Brutally honest depiction of millennial parenthood reveals the cracks in the system.
The fourth trimester refers to the 12-week period immediately after a mother gives birth, an additional three months of physical and emotional labour as both parent and child adjust to their new lives. But while just about every mother goes through this, very little of it has been shown onstage and onscreen, and with the power of filters on social media, makes parenthood seem like a complete breeze.
In Checkpoint Theatre’s latest production, playwright Faith Ng takes inspiration from her own experiences as a new mother to pen her new script The Fourth Trimester. Directed by Claire Wong, the play centres on new parents Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron (Joshua Lim), who’re finding their baby more than a handful to care for, as they worry over how well he’s latching and the perils of breastfeeding over formula, all while neglecting their own basic hygiene and allowing their three-room flat to accumulate a mountain of laundry, never cleared throughout the entirety of the play.
Over the course of the play, The Fourth Trimester introduces us to Samantha and Aaron’s social circle, each one supposedly living picture-perfect lives, only for Faith’s writing to expose the cracks forming beneath. Fellow couple Daniel ((Hang Qian Chou) and Lisa (Julie Wee) are relatively happy with their two children, only to encounter communication problems and a rising spate of arguments over a lack of responsibility towards each other. Meanwhile, Lisa’s sister Ann (Oon Shu An) seems to have it all as a strong independent woman, only to still be nursing the scars from her ex-boyfriend Johan (Al-Matin Yatim). Johan and his wife Sofia (Rusydinah Afiqah) happen to be Samantha and Aaron’s new neighbour, and face frustration and social pressure when they fail to conceive.
Where The Fourth Trimester succeeds is in its no-holds barred look at the perils of millennial parenthood, where the rarely discussed, ugly side of starting a family in the modern day is laid raw onstage. Whether it’s the sheer exhaustion of child-rearing, the deluge of unsolicited advice or the fears and tensions that change the very nature of a couple’s relationship, playwright Faith finds a way to bring it all to the fore, and allows audience members to understand how harrowing and undesirable parenthood is today.
Even more than that, The Fourth Trimester is distinctly feminist in its overarching message, bringing out Faith’s own feelings of how women continue to be on the losing end of patriarchal society with their burdens, responsibilities and expectations weighing them down. It is made clear how women are seen merely as vessels for childbirth, and whose value revolves around their ‘success’ as a mother, while fathers continue to stew in ignorance of how bad women have it. This divide and lack of understanding between sexes is even felt across generations, such as when Samantha is appalled at Aaron for the way he speaks to his mother, when her own mother lays in the ICU, and drives home the fact that there exists a gulf between men and women that must be bridged for things to get better.
It makes sense then that Faith would focus on the strength of female relationships as a wall of solidarity against patriarchal society, as seen from the little genuine moments of connection between women in The Fourth Trimester. In reminiscing over their uni days and mourning the loss of things past, best friends Samantha and Ann giggle like giddy schoolgirls and tease each other lovingly. Meanwhile, there is a tenderness to how Ann and Lisa bond over their memory of their late mother, and how they recall supporting each other on the fateful day she was sent to hospital and never came back, crying, then laughing and becoming closer than before.
Even when it comes to male-female or male-male interactions, Faith’s ability to capture that air of authenticity comes through, with an awkward but well-meaning “man to man” talk between Aaron and Daniel, an ugly fight between Lisa and Daniel, or an honest, difficult conversation between exes Johan and Ann about mismatched expectations and failure to communicate. It is these tiny showcases of vulnerability, along with the occasional laugh-out-loud moments that lend the characters humanity, give the play warmth, and make them all relatable in small ways, allowing them to go beyond becoming mere mouthpieces for The Fourth Trimester‘s messages.
All of this is buoyed by a capable cast who plays their assigned roles as best as they can – Isabella Chiam and Joshua Lim, while lacking chemistry as the central couple, represent the stereotypical middle class Chinese Singaporean family, and are relatable enough in their little quibbles and jibes at each other, while also sympathetic in their complete loss and panic in every scene when dealing with their baby, with constant, visible exhaustion on their faces and the sluggish, defeated way they move.
Hang Qian Chou is a standout as a stereotypical financial-adviser type who carries the weight of responsibility on his back, bringing out the facade of confidence to mask his more humble, emotionally vulnerable background, while Julie Wee, in a similar vein, also hides exhaustion behind a veneer of perfection, and the two play a convincing married couple who’ve had more than few years of parenthood under their belt. Rusydina Afiqah and Al-Matin Yatim are the couple given the least lines, but in their interactions, showcase strong chemistry with each other and a sincerity in their outpouring of emotions and concerns. Finally, Oon Shu An shines in a role tailor-made for her, as she embodies confidence and poise as a fiercely independent single, while also showcasing her ability to connect and emote in her interactions with Isabella Chiam and Julie Wee.
Where The Fourth Trimester falls short however, is in the way it executes and presents these themes and ideas. In particular, the script feels like it suffers from a lack of editing, with its characters’ lives muddling and weaving in and out of each other, missing a core driving narrative that drags out the pacing of the performance. Even at the end of Act 1, when an emergency hospital visit keeps us on edge, post-intermission, the solution is simply being discharged, after a particularly lengthy and emotionless monologue from Samantha. In essence, while Faith Ng’s realism works well in doses, The Fourth Trimester feels more like a string of scenes cobbled together to make a point and not a particularly compelling story onstage. There is beauty in subtlety and curating just the right words to deliver a point, but The Fourth Trimester unabashedly hits us over the head with its ideas like a sledgehammer throughout its almost 3-hour runtime.
In addition, in depicting the mess of Samantha and Aaron’s home, where the majority of the play takes place, set designer Petrina Dawn Tan achieves this relatively realistically with paraphernalia strewn around the entire ‘house’, to capture the tight living conditions of being in a modern, shoebox apartment. With a commitment to almost complete realism though, any tiny details or other elements that fail to live up to those standards lead to a visual disjoint, including stairs not properly secured, fridges not flushed to the back wall as they do not match the height of what look like custom-built shelves, or a confusing structure hanging above the entire set that seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, and would be out of place in any HDB apartment.
Most glaringly, the set design seems to have prioritised Samantha and Aaron’s house so much, that it almost neglects any other performance space. The ‘room’ to the right of the apartment acts as a transitory space for various scenes to play out, from a void deck to a lift, but these are never clearly indicated or demarcated. When it becomes Johan and Sophia’s apartment, it is completely bereft of any personality or furniture, and does not feel like a live-in space at all. Similarly, there are several instances of characters barging into Samantha and Aaron’s home without either of them going to open the door, or not even utilising the ‘corridor’ in front of the apartment, which suggests an oversight in direction.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is how The Fourth Trimester reveals how we have become so brainwashed by the system, that we accept that the rising cost of living, and sheer time and effort it takes to raise a child is worth it, so long as we vow to support our partners, and the we are rewarded with the inexplicable joy one feels when a child declares their love for you. By its end, it feels like Ann has gotten the best deal out of it by remaining single and childless, liberated from the shackles of societal expectations and carving her own path to happiness.
There’s value in seeing how all three male characters come through with more empathy for their female counterparts, and male audiences may come away being more aware of women’s issues. But if anything, The Fourth Trimester works to highlight how deeply entrenched the systemic issues are and prejudice against women run. While Checkpoint Theatre has found themselves a great cast that makes the most of their material, the resulting production is a bleak revelation that shows how life as a straight couple in Singapore is tough. Yes, we can offer support in the form of love, there are fundamentally problematic perceptions from society and policies that remain, and there is still a long way to go before we finally see some equality between the sexes, with the dream of a happy family far away on the horizon. When the fourth trimester has passed, the only hope is that one gets used to these changes in life, and accept that parenthood irrevocably transforms a couple into a family that rolls with the punches.
Photo Credit: Checkpoint Theatre
The Fourth Trimester plays till 14th August 2022 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC
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