All-Weather Quitters and Fair-Weather Stayers
"We Are Not Yet Free" is the last poem of Alfian Sa'at's critically-acclaimed anthology, A History of Amnesia, and he expresses the same sentiment in Homesick. Yet, while he implies that inhibitive social and political boundaries still entrap society, he also rightly asserts that society entraps itself within stereotypes which the government has imposed and we have unquestioningly accepted.
And Homesick incisively picks apart the rubble of (self-)imposed labels masquerading as "Singaporean" identities. Underneath the categories of "stayers", "quitters", second-class citizens, "bananas", PRCs, non-conformists, traditionalists and conservatives, Alfian reveals the malaise that afflicts and oddly unites this society: homesickness. As he adroitly points out, homesickness here is an unusually virulent strain that transcends geography; it is despondency borne of the unfulfilled need to belong, a yearning for a home that does not aim to "live out one man's dream" of a country it will never be, but accepts its imperfect people and the spectrum of thoughts, values and beliefs they represent.
It is fitting then that Homesick's dysfunctional Koh family only begins to ruminate on what it means to leave - or more accurately, lose - their home when they are forced by the 2003 SARS crisis to live together. At first, the devoted mother and wife Patricia (Neo Swee Lin), coming-of-age Patrick (Hansel Tan), animal- and female-rights activist Daphne (Serena Ho), snobby "banana" Herbert (Lim Kay Siu), cultural purist Arthur (Nelson Chia) and interracial, transnational couple Marianne and Manoj (Eleanor Tan and Remesh Panicker) are united only in their refusal to accept each other's diversity. Slowly but surely, they confront the rivalries, desertions and betrayals that have divided their family, and they set the stage for Homesick to challenge ingrained misconceptions of "quitters" as "fair-weather Singaporeans" too cowardly to face harsher realities of life in Singapore. Instead, the play contends that "quitting" is the response of citizens brave enough to defy the call to conform, but also itching to seek real identities elsewhere.
This is classic Alfian perceptiveness, but Homesick's masterstroke is that it focuses on staying as much as it does on quitting. As Patricia, the mother hen of the family and its only "stayer", pores through photo albums, and clucks and coos at her children as if they were still babies, I can't help but wonder: are many of these "stayers" staying because they are lost in nostalgia? Are "stayers" really staying to stake their claim in the present, or have they been exiled to the past?
Such questions both endow and burden Homesick with great ambition, an ambition all the loftier because it relies on characters' interactions to deliver the big answers such big questions need.
Sometimes, these interactions addressed the questions compellingly, as was the case with the touching portrayal of Mr Koh's incredibly earnest Chinese mistress, Cindy Leow (Chermaine Ang). If anything, she, a foreigner, is the only true stayer in Homesick, challenging the inherent nationalistic associations of staying as well as the conventional notions of "family".
But at other times the interactions were hindered by a monotonous loudness. There was a great deal of exasperated arm-flailing, huffing and puffing in a rather desultory first act: Patrick overindulged in teen angst, Daphne launched into feminist diatribes far too often and Marianne traded verbal barbs with every other family member at the slightest provocation. Thankfully, the refreshingly laidback Manoj diffused some of this excessive melodrama. And curiously enough, some of the cleverest witticisms of the play were delivered by Manoj - and not the other overblown characters.
In tune with Homesick's melodramatic rhythms was its penchant for didacticism, which is surprising given Alfian's virtuosity with the language. Where there could have been more meaningful dialogue, at times characters devolved into mouthpieces feeding us Homesick's intended messages. Perhaps the most glaring of these "show-and-tell" scenes was Manoj's proclamation that Arthur is as rootless as Herbert despite his painstaking efforts to recover his supposed "roots" in China. While this is an astute point, the audience should have been left to distill such truths from the dialogue, rather than have been told what to think. In parts, this lack of subtlety ruined the dramatic potential and fluency of the play, and the poignancy of the truths it intended to convey.
In the face of such directionless melodrama, the context of Homesick - the SARS crisis - was disappointingly relegated to the sidelines as a mere plot function. It was abundant with metaphors that could have been allied with the fears Singapore still grapples with today, revealing a nation in perpetual crisis. Granted, there were fleeting instances where the play brilliantly engaged its context: in a cruelly ironic scene where Cindy meets Mrs Patricia Koh herself, the other members of the family don masks and look on in silent horror as Patricia, masked from the truth, unwittingly ushers Cindy into the house and, more starkly, into her family. But the mandatory closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera installed in the Koh family's living room could have been developed into a metaphor for surveillance, exploring the climate of fear such restrictive government scrutiny engenders. Instead, characters merely took cheap potshots and hurled abuse at it.
Even if it does tend to stall sometimes, Homesick mines a rich vein of drama. Under Jonathan Lim's accomplished direction, the actors gradually break from their one-dimensionality and embrace the nuances of their roles. At the beginning of the second act, the debate between Patrick and Manoj about the repercussions of defaulting National Service contrasts hopeless idealism with cold, hard pragmatism. By the end of the scene, there is a sense of tortured solipsism about Patrick that reflects the wider truth of Lim's production: staying or quitting - just like conscription, civil liberties, history and culture - is a conundrum as deeply personal as it is communal.
If the Koh family is a metaphor for the nation, each family member represents the individual Singaporean embarking on his journey to rediscover what home means. It is Patricia Koh's journey - tragic, solitary and empowering - that makes the deepest impression. Neo Swee Lin delivers a rousing performance, transforming from a mother too naïve, too generous and too eager into a livid matriarch forced to confront reality through her husband's infidelity. It is fitting that this loyal citizen of both family and country chooses to "quit" - leaving is a necessary transition in her rediscovery of home, a home she now finds so alienating.
I must finally applaud set designer Nicholas Li: while the Koh family may slam the doors on each other, his cleverly elaborate dollhouse set does not allow any one character to be completely isolated from another, reinforcing the idea that each family member is inevitably part of another's struggle. It is brilliance such as this that makes Homesick a fine piece of work with a life of its own, regardless of its shortcomings.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /