Family secrets come to light in a brilliant, heartfelt drama from Nine Years Theatre.
Every family has its share of skeletons in the closet, some so dark, it’s better to keep them hidden than come clean. But as with all secrets, the longer you hold on to it, the harder it becomes to hold down, with questions and hints that rise to the surface over the years. All this comes to the fore in Nine Years Theatre’s (NYT) first ever show in the Esplanade Theatre, Between You and Me.
Written and directed by NYT Artistic Director Nelson Chia, Between You and Me follows a three-generational Chinese family in Singapore, as we watch them navigate their changing relationships as a longstanding secret threatens to tear a family apart. Initially, all seems rosy; family matriarch and veteran film/TV actress Lin Li Qing (Goh Guat Kian) opens the show as she receives an award for best supporting actress in a short film. Emboldened, Li Qing decides to come out of retirement, and try her hand at theatre, starring in family friend Yao Guang’s (David Wong) new show.
There’s just one problem – Li Qing stars opposite her real life second daughter, respected local stage actress Shi Lin (Sharon Au). Tensions rise as Shi Lin expresses how ‘weird’ it feels to perform with her mother, unable to develop strong chemistry onstage, and made even more complicated when her ex-boyfriend and first love Xia Yi (Ric Liu) is hired to direct the production.
Throughout the play, the recurring sound of thunder resonates, constantly threatening a literal and metaphorical storm to come, and more problems are on the horizon; Li Qing’s two other daughters are going through their own problems. Elder daughter Shi Qi (Jean Ng) is going through a messy divorce, while youngest daughter Shi Jie (Mia Chee) is the sole family member still living with her mother, bearing the brunt of her mother’s constant nagging to find a life partner. Weighed down by these issues, even when it’s clear that something is amiss, each member maintains a cheery outlook, held back by the fear that revealing the truth would tear the family apart.
As a playwright, Nelson Chia has engineered a script that has been allowed to meander while the well of tension continues to bubble under the surface. This allows for audiences to become completely immersed in the family’s dynamics over the course of the play, as we become increasingly involved with their lives and watch them navigate and live with their unresolved tensions, attempting to ignore the signs while maintaining their otherwise strong facade. This is a familiar situation for many a Chinese family, and feels all-too believable, thanks to both the writing and performances.
The dialogue and conversations in the script are so natural, that we easily buy into the realism of this family and their bonds. Little moments, such as gossip heard through the family grapevine, taking staged we-fies during parties, or even the simple act of delivering homemade soup as a symbol of care are the subtle but powerful details that allow us to suspend our disbelief, and see this as an actual family onstage.
Not to mention, the cast also delivers on some of the strongest performances from their careers. At its core, the play’s central conflict remains between Li Qing and Shi Lin, and how they manage to navigate and resolve their ‘weird’ chemistry both onstage and off. Sharon Au has previously performed as part of Huayi, but in this production, Nelson has brought out the very best of her potential, giving her enough opportunity to explore her character’s roles as mother, daughter and sister, capturing a seemingly diva-like attitude in refusing to work with her mother, but slowly giving way to reveal a much more complex approach towards life, weighed down by her own fears of her stagnating career.
In her performance as Li Qing, Guat Kian switches easily between various personas, be it the kaypoh grandmother asking after her grandkids and prying into her daughters’ lives, or a screen diva commanding the stage, garnering the instant respect of those around her. When things fall apart at last, there is pain in her voice as she tries to grasp control of the situation again, and later on, as she tells the truth to her daughters, her lengthy monologue so heartfelt and regretful, it proves Guat Kian to be one of the most versatile, endearing actresses of her generation.
As for the rest of the cast, at any point in the play, there is an almost tangible energy and warmth that emerges from their interactions and presence. Nelson Chia has proven himself to be one of the best local directors today, in drawing out every actor’s potential, and making them feel like a family that has grown up together, share history, and have crafted countless memories with each other. There are no stunts or spectacles; only the actors’ ability to make their relationships believable.
Again, much like his scripting, Nelson does this in small but significant ways that show the similarities between members – take for instance, how Shi Lin’s husband Ze Dong (Mitchell Fang) comes home to find his daughter Chen Min (Wendi Wee Hian) playing a video game, and joins in to help her fight off a boss, while Shi Lin exasperatedly watches on. At the crematorium, Kai Xuan (Shi Qi’s son, played by Lim Jun De) is chided when he makes an offhand remark that it’s ‘convenient’ for both their grandfather and great-grandfather’s death anniversary to coincide, only for their grand uncle Zhi Gang (Johnny Ng) to say exactly the same thing a few lines later, similarly chided by his wife (Liow Shi Suen). Whether comic or dramatic, all of these are integral scenes that reveal the family’s bonds with each other, and their shared personality traits across generations.
With so much build up, Between You and Me finds its emotional and dramatic peak in a particularly well-crafted scene when everything finally falls apart, and the truth comes to light – the climactic banquet at Li Qing’s 70th birthday. As the wine is imbibed (giving Johnny Ng a spectacular moment to play the chaotic drunk uncle), new guests arrive without warning and the tension finally blows up, we bear witness to a glorious whirlwind of drama and cringe humour, entertaining and painful in equal measures as the family battles it out with each other, and all that has been kept buried is unearthed and bared raw for all to see. In the hands of Nelson Chia, this scene has been directed to perfection, and exemplifies the awkwardness of big family events, where miscommunication flies hard and fast around the massive banquet table.
In the wake of the drama, out on the swings, the one thing that has remained constant through all the years of living in the same house, each sister admits their truth, and Li Qing unburdens herself from her dark secret at last. It is an emotional moment as they release themselves from the weight of hiding the truth, and though they fear the reaction, there is acceptance from all. Fundamentally speaking, even with the truth, they are still the same family they have always been, buoyed by bonds strong enough to weather any storm, each member understanding intimately each one’s deepest flaws, but also, showing genuine, sincere care and concern for each other.
The brilliance of Between You and Me is in how Nelson Chia has elevated the ordinary, everyday routines of a regular family in Singapore to a story worth watching. This is a production that effectively raises the idea that the typical Asian method of bottling things up does no one any favours, using that as potent fuel for the all-too-common drama happening onstage. Furthermore, there is something so powerful in watching real life depicted onstage; in just seeing the family dining together, exchanging banter and laughing heartily, there is resonance in the recognition, and reassures us of our own survival and better days. As the storm clouds clear and the family becomes whole again, we too are healed, and certain that the sun will come out again, if only we’re more open and honest with each other.
Photo Credit: Jack Yam
Between You and Me played from 11th to 19th February 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2022. More information available here
Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2022 ran from 11th February to 6th March 2022 at the Esplanade. Tickets and full programme lineup available here