how to play at his age, it’s no wonder he reaches a breaking point, and physically retaliates when it becomes too much to bear.

Onstage, the set represents Isaiah’s bedroom, with a bed surrounded by piles of literary texts, an intimate space befitting of such an intimate, personal piece. Mahjong tiles litter the space, a reminder of the final straw and event that lead to Isaiah brutalising his ex. The clutter of the set also seems to indicate the headspace of a broken man, his mind a mess from the abuse he’s suffered, and his need to put his life in order again.

As the only actor onstage, Isaiah’s role is to fill the space and keep the audience engaged throughout the 90-minute piece, a demanding task for any performer, regardless of experience. To help him with this, the team inserts peripheral scenes depicting fictitious and historical concubines; at times he is an Indonesian woman speaking in fluent Bahasa Indonesia, coupled with shadow puppets and gamelan music in the background to better facilitate his storytelling; at others, a fiery Peranakan lady in a sarong kebaya, or even retells the tragic tale of Consort Qi, concubine to Han emperor Liu Bang, while dressed in regal palace garb.

While visually interesting, these segments serve more to distract than layer the work with meaning. At times, it even feels like Isaiah is attempting to show off his range of skills, as if telling the audience how capable he is in an attempt to show Alvin all he’s missing out on, while the slow onstage costume changes and transitions also affect the play’s momentum. The Concubine really finds its stride only once Isaiah has established all of this backstory, and he gets into the difficult process of finding himself and piecing together his self-worth again. This is where Isaiah excavates his sadness and capitalises on its dramatic potential. In recognising his shortcomings, Isaiah’s journey of self-improvement garners our sympathy, as he recalls some of the lowest points in his life, from losing a baby sister to a miscarriage, to further memories of his first ever boyfriend, and constantly wondering if he is good enough for this world.

Ultimately, it is his own family that saves him, whether it’s his grandmother inspiring him to follow his dreams; or his parents, who may not have much financially, but still dedicate themselves to saving enough money to give him an annual ang pow, with the hopes he will one day have enough to build a future for himself with.

The Concubine does require some dramaturgical support to tighten the many elements it tries to cover. With its side stories and historical characters deviating greatly from its core plot and from plumbing the emotional ravages of a devastating relationship, one would imagine this is a play that would do much better without as many bells and whistles. But what it does show is a clear step up from Isaiah’s previous work and growth in his journey as a theatremaker. Even in its ending, the play acknowledges that his path towards fully healing is far from over, but leaves us on a note of hope, as he vows to leave his past behind, and build a better future for himself, free of shame.

The Concubine played from 14th to 18th July 2021 at the Drama Centre Black Box.

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