Arts Review Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: I am trying to say something true (TRIP 2023)

Renee Yeong captures fragility and pain of truth in this cerebral, confessional work.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Renee Yeong)8
Script (Michelle Tan)8
Performance (Sabrina Sng)8
Set Design (Petrina Dawn Tan) 8
Lighting Design (Gabriel Chan)8
Sound Design (Jing Ng)8
Total48/60 (80%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

The truth is a difficult burden to bear, one that weighs heavy the longer one keeps it to one’s self. Eventually, like a carbonated drink well-shaken, it’s only a matter of time before it all comes bursting through, an explosion that damages both the self and those around you.

In Michelle Tan’s one-woman play I am trying to say something true, protagonist Risa finds this out the hard way, when she is overcome by a sudden, unexpected outburst in the middle of the day, triggered by a single bureaucratic line in an email, that causes her to brutally smash her laptop in the middle of the pantry, and gets her unceremoniously fired from her civil servant job.

But that breaking point is precisely her body and mind telling her that something is terribly wrong inside of her, a truth that is aching to come out as she too struggles to express herself and come to terms with her life experiences. I am trying to say something true then dives deep into Risa’s past, through the medium of a series of therapy sessions, as she confesses and unearths the painful series of events leading to her outburst.

Presented as part of the Esplanade’s TRIP programme, in choosing this script, director Renee Yeong has set herself a challenge, due to its highly cerebral, almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing. It is a monologue that seems more apt for reading, than for performance, primarily due to how it acts as a thorough character study of Risa, resulting in an outpouring of narrative and personal anecdotes, ebbing and flowing back and forth through time. The aim of the script is not necessarily to understand, but to empathise with Risa and her experiences, making it a mood piece focused on making the words seethe with feeling.

To that end, actress Sabrina Sng manages to make Risa her own, with Renee fully embracing the play’s cerebral nature in the way it all plays out. As Risa, Sabrina’s voice is almost always quietly composed, as if attempting to detach herself from her trauma and her violent outbursts. There is a hint of frustration as she complains about her therapist’s methods, yet this is also controlled, speaking of Risa’s need for order in her life. One is easily lulled by Sabrina’s voice as she paces the stage, recounting her childhood spent with her grandmother, her time studying overseas, and her brief stint in Australia. These memories are matter of fact and direct, yet almost dreamy in its nostalgia and precision in description, as written by Michelle Tan.

I am trying to say something true is quite literally reflective, with Petrina Dawn Tan’s set featuring a circular pool of water as its centrepiece. Representing a therapist’s room, with a reclining chair for Risa and a swivel chair for the invisible unseen Dr Robert, and a single table with tissue and a mug of tea, Risa initially circles the pool, refusing to step in, and the water remains pristine, still and untouched. This is also reflected in Jing Ng’s soundscape, quietly playing in the background, yet gentle and ever present, as if in a waiting room about to enter. Gabriel Chan’s lighting similarly enhances key moments in Risa’s monologue, whether shining down with heavenly light as she recalls praying in Mandarin, or her face dramatised in green and red during particularly heavy memories.

It is when she finally relents and begins to access the more difficult parts of her history, that she ventures into the pool, and Renee directs Sabrina such that the water goes from calm to a torrent, her heavy footsteps creating splashes while she lashes at the water, while a theatrical storm is created thanks to thunderous sounds and flashing lights. When the storm relents and her anger subsides, she allows herself to lie down in the chair, slowly slipping off it into the water as she wallows in self-pity and regret, her face displaying a complex mix of emotions as everything washes over her at once.

Risa’s story is not an uncommon one, and many of her memories are likely to be ordinary to the typical middle-class Singaporean. While it does feel stretched out at times and takes a while to build up to its climax, the beauty of the show lies in its specificity – these are familiar experiences, but they are also specific enough that all of them together add up to Risa alone. It is simultaneously unique yet universal, and represents how the typical Singaporean is often pent up and repressed, struggling simply to take a moment to be mindful and learn to exist with everything we’ve been through.

At the start of the play, Risa is asked to list down ten things she knows to be true. This doesn’t seem to be difficult, but it is the catalyst that gets her to open up to us about the many truths that make up her life. Amidst all the criticisms, the mistakes and the complexity of balancing her opposing identities of religion with sexuality, it is only after she learns to be true to herself that she can begin to understand herself as the sum of her experiences, and the healing process to begin. Risa is a word that means laughter, and perhaps, to laugh and let go, to share freely and honestly, is what allows her to come through stronger.

As an early career director, when presented with a script whose themes she understands and resonate with her, Renee Yeong is capable of executing it, while also teasing out the finer nuances of character work and craft an arresting, relevant atmosphere. In working with Sabrina Sng, her design team, and playing to their strengths, I am trying to say something true is a testament to her leadership skills and how she’s understood the layers and emotion embedded in Michelle Tan’s script. In future, one hopes Renee will challenge herself further, and dive even deeper into surreal imagery while maintaining the same emotional intensity displayed here, furthering both her capabilities and cementing her directorial vision. For now though, this is a good showing of her ability to put her stamp on an established script, and certainly, an up and coming artist to look out for.

More information about Renee available on her website

No Particular Order played from 1st to 2nd April 2023, while I am trying to say something true played from 8th to 9th April 2023, both at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Find out more about TRIP here

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