Arts Theatre

Review: Both Sides, Now – Lepaskan Sesalan by Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative

Forum theatre that touches the heartlands and opens a conversation on difficult end-of-life issues.

It’s not every day that you get to see a theatre pop-up happening in your neighbourhood. Following on from their Kata-Kata Kita Variety Show last year, Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative came together once again to present the next iteration of their ongoing Both Sides, Now: Mengukir Harapan project, with a full-fledged community engagement delving into issues surrounding the end-of-life with the Malay-Muslim community.

Headed by Leading Artists Adib Kosnan and Moli Mohter, alongside Both Sides, Now Artistic Director Kok Heng Leun, this new edition is subtitled Lepaskan Sesalan, which means to release one’s regrets. Both Sides, Now thus uses its platform embarks on an investigation into how one may process regrets, and perhaps avoid them in future by having conversations with our loved ones before it is too late.

Presented across multiple forms at a pop-up at Heartbeat @ Bedok, central to the entire project is Waktu, a theatre show written and directed by Moli Mohter that explores the regrets of a widow, Ayu (Suhaili Safari), as she processes the recent death of her husband. Waktu was also supported by other various other activities, including the exhibition of life and legacy, in which community art-makers led by and together with multi-disciplinary artist Dahlia Osman, reflect on the lives lived of those they have lost, and their own so far, through various visual media, as well as interactive drama performance Sukar (Melepaskan) – Mendakap Kenangan, and DJ Dukacita, who returned to read letters by people who have lost loved ones.

Written and directed by Adib Kosnan, Sukar (Melepaskan) – Mendakap Kenangan is a sequel to a series of videos from the Kata-Kata Kita Variety Show last year, and now follows the same family of three siblings, who face different degrees of regret after their ailing father passes away. As audience members, our role is to help resolve the crisis so that all present can draw lessons on dealing with the process of bereavement, in its unique forum theatre format that seeks to engage the public, and give us all a personal stake in the matter.

The performance begins with Dalifah Shahril trying to “sell” her house on social media, in an attempt to rent out her flat. Enter Johnny (Darren Guo), who seems to be her ‘property agent’ assisting her, and the two begin to delve into a sensitive conversation surrounding Johnny’s dementia-stricken mother. While on the surface, there is talk about working smart and meeting and appointments, it feels as if the two are avoiding the elephant in the room, as they discuss what would ultimately be best for both Dalifah and Johnny, and whether to attend to and care for his ailing mother, or continue working so hard to earn money.

Things seem to be looking up however, when he brings up some good news, where Johnny has found a potential buyer for the house. Yet, nursing her own grief, Dalifah is resistant and cannot simply let go of the house and all the memories associated with it, even showing Johnny the recipes left behind by her late mother. The two share an understanding, that they’re both in the process of grieving, yet life has to go on. This only serves to trigger Dalifah, as she recalls how her mother left so suddenly, breaking down and crying as she expresses how she would give up anything just to see her mother again. 

In the background, we see Chandra (R Chandran) and Dalifah’s brother Azhar (Farez Najid) speaking. There is an air of tension that suggests the two may be neighbours, yet not as close enough for comfort and fully sharing everything with each other, before Azhar heads to Dalifah’s place, barging in and adamantly demanding she sell the flat, even seeking out Johnny’s support. What we come to realise is how much damage a death can cause in a family – not only do Dalifah and Azhar have different opinions on what to do with the house, but a third brother, Ashraf, is away in Australia for studies and refuses to talk about the situation. We watch as they become embroiled in an all-out argument over how to handle the house, and all are left confused and upset.

With Dalifah left alone in the house, the lights go down, and she leaves to lock the gate with a bicycle lock, practically taking charge and taking a stand against the others by shutting them out, and ensuring the house stays in the family. As the others plead with her to see reason, the phone rings, and no one answers. What we take away from the performance is how messy death can be, with everyone grieving in their own way, even between members of the same family. One cannot simply assume that one’s experience can and should be the same as another person’s, and as much as we feel we know what’s best for another, it may not always be the case.

Even as the performance comes to a close, it’s clear that the audience, comprising mostly of curious heartlanders gathered to see what the buzz was about, was left deep in thought about what they had just witnessed. With talk about death being so taboo in a regular setting, once the initial surprise factor wears off, the audience proved themselves to be willing listeners and participants, and stay till the end to hear what Drama Box and ArtsWork Collaborative had to say.

While all eyes were on Adib and Heng Leun when they spoke, both also proved effective at leading the discussions with the audience, giving viewers the requisite space and time to share their own experiences and opinions, and showing them that it’s ok to talk about grief and death. With such a rare opportunity to converse so publicly and openly about a difficult topic, emotions ran high, and all present experienced a powerful form of catharsis.

As they sipped the red bean soup served at the end, the conversation and discussions went on well beyond what was expected, with such a safe space crafted for the sake of such an important talk. Both Sides, Now – Lepaskan Sesalan is more than just a performance, it is a service to the community that bridges the gap between the unspoken and the people who need to hear and talk about it. We left at the end of a long but poignant night, thinking about the way grief continues to haunt us long after the actual death, and the complexity that takes both time and concerted effort from a community to unpack it, before the difficult process of healing can finally begin.

Photo Credit: Zinkie Aw

Both Sides, Now – Lepaskan Sesalan ran from 21st to 24th September 2022 at Heartbeat@BedokAtrium. More information available here

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