Weak direction and a script still in its infancy leave this play about drug abuse bereft of an emotional anchor.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Adeeb Fazah)||4|
|Script (Shaleihin Pi’ee)||4|
|Performance (Zulfiqar Izzudin, Ong Xue Min, Wilfred Lee Kim Chye, Fadhil Daud, Jayden Lim Jun De)||4|
|Lighting (Fazree Azharie)||5|
|Sound (Vick Low)||5|
|Set (Vivien Lau)||4|
Presented as part of Toy Factory’s Direct Entry director mentorship programme, For My Highness is a new play by Shaleihin Pi’ee that targets a rarely discussed issue in Singapore – drug abuse in the gay community. Directed by Adeeb Fazah, under mentorship of Toy Factory artistic director Goh Boon Teck, For My Highness follows Zaki, a Malay man in his 20s who seeks refuge in a gay sauna after a falling out at home, getting high on drugs and sex with strangers. Amidst it all, he encounters flashbacks and hallucinations, forcing him to grapple with his choices.
At the heart of For My Highness, there is a poignant, important story aching to be told. But in its execution, this is a play that feels incomplete, or at least, not yet fully thought out across multiple levels. From the get go, Vivien Lau’s set is a single white wall, understandably abstract for the sake of representing various locations, from sauna to HDB flat. But there is a lack of additional detail to ever ground us in any one specific place. The white colour of the set in particular might be intended to remind one of cocaine, but ends up feeling too clean to ever represent an actual sauna, never quite capturing the eerie or discomforting sensation of being in one.
Additionally, set changes take just a little too long, breaking the flow, and while Vick Low’s eerie, electronic-driven sound design and Fazree Azharie’s lighting helps demarcate locations by either bathing it in blue light for the sauna or a wash for the home environment, the end result with each change is subtle at best, with the script and presence of characters doing more work to tell us where we are than the set itself. The sense of immersion is further hindered by the choice of costumes – at no point is there any actual skin shown, incomprehensible for a show that depicts sex between men, and instead enshrouds its actors in singlets, towels, and cargo shorts, resulting in almost juvenile acts of dry-humping that completely lack intimacy or portray the risk of random sex. It is almost as if the production was afraid to go ‘too far’, and held back from fully embracing the hard truth it needed to show, remaining half-chaste as a result and mostly ineffective.
Shaleihin Pi’ee’s script itself is problematic, and feels like a script still in its early drafts, not having received sufficient feedback or development from the time of conception to execution. There is a certain flow to this story, where the intent is to present a man so destroyed by his circumstances, he cannot resist the siren call of drugs, and even when he wants to change, there is too much toxicity and resistance to prevent him from ever escaping. By right, this should evoke sympathy for him, but by showcasing side characters who are reduced to mere caricatures and showcase the absolute worst parts of gay culture and the community, from racist archetypes to addicts too poor to pay for their own highs, they almost feels cartoonish in their portrayal, and turn the whole show into a farce rather than one that demands to be taken seriously.
As a whole, our protagonist Zaki is also given very little character development over the course of the play, as every attempt at escape is met with new prejudice, any kind of shelter or comfort met with disgust, preventing him from ever moving past his initial state of self-hatred and despair. This results in For My Highness being a torturous play to watch as Zaki is subject to hate and abuse in literally every scene. What this should result in is immense sympathy and heartbreak, but with the script constantly toeing a dangerous line between realism and fantastical, it often creates a sense of whiplash or even unintentional laughs when it suddenly inserts an awkwardly written line in the midst of a serious scene. From time to time, one notices unintentional rhyme, or lines that feel distinctly constructed and literary, compared to the more naturalistic tone and diction used throughout the play, particularly when Zaki experiences certain epiphanies.
There are also too many scenes that feel inserted for the sake of padding the runtime, or lightening the mood for the sake of it, resulting in a series of events that are often haphazard and comprise fledgling ideas thrown together. These include head-scratching scenes where Zaki finds himself in a dating gameshow, choosing between Cocaine, Ecstasy and Grindr (one of these things is not like the other), or another where he imagines himself reincarnated as a bird, picking at scraps at the F&B outlet where his mother tirelessly works as a cleaner. One could explain these as the delirious fever dreams of a drug-addled brain, but in terms of presentation, coming in relatively late in the play, cause it to drag on and serve relatively little purpose in adding to what has already been established.
Given the one-dimensional nature of most of the characters, this also leaves little space for director Adeeb to really develop them, but considering Zaki is the main character, there are also few opportunities that actor Zulfiqar Izzudin takes advantage of to layer his character. As much as he does attempt to nail the physicality of a drug-induced stupor, with facial twitches or a heavy, stumbling body, the emotional front is lacking, and for the most part, seems to be limited to just a pitiful character, and not showcasing how he was prior to the addiction leaves little room to imagine his potential. Zaki thus feels like a constructed character, made worse by the loose direction that refuses to ground him in reality, resulting in a curiously artificial performance that sees Zul reciting his lines rather than speaking from genuine emotion.
Most problematic of all is the casting choice of Ong Xue Min as Zaki’s mother, and as hard as she tries, it feels almost offensive that a Chinese actress is attempting to use an unnatural Malay accent to play a Malay-Muslim character; each time she utters an ‘Inshallah’, the intent and intonation feel off, and fake rather than sincere. This is particularly worrisome as a character who is defined almost entirely by her devotion to her religious faith and uses it to tear Zaki down at his lowest, and much of the time, the relationship between mother and son doesn’t feel real. Xue Min is also used to portray a recurring, masked bird who haunts Zaki throughout the night – while the mask work is serviceable, the actual existence of the bird itself feels extraneous, and unnecessary to portray the depth of the complex, abusive relationship Zaki shares with his mother.
The goal of For My Highness seems to be to evoke sympathy for Zaki, and how he is abandoned by anyone and everyone who shows him a shred of love after they get what they want out of him. But it is egregious how little the production tries to showcase a brutally raw and honest story. Even slapped with an advisory 18 rating, For My Highness simply doesn’t seem to push at any boundaries or really raise any questions or reflection in the audience. Beyond the use of drugs and male-male sex, this is very much PG material bordering on juvenile, much of which the average audience is likely to have seen on Netflix or HBO. What this means is that it ultimately betraying its own theatrical form and forgoing live performance’s unique ability to make us feel a bond with the characters over its duration. In all, this was a missed opportunity to go all out in terms of imagination and vision and really say something that would shed light and new perspectives on such a sensitive and rarely talked about issue.
For a play that is meant to show off one’s directing chops, For My Highness presents an immensely difficult task for Adeeb Fazah to show off his growth as a director. If anything, it feels like a play that was so far out of left field for Adeeb that it became hard for him to get a hold on it before presenting it. One then wonders what exactly is the growth the Direct Entry programme has left on him, and how it will continue to develop future directors, if this is the result it has to show for the mentorship. Given the amount of resources that Toy Factory has at its disposal, from experienced artists to grants, this was a massive missed opportunity. It’s a potentially sobering work that could have hit hard and may have found its target as a kitchen sink drama that wrings out the emotions in its realism. Instead, the haphazard execution of the story in both script and direction results in a production that almost seems to make a mockery of the issue, rather than crafting a sincere cautionary tale that warns of the failings of society to care for those that fall between the cracks.
Photo Credit: Yu Khing Photography
For My Highness ran from 25th to 27th November 2022 at Stamford Arts Centre Black Box.