Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: ANAMNESIS by Cheryl Charli Tan

Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed.

In Marvel’s WandaVision, superhero Vision utters the line “What is grief, if not love enduring?” Love, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse, ensuring that even as illogical as it seems, we want to press on and hold on to our beloved, even in the face of a seemingly endless barrage of conflicts.

That then, is the central issue explored in Cheryl Charli Tan’s new play ANAMNESIS. Directed by Isaiah Christopher Lee, ANAMNESIS deals with the concept of memory and the persistence of love, against all odds. Starring playwright Cheryl, and Izzul Irfan, the play sees the actors performing as two Singaporeans whose relationship is tested as they face untold change and transitions throughout their lives, surviving and holding on to each other amidst psychological, mental and emotional disaster.

As a play about memory, ANAMNESIS strays from traditional narrative structures, and for the most part, is non-sequitur, as the two characters attempt to piece together their history. Performed atop an elevated platform in the Aliwal Arts Centre Black Box, all eyes are on them as they sit across from each other, their relationship maintained but tenuous. There are some words that just can’t be cleared up, it seems.

For the first part of the play, the two spend time dredging up remnants of the past, with polaroids charting the trajectory of their relationship, constantly asking how they got here. All this, as they build a tower of expired canned food, almost as if a reminder of how even the most long-lasting of relationships have their expiry date. Outdated newspapers become a graveyard of the past, life is too expensive, funerals even more so, while card games become a reminder of how almost anything in life is a matter of luck and chance. They ponder over their mortality, how even the subject of love and forming a stable relationship is a matter of luck, and even the supposedly simple task of saying ‘I love you’ to each other can be difficult – with so much negativity lingering, how long can this possibly last for?

The solution, they think is to take the plunge together, as they decide to take things one day at a time, and attempt to start a family just to see where it goes. The road ahead is a difficult one, from failing to conceive, to having to get their own place via dodgy listings on ‘Carouhell’, and it’s all they can do to assure each other that they’re in this together for the long run, through conversations and consolation to dispel all the self-doubt.

Building together a life with the scraps they have, with a ‘secret hideout’ and a happy anniversary, it seems for an instant that their fantasy of a happy family might just come true. But it’s not long before things crumble apart, and their pre-existing doubts come to the fore once again. The prospect of marriage seems to be on the horizon – Jamie Cullum’s ‘All At Sea’ plays in the background, suggesting how they need this to save each other. Yet one side is more excited than the other, and as they grow distanced, the inevitable happens – hey begin the process of breaking up.

Even when there’s hope on the horizon, as they discover a world map depicting their planned future trips together, the good memories giving temporary respite, not to mention a daughter they’re determined to raise. It seems that they might stay together after all, except there are far too many pre-existing issues that prevent them from going back to how it used to be, and past infidelities that may not have completely concluded, more doubts pouring in and more conversations that barely keep them together. Yet the spectre of divorce constantly looms over them, with their lives taking a nosedive for the worse every step of the way.

We come to realise all the trials and tribulations of being a couple, perhaps part and parcel of a relationship, and as suggested right from the beginning, all relationships have an expiry date. Each time they sit across from the table, it acts as a physical barrier to represent the two of them negotiating their relationship with each other, transactional as opposed to out of love. There isn’t a moment of peace – even when they drive to their daughter’s recital together, the smallest of issues blows up from the underlying tensions in their relationship, and the topic of divorce comes up again, and this time, it seems final.

As it all falls apart, it’s all she can do to find a way to escape it, back to happier times before getting into this mess. We return to the opening scene, a boy and a girl, whose mum and dad left the, behind in this ‘void’. They create a story around their situation to make themselves feel better, a fantasy to believe in and get them through this hell, where they go on adventures and find love. Perhaps it is this idea of love that allows some people to persist, to keep filling in the bad parts with memories of better times, to keep trying again and again, even when it seems futile.

Back in the present, we see the couple grow old together, with the wife battling the onset of dementia. She can no longer remember her life and children, yet the undying memories of love left behind will both heal and haunt her, lingering on as a dull echo of her life’s trajectory. No matter how much pain she’s suffered in the past, no matter how much fear she has for what else may befall her in future, it is all we can do to find the light and cherish each day we have, treasure the love we give and receive, and learn that sometimes, letting go and moving on is ultimately for the best.

Photo Credit: Isaiah Christopher Lee and Aisyah J. Iskandar

ANAMNESIS played from 31st July to 3rd August 2021 at the Aliwal Arts Centre Multipurpose Hall.

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