Review: Homesick

August 7, 2006


Alfian Sa’at

The Drama Centre, 4 August 2006

Engaging but not thoroughly satisfying, Homesick, one of the stronger performances to be staged in recent years, has piqued but not completely gratified.

Homesick portrays the story of the Koh family, reunited unwillingly after several years of living apart when the patriarch, the never seen but ubiquitous Koh père, falls ill and is suspected of SARS. Slapped with a Home Quarantine Order, they are forced to come to terms with the threat of disease, with themselves, and with the nation.

Disease becomes a central metaphor – unsubtly but effectively put across. Homesick is thus an appropriate title – who is homesick? Or who is home, sick? Or who is sick of home? Daphne, the daughter who moves to Berlin to become a freelance activist, points out that SARS, being able to cross borders, is nature’s democratising ironic twist, a response to labour not being able to cross borders as effectively as capital. The Chinese Study Mama with whom the Koh patriarch has an affair is, at first, suspected of SARS, when in fact she is suffering from morning sickness.

Which all makes for a very well-made play with several delicious morsels of irony and many stings in the tail. There is a certain Ibsenesque feel to the entire piece, with its realistic, linear-time point-of-view, and its reliance on dramatic irony and oblique suggestion to maintain dramatic thrust. Furthermore, there are extremely interesting symmetries which serve to remind how interconnected families as dysfunctional as the Kohs can be. For example, Patrick, the youngest in the family and about to commence his national service liability, decides not to return to Singapore, even if it means giving up coming back to Singapore forever, and never seeing his mother Patricia again. In a clever twist, his father’s affair with his mistress results in an unforeseen conception, which then results in Patricia’s decision to divorce her husband and to move to the USA to join her daughter Marianne, and son-in-law Manoj, which frees Patrick up to choose not to do his national service. Both Patricia (at the time of the birth of Patrick) and the mistress had been ligated at the time of their respective conceptions. Accidents do happen, with fortuitous results.

Homesick is a very ambitious play indeed, with the broadest of scopes. This means, however, that certain themes are not fully explored. At times, one feels as if the entire play were like Daphne, the activist with the agenda du jour. The play hops from issue to issue, never penetrating as deeply as one would hope. Some of the themes touched on include national identity, national symbols, familial ties, Singaporean society, racism, the malaises that infect Singapore.

At times one felt as if Sa’at were really putting his talent to the test – there is a great deal of acidic and acerbic wit (except for that old recycled joke about the police ‘finding blood in her alcohol’ – plainly and inexcusably unoriginal). At other times, feels like a political-philosophical essay, and the audience subject to a lesson in postmodern philosophy. Ligation, the play helpfully informs, is patriarchy in all its arrogance – to demonstrate matriarchy or an equality of the sexes necessitates a vasectomy. The national symbol is ironic because it is ‘anatomically’ and ‘physiologically unsound’. Arthur, middle child, claims that there is no such thing as a Singaporean, that ‘Singaporeans don’t exist’, or that a Singaporean is a person who spends all his time trying to think of what a Singaporean means. The superinfector is, like ‘stayer’, ‘quitter’ and ‘heartlander’, a constrictive label that one buys into. Too much psychobabble and too little time.

By far the most unsubtle and the most jarring – Daphne’s revelation that she moved away from Singapore because she felt that she was ‘living one man’s dream’. Surely the audience thinks that she is speaking of her father, with discomforting overtones of Lee Kwan Yew. However, she goes on to state that this one man is indeed LKY – seemingly irrelevant and completely ruining the potential subtlety (and therefore beauty) of the moment. Sa’at’s general handling of the political edge of the play seems to have been not too well balanced with the personal, leading to a (strangely enough) agitprop texture that may not have enduring appeal, when the politics have changed and all that remains is the text. Similarly, when one thinks of an enduring and beautiful Sa’at poem, one thinks not of the strident Ginsburgesque ‘Singapore you are not my country’ but rather, the haunting ‘Portrait of a Sentenced Library’.

The play suffers a bit from being too top-heavy, in my opinion, as this makes the emotional segments a bit less effective. Neo Swee Lin, however, as mother Patricia, holds her own as the emotional centre of the play. Chermaine Ang as the Chinese Study Mama mistress is convincingly temptress and victim, and portrays her character sympathetically. Remesh Panicker as Manoj has mazing diction. Others are not as adept. Lim Kay Siu as son Herbert is not as focussed as he can and should be, and does not scale the heights of performance that one is wont to expect from him. And will someone please tell Hansel Tan (playing youngest son Patrick) that walking around tensed up with his face screwed up does not constitute acting? Please, you have marginally pretty face and a nicely shaped body. Use it better!

Jonathan Lim’s direction is a bit problematic, in my opinion.. Lim Kay Siu’s overpowering Received Pronunciation seems to have, like the SARS virus from a superinfector, communicates to the rest of the cast members. Even Neo Swee Lin, supposedly a bibik, fluctuates from a neutral Singaporean to a strong Singaporean to a decidedly English to a very Melayu.  Hansel Tan as Patrick does not speak as if from Australia, his adopted country, and lapses into an accent suspiciously like Lim Kay Siu’s. In addition, the set is functional but boring. The characters changing on stage in the half-light is not interesting nor does it serve any other purpose, therefore on stage at one time it seems as if there is too much going on. And in my opinion, most irritating and pointless is Lim Kay Siu’s extra-effete portrayal of ‘English Reserve’, which to the directors mind seems to involve a lot of limp-wristed yelling and tooting.

That being said, Homesick is all in all an enjoyable experience. Not the best of Sa’at’s work, and not fully realised because of the unrisky and uneventful direction. However, Homesick ultimately delivers because it is an interesting (but obvious) discussion about what family is and can be, and about what it means to be Singaporean. A good start to the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival.


One comment

  1. You do mean ‘Singapore You Are Not My Country’?

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