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We need to talk about Off Centre

SINGAPORE — It’s quite interesting how a play that tackles the subject of schizophrenia so fearlessly has a title that could be interpreted as euphemism. But you can hardly accuse playwright Haresh Sharma and the folks of The Necessary Stage (TNS) of treading lightly around the topic.

This latest restaging of Off Centre under The Esplanade’s Studios season has Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah Zainal as the two schizophrenics. Photo: Tuckys Photography

This latest restaging of Off Centre under The Esplanade’s Studios season has Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah Zainal as the two schizophrenics. Photo: Tuckys Photography

SINGAPORE — It’s quite interesting how a play that tackles the subject of schizophrenia so fearlessly has a title that could be interpreted as euphemism. But you can hardly accuse playwright Haresh Sharma and the folks of The Necessary Stage (TNS) of treading lightly around the topic.

After all, that was exactly what the controversy surrounding its initial 1993 production was all about — the Ministry of Health, which commissioned it, balked at all the suggestions of suicide in the text and was not happy with what it deemed was a negative portrayal of mental illness. TNS did not budge, the two parted ways and Off Centre was eventually taught in schools. 

The thing with treading lightly is there’s the high chance you won’t get heard. So it’s a major triumph that Off Centre continues to say, very firmly and convincingly, “We need to talk about Vinod and Saloma.”

This latest restaging under The Esplanade’s Studios season has Ebi Shankara as the bipolar Vinod and Siti Khalijah Zainal as the schizophrenic Saloma. Romance blossoms despite being — or perhaps because they are — as different as night and day. Vinod is gregarious, super smart and well-to-do while Saloma is the withdrawn, paranoid ITE graduate. It’s a case of us-against-the-world for the couple who, unable to fully integrate into a society that’s uneasy with their presence, finds solace under a void deck.

Off Centre shuffles across time as we find out about the couple’s experiences at the Institute of Mental Health, inside a halfway house, during Basic Military Training, at the National University of Singapore and at work (as and when they could find it). It breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience, sometimes accusingly.

Director Oliver Chong, who, incidentally, was once diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, brings a different sensitivity and sensibility to the table — magic realist or surreal touches courtesy of oversized head masks of animals or of Vinod’s likeness bring to exaggerated life the voices and images in the protagonists’ heads. There has been a long connection between madness and masks and The Finger Players’ resident director’s choice to use them is not simply a matter of style. (Speaking of style, there a somewhat hip Fault In Our Stars sheen to this play, Coldplay songs and all.)

When they’re not hiding under masks, the supporting ensemble do well to step into supporting roles such as Saloma’s pious-and-in-denial mother (played by Neo Swee Lin), the quirky mind-reading “gynaecologist” and the literarily referenced Emily Gan (Ellison Tan).

But it was ultimately Shankara as Vinod that was a complete revelation for anyone more familiar with his comedic turns. While Siti is amazing as always (and she did get her one bells-and-whistles moment), her character Saloma is the understated foil to Shankara’s manic Vinod, whose tragic transformation from funny, rock-solid guy to a despairing hollow shell — sometimes egged on by a frantic drums soundtrack straight out of Jim Carrey’s own transformations a la Me Myself & Irene — was simply astounding. He can now remove his 2007 Vasantham Star win from his CV. Playing Vinod is his star turn. 

The fact that Off Centre resonates so strongly more than two decades since it first came out is a major triumph. But it’s also rather unfortunate that very little of it feels outdated; obsolescence should be the very point of such a powerful work, which was created to highlight an overlooked issue and made an impact doing so. That a play that needed to be seen, read and heard in 1993 still needs to be seen, read and heard today speaks volumes.

Then again, maybe change really is just slow and incremental. In Off Centre, it takes place right before our eyes, before we even step out of the theatre. At the very beginning was Vinod onstage, smiling and waving at people who barely acknowledged his presence. At the very end of this soul-stirring experience, it was Saloma’s turn to wave goodbye. This time she was not ignored. It was hard to leave her alone.

Off Centre is sold out. Visit http://www.thestudios.com.sg for details on other events under The Esplanade’s The Studios season.

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