Arts Review Theatre

★★★★★ Review: Kemas by Teater Kami

The horror of isolation is brought to life, in a terrifying play about the loneliness of existence.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Moli Mohter)9
Script (Moli Mohter)9
Performance (Dalifah Shahril, Rusydina Afiqah, Mahyonis Mahfudz, Suhaila M Sanif)9
Costume Design (Moli Mohter)8
Lighting Design (Emanorwatty Saleh)8
Sound Design (Tini Aliman)10
Total53/60 (88%)
Final Score:★★★★★

There’s a popular saying that goes ‘good fences make good neighbours’. Over the last few years, in the face of a global pandemic, where fear of contagion kept people safely distanced from each other, that seemed to ring more true than ever. Yet, for Singapore, where there used to be a stronger ‘kampung spirit’, and neighbours might even have walked into each other’s unlocked homes to share a snack or borrow equipment, could this new normal of closing ourselves off from others lead to a far more sinister outcome?

In Teater Kami’s Kemas, the lack of neighbourliness and isolation indeed has much more debilitating effects than one might imagine. Written and directed by Moli Mohter, Kemas takes place in an unnamed housing estate, known for its abundance of older residents living alone. As new resident Salma (Rusyidina Afiqah) moves in to the estate, this turns out to be far from a dream home, with nosy neighbours eavesdropping on her, unexpected dance breaks, and the more than occasional thud of a body plummeting to its death by suicide.

Kemas translates to ‘tidy’ or ‘neat’, and seems to imply how much mess exists within the characters’ lives, both metaphorically and literally. One of the first neighbours Salma meets is Arah (Dalifah Shahril), a hoarder and all-around busybody who offers unsolicited advice, and whose home is filled to the brim with junk, and lives with her silent mother (Suhaila M Sanif). Meanwhile, Juminah (Mahyonis Mahfudz) seems to be much more approachable, but is herself ensnared in the past, the beginnings of dementia starting to set in. Salma herself deals with a difficult husband, who sneaks around and hides secrets from her, reacting with angry shouts each time she questions him for the truth.

On the surface, Kemas is a portrait of three women in various states of pain, be it reeling from grief, aging problems, or feelings of entrapment. But it is how each woman responds and handles their pain that drives Kemas forward, their methods harmful and corrupt to the people around them, almost as if deliberately isolating themselves and further enmeshing them in their problems. As playwright, Moli Mohter is careful in her writing, choosing not to give away too much information about each character to ensure there is always an air of mystery about them, and leaving us to form our own assumptions and interpretations. While it may seem like a lengthy play for a seemingly simple subject matter, the lingering questions and uncertainty regarding how much of what we see is real or imagined keeps us hanging on, surprising us with each reveal, while also sensitively portraying each character, giving them enough nuance and backstory to endear us to each one.

In handling her duplicitous husband, Salma is filled with rage and exasperation, completely unable to communicate with him as she falls into a state of desperation. Rusydina Afiqah has always excelled at playing troubled characters onstage, and with this role, is given an opportunity to channel raw, unfiltered anger into her performance, so much that she seems capable of committing a murder. While she is meant to be the entry point for audience members, uneasy as she navigates the weird estate she’s found herself in, Rusydina ensures that her character remains unreliable and suspicious enough in her own right that we’re never entirely sure if we can trust her, while also fully sympathising with the suffering she goes through.

Juminah, on the other hand, chooses to lose herself in the past, reminiscing on the days she used to be a pageant queen and entering into joget sessions with Arah’s mother and singing karaoke in her home, complete with disco lights. As director, Moli capitalises on actress Mahyonis Mahfudz’s background in bangsawan, and subverts it by having her purposely singing off-key. Mahyonis also brings a sweetness and charm to her performance that makes Juminah feel vulnerable, easily creating sympathy for her. These dance breaks do last just a little too long at times, but if anything, gives Mahyonis sufficient time onstage to showcase this alternative side to her usual performance style, and capitalise on her charisma to win us over.

Of the main cast, it is Dalifah Shahril who is given the most difficult role of all, as Arah. While often portraying long-suffering mothers onstage, Arah presents a decidedly different role for Dalifah, as a problematic character who resists our sympathy. Often becoming the butt of jokes and seemingly oblivious to how she comes across to others, Arah becomes the would-be antagonist of the play, going so far as to grate on our nerves from the tantrums she throws when she thinks someone has taken her ‘treasure’, to spreading wild unfounded rumours.

Yet it is to both writer Moli and performer Dalifah’s credit that the audience understands her actions as coming from a place of confusion and tragedy, her wildly shifting personality and emotions a product of grief and trauma. When she acts out over the phone, lashing out at her brother before pretending it was a misunderstanding and simpering for his help, it becomes clear that just as the other two women, her pain in part comes from abandonment, particularly from men. For Dalifah to swing so quickly between personas is testament to her acting ability, while also nailing the timing of the incredibly dark humour incorporated into the script.

Kemas‘ most outstanding feature is its ability to create and maintain its deeply disturbing atmosphere from start to end. The set comprises three large cubes representing the main characters’ apartments, filled with paraphernalia and furniture that shows off each character’s personality. Each cube is also heinously cramped, evoking a sense of discomfort and claustrophobia, and reminding us of how precious space is as a commodity in Singapore, along with the ridiculous spike in housing prices. With an entire ‘side’ removed such that we can see into each unit, the walls between neighbours seem thinner than ever, and a severe lack of privacy.

While there is already a sense of unease created from the set alone, this is also amplified by both the sound and lighting design throughout the play. Tini Aliman’s sound is key to this, as it goes from naturalistic white noise, to ghostly humming of Teresa Teng’s ‘Tian Mi Mi’, to creepy, static-filled distortions that make it clear nothing is as it seems. Even the lack of music at times plays a part in making us feel isolated and alone, while Emanorwatty Saleh’s lighting at times bathes the set in blue moonlight, or casts dark shadows from the window grilles that make each home appear more like a jail cell.

Kemas is the rare play that isn’t afraid to reach in to the deepest, darkest aspects of the human psyche and wring the drama from it. In this seemingly hopeless world, where death is never too far away and crime seems to be on ever corner, the wretched existence lived by each of these uncanny characters gets under your skin, and affects viewers in an extraordinarily visceral way. It’s a play that keeps you constantly on your toes guessing how much you can believe is real or hallucination, making you feel gaslit to the verge of insanity at times, with only your emotions to rely on as you watch each character finally give in to their basest instincts in a bid to finally get their act together and clean up their lives. Already, housing is more expensive than ever before, but it seems that even after paying it off, there is a far higher cost of living than financial concerns alone.

With a cast of well-rehearsed actresses fully committing themselves to their roles, and a dark, surreal storyline that still accurately reflects and sheds light on some hard truths of society, Kemas is effective at bringing out the existential horror of isolation amidst loss, and the danger that festering pain brings to one’s self and those around them. While the ending remains inconclusive, Juminah staring listlessly out the window while Salma attempts to pick up the pieces, it is Arah who seems to come out of this mess the most changed, and the most ready to move on. What Kemas seems to be is a reminder that when we choose to wilfully ignore the mess, or try to clean it up alone, things will only get worse, particularly against the backdrop of an oppressive, cruel world. Good fences do not make good neighbours, and it is only when we choose kindness, to reach out, help and befriend the people who literally live beside us, that we can begin to untangle and heal.

Photo Credit: Studio ZNKE

Kemas plays from 17th to 19th February 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

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